Coming into this game Notre Dame's line was seen as perhaps the best offensive line in the nation. Clemson finished the day with four sacks and nine tackles for loss. Clemson managed to hold Notre Dame to 117 rushing yards. Shaq Lawson led the way with 3.5 tackles for loss despite working almost exclusively against a guy many considered the best Left Tackle in the country. Notre Dame quite literally ran away from him on the last play of the game. Shaq Lawson is a bad, bad man and I am extremely happy we aren't the ones who have to figure out how to try stop him. He was not our only source of pressure. Watkins, Pagano and Dodd all contributed major pressure or outright sacks. Ben Boulware seems to live to run forward and hit someone and Venables deserves credit for the variety of angles he blitzes him from. If Boulware isn't the greatest dropping back may as well blitz him liberally and force offenses to game plan for a wrecking ball.
We are going to look at each of Clemson's four sacks, all coming in the second half as Notre Dame was trying to throw its way back into the game. I really think these plays were the difference between Notre Dame winning or not. Deshone Kizer, like so many young mobile quarterbacks, was vulnerable to taking sacks. The first sack came off a simple four man rush, with both defensive ends standing up. (All below images via ESPN and youtube user Tigerray)
This was a simple sack. That is not an insult to the play in the slightest. There's just not much to talk about, Wilkins beat his man. I don't know if the left guard didn't think he had Watkins, or if he just whiffed horrendously off of the line, but I can tell you that within a second of the snap it becomes clear Wilkins will not be touched by an offensive lineman.
Wilkins is a full yard ahead of any Clemson lineman, and Deshone does not seem to have registered just how bad things are for him yet. The running back is nowhere to be found and Watkins just runs straight up on Kizer, who, to his credit tries to escape. The right end, Dodd, has forced enough pressure to force Kizer to turn inside. Wilkins drags him down from behind.
As an aside, Wilkins clearly yelling "Let's Go" to his sideline after the sack is terrifying in the sort of way I want a defensive tackle to be terrifying.
The next sack starts with Clemson starts off showing a relatively normal pre snap look, both linebackers are up to threaten blitz before ultimately backing off into their normal positioning.
At the snap Shaq Lawson, who is aligned at the three technique spot, drops back into coverage. Nominally he is tasked with robbing crossing routes, but his main purpose is running down Kizer if he takes off. Dodd tries to speed rush the right tackle and almost pulls it off. He's a hair slow though, and the right tackle manages to flip his hips and run him too deep to realistically get pressure on Kizer.
Christian Wilkins is not able to get much pressure going against the center and left guard. The "defensive end" (Jayron Kearse, who I am pretty sure could line up literally anywhere on defense on third down and put the fear of god into someone) is able to force both the right guard and right tackle to block him, but can't get much pressure going either.
This is a pure coverage sack, with nothing opening up downfield enough for Kizer to try to make the throw. Kizer decides to take off and try to make something with his speed. This worked several times over the course of the game. It works slightly less well when Lawson is waiting a few yards behind the line of scrimmage to disabuse Kizer of that notion. You can see him at the 43 yard line in the above picture. He makes the tackle at the 38. Shaq Lawson is terrifying.
The third sack comes immediately after Clemson misses a field goal. I fluctuate on how much value to actually put in the idea of momentum, but for whatever momentum is worth this play served to steal an awful lot of it from Notre Dame.
Notre Dame begins in trips before motioning CJ Prosise (a former receiver) into the slot to turn this into an empty set. I'm actually somewhat surprised that Venables did not have an automatic six man blitz check in vs empty. Instead both linebackers widen out to play underneath zones.
After the game several Clemson players apparently said they could tell from Notre Dame's lineman whether or not a play was going to be a run or a pass. I can tell you that certain lineman absolutely have tells. An entirely hypothetical example would be the guard who leans heavily on his down arm when it's a run and leans so far off it that the three point stance is mostly cosmetic when there will be a pass. Clemson's lineman knowing a pass was coming would explain how 3/4 of the defensive line explodes off the snap this quickly. Defensive lineman getting pass rush like that on first and ten is absurd.
Pagano blows through Alex Barr while Christian Wilkins eats a double team. Dodd isn't able to work a speed rush again but counters with a nice spin move to get pressure on Kizer. Being able to counter a tackle who is fast enough to run with you is part of what separates good from great defensive ends and kudos to Dodd for turning the tackles' speed against him. Wilkins eventually peels off the double team to chase Kizer down while Pagano helps him bring him down from the other side.
The last sack came on the first play of Notre Dame's final drive and could have easily resulted in a turnover going Clemson's way. Clemson starts the play aligned in a 3-2 dime set, with both linebackers threatening to blitz.
Both linebackers drop back into zones after the snap. Lawson and Dodd come at their respective tackles like bats out of hell. Wilkins isn't able to get much of anything going. Wilkins is also triple teamed, so he's doing more than his fair share of work here. The threat of a linebacker blitz is enough to keep either guard from being able to fan out to help the tackles much. Dodd and Lawson both get pressure pretty quickly.
Neither Lawson nor Dodd are likely to be able to force a sack with a tackle set up on them like they are above. What Lawson does do however is force a fumble by getting him arm out and knocking the ball down.
Not only does this effectively end the play for Notre Dame, in this instant there's a decent chance of the ball bouncing into a Tigers' hand. If this happens the game is over. Dodd getting the sack on Kizer is the best case scenario for Notre Dame on this play.
In the end the four sacks the defensive line was able to force from multiple looks in the second half were crucial to the victory on Saturday. The defensive line, led by Lawson, more than did its' job. Pressure came from every single lineman. If that was the best offensive line in the country then Clemson may very well have the best defensive line in the country. It's interesting to note that half of all sacks came off of three man rushes and no sacks came off of blitzes. I have not done enough film review to say definitively that this is a trend, but it is something worth keeping in mind while watching future games. In addition the threat of a blitz helped spring multiple sacks. It'll be interesting to see how defensive line play changes vs Georgia Tech's option attack next week.