I'll be doing a little refresher on the Georgia game from last year. I'll take the obligatory victory lap first and then we'll dive into the game.
Clemson had a great football season last year, but the biggest elation of the year for most of us came on opening night. We showed the growing population of college football fans what Saturday night in Death Valley is all about.
Death Valley looked great on TV. The crowd was incredible. Some of pageantry and tradition were focused on by ABC and how awesome was it to see those buses pull around the stadium? Not since "Speed" came out have I seen a bus trip filmed more dramatically than it was that night. The cool thing about that to me was that no Tiger fan has even seen that. I mean, even if you played for Clemson, you've never seen the buses pull around from all those vantage points. "Even Georgia had to take a peek," said Brent Musberger.
Most of us Tiger fans witnessed our greatest football tradition in its entirety for the first time just like the rest of the nation did. And yes, as my Dad pointed out, that was worth about a $1M in advertising. Perhaps Mr. Hyatt, Mr. Cain, Mr. Bryant, Mr. Fruhmorgan, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Ferrell would agree. Welcome gentlemen, to the greatest environment in all of college football.
That night, we beat a top 5 Georgia team coming off an elite season in 2012. The nation saw them make it to the brink of the National Championship game in 2012 and they returned all of their offensive personnel for 2013. Clemson validated the Peach Bowl win over LSU by knocking off two SEC elites (or, so we thought) in back-to-back games. 2013 was "supposed to be our year" and we started it off in fine fashion with "Gameday" in da house.
On September 3rd, 2013, Tajh Boyd was the front-runner for the Heisman and we were talking National Championship possibilities. Georgia went on to knock off South Carolina the following week and LSU at the end of the month and their offense made their defenses look below average.
Alright enough of the victory lap, let's talk about the game itself.
To me the biggest and most important observation from that game is that we were the most physical team that night. The increased physicality of fall camp seemed to pay off as we all thought it would. That is the first time in years that I can remember us clearly being the more physical team in a game against an, at full strength, elite level opponent. We were very physical against Auburn 2010, but in the end, it was a wash. We were clearly the more physical team against UGA 2013. We will need to match that physicality again this year to have a chance. If you are a casual football fan, please don't underestimate how huge of an accomplishment winning the "physical war" is and how important of an indicator that can be of future success.
Let's talk defense.
Before the game, I fanposted this: "By all statistical indications, Georgia has the best returning offense in the country and is probably going to bust us up pretty good in week one. However, take solace in the fact that they will be doing the same thing to SC next week and probably to LSU as well." You can find the entire article here as I'm going to revisit it again this year: Advanced Expectations: National Championship Contention
Fortunately, "The Other Coordinator (c)" decided to justify his high salary in year 2 and build on the momentum of the Peach Bowl performance against LSU.
Here's a little question for everybody. Which one of these defensive performances would you rather have?
Team A: Faced 12 drives, 63 plays, gave up 394 yards, 6.25 yards per play, 21 points
Team B: Faced 12 drives, 50 plays, gave up 296 yards, 5.92 yards per play, 21 points
It's pretty close but I'll assume you'd have to go with Team B right? Well...
Team A is Alabama's #1 Ranked National Championship Defense vs. Georgia in the SEC Championship game last year.
Team B is Clemson's Defense vs. Georgia from the start of the 2nd Quarter through the end of the game last year.
Yea, I threw out the bad 1st quarter but that's an interesting perspective, huh? All our defense did was play the Alabama-equivalent of 4 quarters of defense crammed into 3 quarters at a higher level than Alabama did against the #1 returning offensive personnel in the nation that had an entire offseason to prepare for us.
This was a strong turnaround by the defense after the initial trucking we received in the 1st quarter. Even if they ended up not being an Elite Team last year, at full strength, Georgia was very much an elite level offense.
I believe that the defensive performance, particularly by the front 4 and aided by "The Other Coordinator's" adjustments saved the game in the 2nd quarter. I think the redzone fumble forced by Crawford and Anthony on the sack was the turning point we needed when the game was slipping away.
In the 2Q, Venables jumped into what would become common over the next 12 games: Toggling between zone coverages with a lot of Cover 3 Sky and Cover 2 Robber looks. This would have Blanks often cheating into the box at almost LB depth. Blanks was playing run-first on most run downs and bailing out into zone on most pass plays. This allowed some aggressive play in the run game. In effect, this slowed down the Georgia run attack after the 1Q as Blanks occupied a blocker/gap and kept Georgia off schedule.
However, as everybody probably noticed, the weak spot with C3 Sky is that it requires the CBs to back up off the WRs because they have the deep third on their side. This allows an uncovered area at 5-7 yards of depth that always seems to make casual fans furious. Remember, there is no FS back there with Blanks in the box, so if they get beat deep on the outside it's a TD. That's why the big cushion on a run down like 3rd and 3. Only Garry Peters would jump those 5-7 yard routes last year which made him a feast or famine player. Against UGA, he dropped two INTs that he got both hands on.
We were also very blitz happy with the LBs against UGA last year as well, so they also could have hurt us badly with dig, drag, slant and crossing routes. Venables was all over that and ended up making an especially genius call after the muffed punt by Watkins.
Anticipating LBs/Blanks shooting in on 1st down, UGA OC Mike Bobo went for our jugular after sudden change and called for the deep crosser against what he thought would be another 1st down run blitz. However, Venables anticipated that response and gambled. He called a zone blitz where he sent both inside LBs to make it look like the middle was going to be wide open. The left DE peeled back off the line to cover the middle. QB Aaron Murray never saw him and of course, that ended up being a huge INT for DE Corey Crawford and a schematic b-slap to Bobo from Venables. You gotta love that.
Had UGA run a power sweep on 1st down with Gurley like they did for the 1st TD, they'd have had another easy TD because the LBs were washed into the middle and wouldn't have recovered. Muchos cajones from Coach V on that call. There was another stare-down right after halftime when Georgia couldn't audible in time and was forced into a delay of game penalty to start the 2nd half. You don't see that often.
Ultimately though, there was really no longterm schematic answer for Todd Gurley. Gurley is special. I think he's "longtime NFL starter" special. He was 20 pounds heavier than and just as fast as Adrian Peterson is in his prime at age 19. He's incredible and should be even better in Athens this year. Keith Marshall is good but they were clearly a different offense with Gurley in there. In fact, after Marshall got twisted up with 1:18 left in the 2nd Quarter, I didn't think he wanted to be hit anymore. I know that body language when I see it.
I was happy that we were able to get pressure on passing downs with just our front 4 against an SEC OL that returned all 5 starters. That was a good sign of the continuing metamorphosis we saw up front on defense. I still have painful memories of us blitzing SC with 6 and still not getting to Dylan Thompson (ditto FSU). We can be pretty optimistic that we will be equal to or better of a pass rushing team in 2014.
Oh yeah, and needless to say, I'm glad we just saw the last of the prevent defense for the season at the end of that game. Wow, you talk about being picked apart...
The athletically challenged Spencer Shuey continued to be our best LB but, Stephone Anthony came out last year and played downhill more and was a much more physical player than he was in 2012.
As far as the OFFENSE goes, I thought we played well but also left some points out there on the field. Some of the drops were drive killers and Martavis Bryant had a terrible game in almost every facet except "hands team." The OL looked confused in pass protection at times and we still didn't have the explosive running attack that the elite level HUNH teams have. We did, however, move the ball when it mattered in the 4th quarter and ran some clock with the lead.
I loved the zone option play combined with the bubble screen. That play looked almost unstoppable against Georgia. That was such a money play with our personnel last year. I think we can beat some teams this year with a "screen and go" off that as well if we are as efficient as we should be with Stoudt. We did call the "go" once against UGA, I believe, and UGA's defenders didn't bite.
The two plays of the game may have happened late in the 3rd quarter on back to back plays. There was the 3rd and goal at the 2 where we stuffed the big FB Hicks and then there was the UGA fumbled snap on the field goal attempt right after that. I also thought UGA's decision to punt from our 39 on a 4th and 6 was incorrect since they were down 3 in the game.
We took the ball over on our 13 there and executed a balanced drive with 7 runs and 5 passes and sealed the game with the Stanton Seckinger TD. Seckinger is more athletic than your average 2-star private school receiver. If he puts on some weight and improves his blocking, we're going to have some great depth at TE in 2014.
After his TD, we got a defensive stop on UGA's next drive. We ran 6 straight run plays to take time off the clock. With a 10 point lead, we took 3:20 off the clock and left 2:25 for UGA to have to score twice. That's textbook.
I want to give some random props to FB Darrell Smith in last year's game mostly because he never got props and he deserved them. You could tell he put on some weight in the offseason. He had to line up out of position at TE a good bit due to the injuries there and he did ok. I'm not a big fan of him blocking a DE by himself but he was asked to do that on Sammy's TD. He did get to show off the hands a little bit as well last year. I wonder who takes his spot this year? Fleming? Cooper?
Somebody that put his body on the barbwire in that game was Hot Rod. McDowell ran with physicality and brought the hammer inside. Remember, Hot Rod had huge issues with softness at one point so, it was nice to see him run with authority. In addition to his physicality, McDowell also had the two nastiest jukes of the night. Jukes work a lot better after you've made it clear a few times that it's going to hurt to tackle you. Hot Rod set the tone physically for the offense. He didn't run like that every week but, he sure did against UGA.
What I do hope doesn't happen in Athens this year is the really lazy offensive line play we saw in the 2Q. Between that, the drops, and some questionable play calling, we almost allowed the game to get away from us. The natives were awfully restless when Georgia went up 21-14 and we couldn't move the ball on 3 straight drives. In 2011, we would have folded up shop, panicked, and have been down three scores at halftime.
The maturation of our program philosophy continued last year but, as we all saw, we have work to do to get to the elite level. We were mistake prone at QB at times and a lot of that was brought on by ineffectiveness up front and the "get it all back in one play" play calling. There is optimism that Cole Stoudt will make fewer mistakes than Boyd and be able to efficiently run the offense that he's been studying for the past three years. There is less optimism that the OL will be able to improve off of last year.
This year, we will be in enemy territory, "between the hedges." There will be no home field excitement and, based off our win last year, Georgia will have more to prove than us. Last year's victory was about 2013 being "our year." It was about the culmination of 5 years of Dabo recruiting and installation of his program philosophy coming together, as he put it, "to compete for a National Championship."
This year's game and season will be about the state of the program. Can we replace some of the best skill players in Clemson history and reload without taking too much of a step back. Or, were we just a product of all those great offensive players coming together for a small window of offensive success. There will be no Dwayne Allen, Nuk Hopkins, Jaron Brown, Brandon Ford, Andre Ellington, Tajh Boyd, or Sammy Watkins.
This year, we will see the guys that have been waiting in the wings being coached up and developed to take over. Is there a new crop of offensive players ready to match the production of the NFL level talent we had here from 2011-2013?
We will know a lot more about our Offensive Coaching staff's true coaching ability and recruiting prowess by the end of September this year. I want to tell you that we're going to be great, but I can't promise you that. The only thing I can promise is that our schedule says that we will get the exact same opportunity the 2013 team had to prove it.