NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Welcome to Highlights, where we'll break down significant portions from LSU's last football game.

(Click to enlarge photos)

LSU 66, Vanderbilt 38

How It Happened

Improving the run game: Before the Vanderbilt game, it wasn't hard to notice that LSU's run game had taken a back seat. The Tigers didn't produce a 100-yard rusher in the first three games, which was the first time the program started with such a drought since 2009. Even a pre-game show broadcaster said on the field before the game that LSU had "a one-dimensional offense," and that "Vanderbilt must make them prove they can run the ball." LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry overheard that broadcaster, and he used that as motivation.

LSU rushed for 181 total yards against Vanderbilt, and junior running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire became the team's first 100-yard rusher of the season, gaining 106 yards on 14 carries and scored a touchdown.

So what changed?

Well, LSU coach Ed Orgeron said the team struggled to run the ball in previous weeks because they were trying to run new gap blocking schemes.

The gap scheme is a bit complex: Blocking assignments are based on angles and include double teams and pulling linemen from the back side of the play. If they're not executed well, aggressive defensive lines can seal holes off with ease. Using that scheme, LSU averaged 3.5 yards per carry against Northwestern State, a winless FCS team. For reference, LSU averaged 4.0 yards per carry in 2018.

So Orgeron said the coaching staff shelved the gap schemes and returned to their standard zone blocking schemes. It's a widely-used scheme in which offensive linemen are assigned a gap, and they block defenders that are in those gaps.

It didn't take long for this scheme to show success against Vanderbilt.

LSU-Vandy: Zone block 1

SEC Network

  • On the second play of the game, Cushenberry said LSU ran an inside zone to the left on first-and-10 at the LSU 45. Vanderbilt lined up in its standard 4-2-5 defense (pictured right), and the blocking assignments worked out pretty simply. Left tackle Saahdiq Charles engaged the defensive end and left guard Adrian Magee used the defensive tackle's momentum to guide him safely into the backfield. That left the linebackers and the back-side defensive linemen.
  • In zone blocking schemes, offensive blockers tend to cut off the back-side of a play than to try and blow those defenders off the ball. Those back-side defenders can still catch up to the play if they're not blocked, but you'll generally see offensive linemen quickly engage them before trying to work up toward the more dangerous defenders downfield. Those second-level defenders are generally linebackers or safeties, and if offensive linemen can get those players blocked, that's when runners have the best chance to gain large chunks of yardage. Cushenberry said the offensive line hadn't been getting to the second level in previous games. "They've been filling the holes," he said. "We worked on that a lot this week, and it came together today."
LSU-Vandy: Zone run gif 1

SEC Network

  • Cushenberry worked up to the near-side inside linebacker, and right guard Damien Lewis engaged the defensive tackle quickly before pursuing the back-side linebacker (pictured right). Lewis' block opened up a seam in the middle of the field, and Edwards-Helaire burst through. All that was left for Vanderbilt was its safety, whom Edwards-Helaire made miss on the way to a 46-yard run, the longest of the season for LSU.
LSU-Vandy: Zone blocking pic 2

SEC Network

  • Sometimes zone blocking schemes can be effective when defenses blitz. Here, on second-and-1 at the LSU 34 in the third quarter, the Vanderbilt middle linebacker will end up taking himself out of the play (pictured right). The linebacker blitzes up the middle, and the LSU offensive line is able to hold fast with his pressure. Tight end Thaddeus Moss kicked out the outside linebacker, and right tackle Austin Deculus is able to get enough push on the defensive end to create a hole on the right side of the line.
LSU-Vandy: Zone run gif 2

SEC Network

  • This play is also a credit to Edwards-Helaire's vision. He's searching for a hole as soon as he gets the ball, since zone blocking is very adaptive.  He takes a few steps forward, sees the hole on the right side, and cuts through it. Since the Vanderbilt middle linebacker has already blitzed up the middle, the only remaining defender near the line is the safety. Edwards-Helaire makes him miss and rushes 25 yards to the Vanderbilt 41.
LSU-Vandy: Zone blocking pic 3

SEC Network

  • Last one. Here's one where the defense does everything right against the zone run, but it still works out for LSU anyway. It's late in the fourth quarter, and LSU is leading 66-31 and has the ball first-and-10 at its 14. The Tigers have taken to run the football in order to run the clock out and end the game. Vanderbilt sells out for the run and blitzes two safeties on each edge of the line of scrimmage (pictured right). Vanderbilt safety Brendon Harris (the far side safety) should make this play. He finds the hole on the left side of the line of scrimmage and easily gets into the backfield. It appears that this run is designed to go to the right. True freshman John Emery runs right and sees that it's walled off by defenders. Harris should make the tackle here, but Emery steps out of his grasp and cuts through the remaining open hole. That's another positive in this run scheme: if a running back gets past the blitzing safety, there's virtually no one left for several yards if all the other blocks are effective. Emery rushes 21 yards to the LSU 35.

Wrong gap/poor tackling: While the LSU offense surged toward another 60-plus point game, the Tigers defense still left room for panic. Vanderbilt's 38 points was the most scored by an LSU opponent in regulation since the Tigers beat Texas A&M 54-39 in 2016. Two of those were defensive touchdowns, but LSU still surrendered three touchdowns to a Commodores offense that didn't score any touchdowns against No. 3 Georgia (if that's among the elite SEC bar we're setting).

No, Orgeron said, the defensive issues don't have anything to do with the defense being more tired because of the offense. The issues were self-inflicted: defenders leaving their gaps and missed tackles. "Staying in your gap has nothing to do with being tired, OK?" Orgeron said. "Being disciplined, tackling, has nothing to do about being tired. There was nobody being tired, being gassed out there. I thought it was a nice cool day. A lot of these guys are in good shape. There's not an excuse for that in the world."

  • In a 26-point loss, Vanderbilt actually had the first lead. On the very first play of the game, Commodores running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn broke through the right side of the line of scrimmage and rushed 41 yards to the LSU 34. The play set up an 8-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that gave Vanderbilt a 7-0 lead that was quickly erased by the potent LSU offense. But Vaughn's run did give concerns for when LSU plays an equally talented team with a defense that might be able to keep the Tigers offense from bailing out the defensive miscues. 
LSU-Vandy:  Wrong gap 1

SEC Network

  • So what happened on the run? Orgeron said the 3-technique left his gap, which left nobody left to pick up Vaughn. The 3-tech is a defensive lineman that lines up on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard, which in this case was LSU defensive end Justin Thomas (pictured right). Thomas engages his blocker and drifts outside instead of keeping position in his gap. Thomas makes a late effort to swim inside, but by the time he reaches the hole, Vaughn is already past him. Thomas is a reserve lineman who was filling in because starting defensive ends Rashard Lawrence and Glen Logan remain sidelined with injuries. "There's no excuse to jump out your gap," Orgeron said. "If a guy gets overpowered or something like that and he's not able to do it physically, I do understand that. We've got to be more disciplined than that. It doesn't matter who's out there."
  • Vaughn then outmatched someone LSU fans might not have expected: Tigers unanimous All-American safety Grant Delpit. On first-and-10 at the Vanderbilt 48, Vaughn broke into the open field and Delpit was the only defender remaining. Vaughn cut toward the pylon, and Delpit slid out of his path, resulting in a 52-yard touchdown run. Orgeron said after the game that he wants to start doing different open-field tackling drills to address the issue. "We knew this running back was pretty good," he said. "I thought for the most part, we tackled him OK. The open-field tackles are the ones we're missing. So we gave to do more open-field tackling drills live, and we'll start doing that next week."

Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.