ATLANTA — Whether it’s the first game of the season, the handful along the way against bitter rivals or the last time a team will strap on helmets and take the field together, every football game boils down to matchups.
Can your best players line up and beat the best players from the other team man-to-man, play-after-play more often and more convincingly for 60 minutes?
In that sense, the Chick-fil-A Bowl between LSU (7-5) and 14th-ranked Georgia Tech (9-3) won’t be much different than the previous 12 games the teams have played this season or the last three bowl outings the Tigers have turned in under coach Les Miles.
What’s different is the matchups facing LSU’s defense.
Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense is a hybrid of the wishbone from the 1960s and ’70s and the spread offenses in vogue now.
And the stakes, motivation and sense of urgency are intertwined and packaged differently for LSU as well.
Instead of putting a crescendo on a stellar season like they have the last three years, the Tigers are relegated to tacking something positive onto a season that spiraled out of control in November.
Whether LSU can dig deep enough to find the necessary motivation to play well will be nearly as important as how well the Tigers slow down the Yellow Jackets proficient offense, making this season finale intriguing.
“It’s real important for us to come out and play with energy and intensity because we want to finish this season a lot better than we’ve played the last few games,” LSU linebacker Darry Beckwith said. “If we do that and play good fundamental defense the way we’ve been coached, we’ll be OK.”
Those fundamentals boil down to what LSU coaches deem “assignment football.”
Each member of the defense has a specific role depending on the formation and is expected to take care of that job and not stray from the script.
“The great thing we’ve had is time, so we’ve been able to take it and break it down and teach it concept by concept and really get a lot of work done on what we need to stop, so it’s fortunate that we’re facing them in a bowl game and not in the middle of the football season,” LSU defensive co-coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto said.
Peveto’s co-coordinator Doug Mallory said whatever success LSU’s defense has will start up front with the defensive line.
“It starts with those guys up front and how disciplined they can be,” he said. “We’ve got some guys who when we face a conventional offense, they’re geared to getting up the field as fast as they can and rushing the passer. Against this kind of offense, the defensive ends are tied into option reads and they have to get geared up to play within the framework of the defense.”
Translation: The Tigers ends and cornerbacks have to stay home and dictate the quarterback’s decision.
If the two ends and two corners are effective, most running plays will either be funneled inside or strung out to the sideline where linebackers and safeties will be counted on to limit the damage.
“The linebackers are going to have to make a lot of open-field tackles,” LSU buck linebacker Perry Riley said. “We have to break down and be fundamentally sound and not miss when get a chance to wrap the running back up. We’ll be the first ones who have that chance and we want to make a lot of tackles and not leave it up to anybody else.”
That all sounds good in a neatly wrapped package, but part of Tech’s success and the danger the offenses poses is based on patience until the defense slips up.
While the triple-option might seem like a grind-it-out, ball-control way of doing things, the architect of Tech’s scheme takes umbrage with that notion.
“Honestly, I don’t think too many people out there understand (the triple option),” said Johnson, who relied on the offense to guide Georgia Southern to two Division I-AA national championships and then lead Navy to five straight bowl games. “I think that there’s the perception out there, which sometimes is perpetuated by the media and other people, that it’s just 3 yards and a cloud of dust and that fans don’t enjoy watching it because it’s boring and that guys can’t get to the next level playing in it. I think most of that has been proven wrong and as we get further into it here, all of it will be proven wrong.”
This season has certainly supplied some legs for Johnson’s argument.
In 12 games the Jackets have 64 plays of 20 yards or more. Broken down, 46 of those plays were rushes for 1,669 yards — 36.3 a carry. Eighteen pass plays went for more than 20 yards for 633 yards.
“There were a lot of games played this year where you could see our offense get 3-to-4 yards every carry and then all of a sudden hit a big one,” Tech center Dan Voss said.
“If you get out of position or if you take one false step or have any wasted motion, that can be the difference between a 3-yard gain and a 60-yard touchdown,” defensive end Kirston Pittman said.
So the Tigers have watched the triple option for three weeks, broken it down in the film room and a scout team has tried to emulate how the Jackets will attack.
“We’ve done everything we can to be as close to their style of offense to show it to our defense,” Miles said.
“If LSU’s scout team can execute as well as we can, we’re in trouble,” Jones said. “It’s going to come down to us executing our offense the best we can, and we always feel like if we execute our offense, we’re going to have a good chance.”
Johnson didn’t disagree.
“To me, what we do is a game of adjustments,” he said. “We don’t know how LSU’s going to play and they don’t know exactly what we’re going to do, so it’ll be who can adjust.”
Man-to-man, play-by-play, 60 minutes. Sound familiar?
Best of luck to the Tigers! I know this season hasn't been all that we hoped it would be, but this is still a talented team with a winning record and they deserve our respect and support!