Watching the highly entertaining Clemson / LSU (go tigers?) match in the Chik-fil-A bowl on New Year's Eve, I pulled for Clemson to make it a game in the 4th quarter. And make it they did, with a sweet offensive series, including a nice hook and lateral. The LSU pass rush just wasn't enough at the end, though LSU fans should and have blamed the offense for a total lack of rhythm.
But there was one play near the end that made me cringe. After a nice hook and lateral got them into scoring range (a long aside: I thought this was called ~20 yards too early; I feel you need to score on these plays and with the difficulty of scoring in the red zone anyway, I think this is a play that should have been saved for the 25 yard line, but worked anyway), Tajh Boyd threw a bullet into the end zone to being Clemson within 2. Then the offense set for a conversion, and I knew something was amiss.
First, a positive. Clemson had Boyd in the pistol on the left hash, with another back to his right. Two receivers were on that side and a receiver was also on the left spread the defense with 4 wide and a TE. I am a big proponent of having at least one back in the backfield on goal-to-go situations. It makes the line hesitate for a split second (rushers cover ~2ft in 0.1 seconds, so a split second is important), and it also makes the LBs and safeties peek into the backfield before taking their assignments. It's not like the back is useless; he can run a pattern to the flat and occupy a defender, in addition to all those things mentioned above.
However, you could tell from the formation that it was either going to be a straight run (unlikely given Boyd's and the line's dismal performance on runs into the LSU middle) or a rollout to the right (given placement on the left hash and numbers to the right. The play turned out to be a rollout. And I have a big problem with rollouts in these situations. It just doesn't make sense: the defense already has to cover a smaller amount of territory, making spacing difficult. Why help them by only looking at a third of the field?
The first thing that went wrong for Clemson was the weak side defensive end crashed hard to the play side, disrupting the rhythm of the play. When the QB rolls, the defense instantly knows where he's going to be, allowing rushers to abandon any sense of lane discipline and truly pin their ears back. An athletic QB dropping straight back has the opportunity to take off to the edge or up the gut depending on the rush and coverage. By rolling, you take this dimension completely away, and the defense will not respect his ability.
The second issue was a lack of creativity in the play design. A lot of goal-line rollouts utilize a pick route in which two receiver routes intersect. This can confuse a defense (who guards whom?) and may allow one receiver to rub against or pick the defender guarding the other receiver. Deliberate picks are illegal, but things like this are allowed when it is a part of the receiver's planned route. In this case, Clemson ran the running back on Boyd's right side to the play side flat. One of the receivers on that side ran to the back of end zone to clear defenders. The other ran a hitch that intersected with the RB's route-it was the receiver's responsibility to pick the linebacker covering the tight end, opening the window for a conversion. These routes are very clever, but when they do work, it's often against defenders that are unprepared for the pick. If I can tell the play will be a rollout (enough to exclaim before the snap: "Oh no, they're rolling him out!"), then the defense sure can. When the defense sniffs it, they can be very aggressive no matter what the coverage is because of a lack of offensive contingencies (see below). Also, a defender who knows a pick is coming is more apt to avoid it and still make a play. Finally, Clemson's offense had trouble with LSU's defensive speed all night. They called a bunch of short passes that are designed to create yards-after-catch opportunities, but many times, receiver were hit right away.
Look at the film: even if Boyd's pass is on target, it still may have been knocked down because there is a waiting defender right in front of his receiver. In addition, the defensive back covering the hitch receiver reads the play like I did and also starts covering the running bak. It was a dangerous throw, which may have led Boyd to throw it in the ground on instinct. Even if complete, the receiver surely would have been tackled ~2 yards shy. Now you're wondering: this sounds familiar. One play, goal-to-go in a big game, rollout to the right with a pick route, where have I seen this before? That right! Alabama ran THIS VERY SAME PLAY in their loss to Texas A&M!!! The play that led to a game-sealing interception. I don't want to judge the process by the conclusion in a small sample, but the A&M linebacker alertly read the play and got there before the receiver on a decently-thrown ball.
My final beef with the play is that given space constraints, the QB has only a few places to go with the ball, and the defense knows this. The college field is ~53 yards wide. For a 2-point conversion, the ball is placed on the 2, making the defense cover 107 square yards (including the end zone, which is 10 yards deep). This compares to having the ball on the defensive 20 (~1,600 square yards to cover) or the 50 (3,200 square yards). By rolling to the right, even on the far hash, you cut the play-side area in half, for roughly 50 square yards. Assuming the defense rushes four and leaves two on the weak side to limit any trickery (more on this later), and you have five defenders, each covering ~10 square yards. If that sound a like a lot, each defender is covering roughly a 3x3 yard area. These are fast SEC defenders that are used to covering sideline to sideline; they can cover a 3x3 area.
Space also constrains what you can do on offense, there are only so many routes you can run in 50 square yards. If the first read is not open, it is often over. In addition, the play design is a bit slow-developing. By the time both receivers are into the route, Boyd is already around the near hash, which means he was running out of time an room. He doesn't have another place to go with the ball, making the defense's job much easier.
Needless to say, this play didn't work. It's not that you should never roll out nearer goal line. To me, it's like the fade pass: a low percentage play in which there is only on option. It has its use when catching the defense in the wrong coverage, but shouldn't be used on a do-or-die down. And when the rollout is implemented, some of the most effective plays I've seen are misdirection plays to a receiver on the weak side, either a flare/hitch or someone that starts blocking and drags to that side. However, these often require difficult throws where the QB does not have time to read the whole defense. Overall, in these situations, I believe the best option would be to give your QB options around the field. With an inexperienced signal caller, I can understand the desire to limit the field, but not with someone like Boyd.
Other game notes:
I felt the TD review in the second quarter gave LSU's special teams to set up the PAT block.
With LSU's defensive speed, why was Clemson running read-option? It takes time to develop and your guys aren't running with the same authority wondering if they will get the ball and running east-west.
Tajh Boyd did a sweet job looking off the safety on the fourth quarter TD throw that led to the failed conversion. Great throw, too, to the back of the end zone. They don't trust this guy for a conversion?
LSU fans are decrying the decisions to pass with a lead, but if completed, the second down pass almost seals it. You need to complete that pass. Given the success on the ground though (4.0 yards per carry and 4.3 in the second half) and 6 sacks taken, may have been better to run.