The crowd remaining in Tiger Stadium let out a collective oooooh.
Kendell Beckwith popped off the turf after his crowd-rousing tackle, a shoulder-lowering boom into Jacksonville State running back Roc Thomas.
Beckwith pounded his closed fist into his flat hand and strutted around with an angry glare. This might be a normal celebration for most major college middle linebackers, but it’s not normal for Beckwith, an easy-going, well-mannered senior who spends his off time riding horses.
There is an explanation. Beckwith’s big hit in the third quarter of Saturday's win ended a zone-read play, a similar zone-read play that he whiffed on a quarter before. The revenge felt good, and Beckwith decided to celebrate like never before. But don’t think he’s forgotten about that bust.
“They got me,” he said. “They got me.”
The zone-read — also called the “read-option” — is making its return to Tiger Stadium on Saturday night, brought to Baton Rouge by a much more capable team, Mississippi State. In fact, LSU’s next two games, like its last, are against hurry-up schemes that use heavy doses of the zone read. The 20th-ranked Tigers (1-1) play at Auburn on Sept. 24.
That’s not necessarily by pure coincidence. LSU schedules its games in such a way, tuning up for its Southeastern Conference brethren against nonconference squads with similar characteristics.
In this case, the characteristics are obvious: a fast-paced, no-huddle scheme built around the zone-read. They all do it: Jacksonville State, Mississippi State and Auburn.
“We’re going to defend it better than we did last week,” defensive end Arden Key said Monday.
What’s the zone read? When you see the quarterback stick the football in a running back’s belly, keep it there for a moment and then pull it or give it, you know you’ve seen the zone read. The quarterback normally makes his decision — keep it or give — based on a defender’s reaction at the snap, usually the defensive end.
It’s a two-headed option play that’s morphed, lately, into a three-headed option play: running back run, quarterback run or quarterback pass. Oh yes, meet all the rage in college football: the run-pass option, referred to in the football world as “RPOs.”
Jacksonville State, on 34 rushing plays, ran the zone-read 26 times Saturday in the 34-13 loss to the Tigers. The Gamecocks gained 105 yards, but 50 of those came on two zone-read plays. You don’t have to tell Beckwith.
JSU quarterback Eli Jenkins ran for 35 yards on a zone-read keeper in the second quarter. Beckwith, presumably in charge of taking the run up the middle (the dive), eyed Thomas, the running back. Beckwith even stepped Thomas’ direction, toward the outside, before Jenkins kept the ball and bolted up the middle.
“Every play we have keys, have somebody we’re keying. Your eyes can’t be bad. That’s something we’ve been working on since spring,” Beckwith said. “Got to know your key, read your key.”
Beckwith’s key was the quarterback, he indicated.
“One time, when we get out the gap and don’t have great eyes, that’s when you mess up,” he said.
What happened on that long run?
“Bad eyes,” a smiling Beckwith said. “My eyes. It was my eyes.”
It wasn’t all bad, of course. Jacksonville State’s final 12 zone-read plays went for just 22 yards. The Tigers adapted as the game progressed, an outing that served as a first test against such a scheme for Dave Aranda’s new 3-4 defense.
Defending the zone-read while playing a 3-4 is much different than doing it in a 4-3, players say. And it can be more difficult, a few players suggested. There are more open holes up front, spots that must be filled by linebackers.
“Everybody’s got to be in the right spots,” defensive end Lewis Neal said. “It’s not hard to defend because they’re going to read the end. You’ve got to be in the right spots and flow it to whoever is supposed to make the play.”
Neal, for instance, crashed down toward the center on Jenkins’ long run, leaving a gaping hole that Beckwith was supposed to fill.
“We fit in certain places for other people to make the plays sometimes,” Neal said.
Brandon Harris has enough to deal with.
In a 27-14 win over South Carolina last week, Mississippi State ran the zone-read on three of its first four offensive snaps. State’s new quarterback, Nick Fitzgerald, hit an open receiver for an 18-yard gain on a zone-read pass option on the first play. Two plays later, Fitzgerald, the heir apparent to record-breaking Dak Prescott, ran for 7 yards off the zone read.
Guess what the second play of State's second drive was? The zone-read, and this time, Fitzgerald broke loose for 74 yards. A triple-option quarterback in high school, Fitzgerald is a third-year sophomore who’s grabbed hold of State’s starting quarterback job after a 21-20 season-opening loss to South Alabama.
“I saw him on ESPN. Big, fast guy,” defensive back Tre’Davious White said. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us.”
White, now playing the inside receiver, has a role in the zone read play, too. In fact, on Jenkins’ long run, White barely missed a tackle near the line of scrimmage, as Jacksonville State’s offensive tackle blocked him out of the play.
Beckwith, though, takes the blame.
“Bad eyes,” he said. “Staring down something else … it’s all good. I knew right after it happened. I’ll try not to let that happen again.”