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The Key Matchup of 2018's Game of the Century: LSU's Cornerbacks vs. Alabama's RPOs

Tua Tagovailoa and LSU's talented defensive backs haven't had tests like what they will pose for each other on Saturday.

For LSU safety Grant Delpit, the three scariest letters are R-P-O. The latest offensive craze in college football, the run-pass option, is a pain in the you-know-what. “It’s something you hate when you’re a DB,” LSU’s starting safety says. “It’s hard, bruh.” In a sit-down with Sports Illustrated, Delpit takes us inside his head while playing against an RPO scheme, like the one the third-ranked Tigers (7–1) will see Saturday night in their epic tilt with top-ranked Alabama (8–0). Delpit calls the RPO one of the most difficult concepts for a defense to defend, and if you don’t know why, you’re about to find out.

The game inside the game in the biggest matchup of the year to date will be LSU’s legion of skilled defensive backs and the nation’s highest paid defensive coordinator versus Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and his versatile receivers. It is good-on-good, as coaches like to say, and everybody seems to understand that everything boils down to this. “That’s the matchup,” says former West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona head coach and RPO whiz Rich Rodriguez. “The one-on-one [receiver-DB] battles Alabama is usually going to win are going to be fistfights,” says former LSU coach Les Miles.

LSU has allowed just seven passing touchdowns this season and has a nation-leading 14 interceptions, paced by Delpit’s five; Tagovailoa has thrown 25 touchdowns and zero interceptions, which a wide-eyed Delpit notes is “something you don’t see very often. What, it’s Week 9?” Only one of LSU’s eight opponents has thrown for more than 260 yards and one touchdown; Alabama has surpassed both of those two benchmarks in every game it has played. LSU has allowed just three passes of 40 or more yards in its eight games, fewer than all but 11 FBS teams; Alabama leads the nation in such plays with a whopping 18. “It’s a big game for me, for our defense,” Delpit says. “[Tagovailoa] hasn’t really played a defense like us yet.”

Delpit’s unit hasn’t played an offense that runs RPOs quite like this either, he acknowledges. It’s not the newness of it. It’s the execution. Nick Saban’s hiring of Lane Kiffin in 2014 began a slow evolution of the Tide’s offense from a run-centric, pro-style attack to a scheme that incorporates spread principles. With the most skilled quarterback Saban’s ever had in Tuscaloosa, the offense is churning at full speed. “They’ve mastered it,” Delpit says. Alabama insiders will tell you that the offense is a conglomeration of schemes from the six previous coordinators under Saban. The coach doesn’t allow his offense to be overhauled by a new coordinator, only expanded and maybe tweaked. Delpit sees a lot of Kiffin’s offense when he watches video of the Tide, specifically the RPOs, which every defensive back dreads facing. Why? In a way, it works like an inverted triple option.

Let’s go inside Delpit’s head during an RPO play. He is responsible for one half of the field as a safety on pass duty, but he’s also in charge of playing the run. Because players are taught to defend the run first, he normally has his eyes on the gap for which he’s responsible. As an example, he uses the C-gap, the space between the tackle and the tight end: “I’m playing in the boundary [on the short side of the field] and they’re running a slant to the boundary and you’re the high safety, but you’ve got to fit the run in the C. If you bite too hard on the run, they’re going to throw the slant behind you and take it 90 yards for a touchdown.”

In the example above, Missouri’s outside linebacker darts into a gap to defend the run, and Tagovailoa hits freshman Jaylen Waddle, running a skinny slant, for a big gain. This whole process happens in a second or less. For a defender, it takes instincts and patience to stop it. “You try to read [the quarterback’s] eyes, read his receiver’s routes.” But above all, “you want to take away the run first,” and Delpit isn’t the only defender responsible for that. That duty also falls to a linebacking corps that will be without its star, Devin White, for the first half Saturday following White’s targeting penalty in the last game against Mississippi State. A few young reserves will be on the field. “Guys like Patrick [Queen] and Micah [Baskerville] and Jacob [Phillips] must come up and fill the gaps and stop that early in the game,” Delpit says.

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Rodriguez says defenses can also slow down RPOs by avoiding zone coverage and instead playing what’s called “press man,” a more physical brand of defense that leaves defensive backs alone in one-on-one coverage. Both Miles and Rodriguez expect LSU’s coverage guys to be talented enough to handle that challenge. Good man coverage can impact a receiver’s route enough to wreck the entire play. It’s something that Missouri didn’t do against Alabama in a 39–10 loss in October. Cornerbacks played well off Tide receivers, as shown in the photos below, and that did not often end well for those cornerbacks.


Delpit was cryptic on LSU’s exact plan but did say the Tigers will play both coverages and disguise them to make Tagovailoa uncomfortable in the pocket. “I wouldn’t just man them up all game,” Delpit says. “Definitely mix in some zone, some man and some blitz.” Mixing things up is imperative to throwing a wrench in Tagovailoa’s presnap and postsnap reads, Rodriguez says. The decision to run or pass is sometimes made before the snap based on how Tagovailoa identifies coverages. If a defense can mask coverages, it’s a positive. “The quarterback will have to hold onto the ball longer,” Rodriguez says, “because they’re screwing with his read.”

Post-snap reads can be complicated. Tagovailoa must determine whether a defensive lineman (often the end) is crashing to stop the run or staying outside, and then he’s moving his eyes to a second-level read of a safety, linebacker or cornerback. What makes Tagovailoa so good is his ability to read all these things—pre- and post-snap—incredibly quickly. Rodriguez compares it to a catcher in baseball catching a man stealing at second base: “They see the guy at the corner and they start shifting their body when the ball hits their glove. The catcher is the QB. He sees it is with his eyes and he’s positioning himself.”

So, what if LSU plays strong man coverage on the outside, and its linebackers and safeties take away the run on the inside? Then it’s all on Tagovailoa’s legs, says Miles. That could be the difference in the game. Alabama doesn’t often run with Tagovailoa—excluding sacks, he has only carried the ball 26 times this season, and not all of those are designed runs. But he is mobile; in fact, Delpit says Tagovailoa runs better than Hurts. “You’ve got to have a spy on that quarterback,” Miles says. That usually means a linebacker eyeing the QB at all times. There’s only one problem with that: “What if the quarterback is a better athlete than that spy?” Rodriguez says.

Dave Aranda, LSU’s $2.5 million-a-year defensive coordinator, and Mike Locksley, Bama’s first-year offensive coordinator, are certain to battle in a chess match of Xs and Os (and they’ve had two weeks to get their pieces in order). But this game will be won or lost by the decisions and instincts of Tagovailoa, Delpit and their teammates. Delpit is facing a three-letter scheme he dreads, and Tagovailoa is taking on a group of defensive backs set on saddling him with Interception No. 1. “I’ve definitely been hearing a lot about how he has no picks,” Delpit said. “He’s about to play us. He might make a little mistake.”