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Defensive Film Review: Syracuse

What we hoped were anomalies have become trends.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Glance at the box score and you wonder how Clemson only won by 10. Clemson nearly doubled Syracuse in yardage, first downs, and even held a comfortable lead in time of possession thanks to a long drive which ended the game. How was this game so close? Recurring themes: turnovers, defensive busts, and the lack of a killer instinct throughout the contest.

At first glance, this game was sloppy and uninspired. Was the defense as bad as it looked? Yes, and no.

First, some takes on the game overall:

The offensive staff took a lot of flak for inserting Kelly Bryant on the third series which resulted in a fumble and immediate points for Syracuse. Hindsight is 20/20, but this was the plan all along and there was nothing wrong with it. This wasn't "alright let's get Deshaun out of there, we got this." Watson was not removed from the game; he lined up out wide and we were likely setting up an eventual throwback gadget out of Bryant's wildcat package for the South Carolina or postseason games. Bryant made his read and kept it, and we still don't know how the fumble didn't warrant a review. But ultimately this was not a bad call or "messing around" -- it was to set up a gadget play.

Before the season we thought Deshaun Watson would have to carry this team in a few shootouts, and twice now in the last three games it has been the case. The offense put up nearly 600 yards and moved the ball well, but regularly stalled after crossing midfield -- we only scored 6 points in the second half while we struggled to keep Syracuse at arms length.

The offense was spectacular early but frustrating despite its efficiency in the second half, but again we completely controlled the 4th quarter. Watson is justifiably near the top of every Heisman list, and without a few untimely drops/catches out of bounds, he puts this game away without the drama -- with two more TD passes to boot.

The defense was better than it seemed against NC State, but the Wolfpack found cheap points off special teams and a few untimely Clemson busts. Against Syracuse, we had opportunities to put the game away throughout (could we have asked for a better start?) but never stomped on their throats. The problems with gap control and run fits continued, and clearly are no longer anomalies.

Alley = area between the OT and WR. BCB = Boundary Cornerback. Bullet = ILB A or B gap blitz. C0, C1, C2, C3, C4 (quarters) or C6 = coverage scheme by the secondary. FCB = Wideside or field cornerback. Fire = S, NB, LB blitz from the outside D gap. Green Dog = man blitz when your man stays in to block or is not in the formation. IZ = Inside Zone or Zone blocked play inside the tackles. Jailbreak = 7 or more blitz. LOS = Line of Scrimmage. Man = man to man coverage. OZ = outside zone run or zone blocked play off-tackle. PA = Play Action. PBU = Pass broken up. Red Dog(overload) = LB and S/NB blitz on the same side. Robber = S or LB moves to take away crossing routes. C3 Sky = SS moves up two yards, takes flat, CBs and FS take deep thirds. Stretch= zone blocked run just inside the last offensive player on that side. Stack = the 3 LBs are stacked directly behind DL. Stalk = WR blocks DB in front of him. Sweep = TB/QB run, often FB/ H-B lead play to the D gap. TO = Triple Option. ZR = Zone read option play.

Coach/Player shorthand: BB = Ben Boulware, BJ = B.J. Goodson, BV = Brent Venables. Mack = MacKenzie Alexander, OD = Dorian O'Daniel, Shaq = Shaq Lawson, Tank = Cordrea Tankersley.

Thoughts within a play are separated by a comma. (,)
Each play is separated by an ellipsis. (...)
First downs are separated by a paragraph.
Comments on a drive are in italics.
Offensive Personnel is listed as a 3 digit number where it is listed: # of RBs, # of TEs, # of WRs like 212, which is 2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR.

As always, thanks to ESPN and Tigerray.

1st quarter

Clemson takes the ball and wastes no time taking the lead; deep ball to Peake gets us there before Gallman punches it in on the next play.

1st drive, 14:27, Syracuse 25, 7-0 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 over, orbit motion ZR, fumbled mesh, RECOVERED BY CLEMSON.

Not sure why Mahoney tried to pull the ball, there was a hole. Even though he didn't see Mack running to fill it, he should've kept it. We'll take it.

Clemson converts the short field into 7 points. Good to see Watson drive the pile into the endzone -- evidence of a healthy knee.

2nd drive, 12:56, Syracuse 30, 14-0 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 212 Pistol vs 4-3, Blanks out wide to help cover stacked receivers, IZ, Shaq penetrates and forces the back to the backside, gets the TFL, loss of 1...2nd & 12, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 over C4, quick pass over the middle broken up, good break on the ball by both BJ and BB...3rd & 12, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 Tampa 2, Shaq and Wilkins get immediate penetration and force a quick throw to the flat, incomplete, PUNT.

Good penetration by the DL and awareness on quick passes by the linebackers. Solid positioning and assignments by all. Crush their dreams early and keep this uninteresting.

On the first play we run the wildcat with Bryant who fumbles, recovered by Syracuse. Not sure how this was not reviewed, Bryant may have been down...SUDDEN CHANGE.

3rd drive, 11:23, Clemson 28, 14-0 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 203 Shotgun split vs 4-3 over SAM (Blanks) fire in front of man C1, orbit IZ, Shaq gets sealed, BJ follows the QB and completely vacates the gap, inexcusable error from BJ, TOUCHDOWN.

BJ bust

Run fits. Again. This is no longer an anomaly like we hoped it was after NC State. This is a lack of discipline -- BJ got caught looking.

A promising Clemson drive comes to a halt when Syracuse sandwiches Renfrow, fumble, SUDDEN CHANGE.

4th drive, 10:18, Syracuse 46, 14-7 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 under BB and Green fire, orbit ZR give to dive, gain of 1...2nd & 9, 203 Shotgun split vs 4-3, OZ, BB gets stiff-armed on the sideline and back gets the edge, gain of 9...

1st & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 BCB blitz orbit ZR, Mahoney keeps but BB crashes inside when Dodd had already taken it away, BB completely blew his assignment (we'll see this again), gain of 13...

BB bust 1

1st & 10, 113 Pistol bunch vs 4-3 under, BB and Green both fire, IZ, penetration by Watkins and Shaq, Watkins gets the stuff, loss of 1...2nd & 11, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 BJ and BB blitz, orbit PA, wheel route overthrown, the wheel route had us beaten again though...3rd & 11, 113 Shotgun vs 4-3 C3, intermediate curl incomplete, FIELD GOAL BLOCKED.

A decent response to sudden change aside from two awful plays from Boulware to begin the drive. First he got blown up and then blew his assignment, alarming regression from BB over the last few weeks. Great timing on the block from Kearse to keep points off the board.

The Tiger offense goes 3 & out, special teams give Syracuse great field position.

5th drive, 5:35, Syracuse 44, 14-7 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 122 Pistol vs 4-3, orbit ZR, met in the middle by BJ, gain of 2...2nd & 8, 014 empty vs 4-3, quick out to flat met immediately by Tank, gain of 2...3rd & 6, 203 Shotgun split vs 4-3 BJ and BB bullet, orbit ZR dive, both ILBs get blown off the ball by linemen and there's a huge hole, gain of 39...


1st & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3, orbit ZR, Dodd takes away the dive and Mahoney keeps, but BB gets sucked in AGAIN leaving Mahoney to walk in untouched, TOUCHDOWN.

BB bust 2

Another inexcusable bust from Boulware. Hard to believe this defense destroyed Georgia Tech's triple option but looks lost against Syracuse's walk-on, 0 star QB. THEY DON'T EVEN CUT BLOCK. We love Boulware's aggression but when he blows assignments we pay dearly.

An efficient drive like we've come to expect puts the Tigers back in front (ultimately for good, believe it or not). A great catch on the back shoulder fade to Peake for the touchdown, the man deserved paydirt for his play over the last month. Well done Charone!

6th drive, :05, Syracuse 25, 21-14 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 122 Pistol vs 4-3, orbit ZR dive, gain of 2...

2nd quarter

2nd & 8, 113 bunch Pistol vs 4-3 BB bullet, gain of 3...3rd & 5, 203 Shotgun split vs 4-3, orbit ZR keeper, BB played his assignment this time which freed Shaq to SLAM Mahoney like a rag doll, loss of 4...PUNT.

Shaq ragdoll

This is more like it, everyone was in position. Shaq took away the dive and stuffed the keeper, this will be crucial against South Carolina and UNC. 3 & out, good assignment football. DL controlled the LOS and stuffed the run admirably.

Quick strike drive ends in the bomb to Cain, back up by 14 before Cuse knew what happened.

7th drive, 12:54, Syracuse 25, 28-14 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 2 man under, orbit IZ met for a gain of 2...2nd & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 orbit ZR keeper, Green and Bryant sandwich Mahoney who barely holds onto the ball, gain of 7...3rd & 1, illegal formation...3rd & 6, 113 Shotgun vs 4-3 C4, quick dump to flat but Tank slips when breaking down the ball carrier who slips by, gain of 8...

1st & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 BCB blitz, orbit ZR PA, Mahoney somehow gets rid of it before the sack and just barely misses the deep post, incomplete...2nd & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 (safeties up), orbit ZR dive, met by all 3 LBs for a gain of 3...3rd & 7, 113 Shotgun vs 4-3 double LB bullet (BJ on green dog) in front of man C1, dump out to flat incomplete...running into the kicker only 5 yard penalty, got lucky there, PUNT.

One slip in the flat gave them a first down but we forced a punt 3 plays later. So far, this is very similar to NC State in that there haven't been but a couple of busts, but they've cost us dearly. It is surprising we have yet to see any dime of doom in obvious passing situations. Lack of respect for the Cuse passing game is understandable, but the alignment would confuse the OL and rattle Mahoney.

A holding penalty nullified a first down, we punt after 3 plays.

8th drive, 6:52, Syracuse 41, 28-14 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 C4, orbit ZR PA, Blanks bumps the TE but doesn't follow quickly enough to the flat, receiver to this side ran the corner deep so there's no help, TE turns the corner before Mack trips him, gain of 14...

1st & 10, 122 Pistol vs 4-3 over, PA rollout, comeback route incomplete...2nd & 10, 122 Pistol vs 4-3 BCB blitz, orbit ZR keeper, Tank forces a long, deep pitch which is barely collected before BB tackles the pitch for no gain...3rd & 10, 005 empty vs 4-3 SAM fire in front of 2 man under, corner route to slot receiver (BB's man, beat him), overthrown and read by Green who drops the interception...fake punt, pass interference on Mack...

1st & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3 BB fire and BJ bullet, orbit ZR dive gets blown up by Watkins, insane penetration, destroyed the play by himself, loss of 2...2nd & 12, 113 Shotgun vs 4-3 BJ and BB bullets in front of man C1, pocket collapsed and sacked by Shaq, BB, Wilkins, loss of 3...3rd & 15, 113 Pistol vs C2 man, QB sweep right, Tank sets the edge which gets Mahoney smacked by the chasing DEs, gain of 2...FIELD GOAL GOOD.

Again, solid defense is undone by a bust/special teams -- this time Mack interfered on a PRAYER of a fake punt.

Our 3 minute offense drives down the field but stalls (foreshadowing the remainder of the game) and we kick a field goal to take the 14 point lead before Syracuse runs out the half following the subsequent kickoff.

3rd quarter

9th drive, 14:53, Syracuse 24, 31-17 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 113 Pistol bunch vs 4-3, IZ, Wilkins gets washed and sealed, hole in the B gap, gain of 10...

1st & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3, speed option, Shaq forces the pitch and Kearse flies through the alley and destroys the pitch just like we saw against GT, where has this been all day?! Loss of 4...2nd & 14, 113 Shotgun bunch vs 4-3 BB fire, orbit ZR dive, met immediately by Shaq and BJ, gain of 1...3rd & 13, HOLDING, 3rd & 23, DELAY OF GAME, 3rd & 28, 113 Shotgun vs DIME OF DOOM, Kearse fires from SAM under role, out route incomplete, PUNT...

There's the beloved dime of doom on 3rd & a mile, confirming we have little respect for the Cuse passing game even on a typical 3rd down.

The offense stalls just outside of field goal range, a sky punt is actually well-executed and we down it at the two...but here is where things go from solid to bad for our defense.

10th drive, 9:51, Syracuse 2, 31-17 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 122 Shotgun vs 4-3 over man, go route to Estime who gets a step on Mack but it's overthrown, incomplete...2nd & 10, 113 Pistol bunch vs 4-3, BB and Green fire from weak side, IZ, BJ and co stuff it, great penetration by Reader, loss of 1...3rd & 11 from the 2, 122 Pistol vs 4-3 over SAM blitz in front of zone, pressure forces a seemingly errant throw but BB is matched up on Syracuse's best receiver who ran a post, BB was in position but can't quite get up for the PBU, great catch by Ishmael over his head, Cuse caught us in a bad call, can't blame BB there, gain of 28...

Lucky cuse

1st & 10, 203 Shotgun split vs 4-3 C1 man, PA rollout away from Shaq, Blanks is beaten on a corner route, gain of 17...

1st & 10, 113 Pistol bunch vs 4-3 double LB blitz, pressure gets to Mahoney 10 yards deep but he steps up and runs through a huge hole straight up the middle, untouched, Shaq was held or it would've been a sack, gain of 30...TIMEOUT CLEMSON.


Shaq was held but this is still embarrassing.

1st & 10, 113 Shotgun vs 4-3 C4, picking on BB in coverage again, this time he's picked by the slanting WR while he chases the TE on the wheel, BB did well to recognize the wheel and chase it, stayed in decent position despite never getting his head around, poor throw incomplete...2nd & 10, 122 Shotgun (both receivers to field side) vs 4-3, orbit ZR dive up the B gap, Shaq gets too far up field and there's a huge hole, BJ fills but has poor angle, Mack stands in and trips the runner, gain of 10...

1st & 10, 113 Shotgun vs 4-3 over, orbit ZR keeper, Shaq sits on the dive, BB (AGAIN) and Van Smith both take the pitch man in the alley, Mahoney cuts up field untouched, TOUCHDOWN.

BB bust 3

Boulware was burned in coverage despite playing his assignments well, but Cuse took advantage of athletic mismatches at his expense. Then when his assignment allows for him to play to his strength (violent collisions at the LOS), he overran his assignment and gave up a touchdown. Smith did his job to fill the alley, BB has to trust Smith and stick to his assignment: BLOW UP THE QB. He didn't, and it's another walk-in touchdown for a 0 star walk-on.

Clemson takes the kickoff and subsequently goes 3 & out before 30 yards of personal foul penalties give us a chance to earn some breathing room, but Watson throws high to Peake and it is intercepted. Unlike previous picks thrown when targeting Peake, this one is on Watson. Peake went up maybe should've had it, but a lower throw is an easy completion. INTERCEPTION, SUDDEN CHANGE. FAN BASE IN FULL PANIC MODE.

11th drive, 3:07, Syracuse 12, 31-24 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 113 Pistol bunch vs 4-3, IZ, stonewalled by Shaq and BJ, gain of 1...2nd & 9, 113 Shotgun vs 4-3 C4, 4 vertical routes with dumpoff in the flat to the back, Tank and BB fly to it for no gain...3rd & 9, 014 empty vs DIME OF DOOM, BJ and Blanks fire, BJ should've had the sack but juked himself out, Mahoney flushes and wildly overthrows downfield, incomplete...PUNT.

Biggest stop of the game thus far, good recovery to get the ball back after 3 plays. The problems with the defense lately have been at the linebacker level, the secondary has been lights out since the GT game (even against NCSU when Brissett did unthinkable things).

Beautiful deep ball from Watson but Cain runs himself out of bounds and takes points off the board. Fantastic playcall on 4th & 2 to get Gallman on the edge with momentum when Cuse stuffed the inside run all day thus far. Ultimately the drive stalls inside the red zone again (Leggett dropped a likely TD) but Greg the Leg is money, much needed breathing room. FIELD GOAL GOOD.

4th quarter

12th drive, 13:33, Syracuse 25, 34-24 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 122 Pistol vs 4-3, orbit ZR dive, Shaq gets too far upfield and sealed outside and there's another huge hole in the B gap, BB could've filled but decided to chase the QB on the other side of the field before realizing his mistake, gain of 55...

BB bust 4

1st & 10, 113 Shotgun vs 4-3 BCB blitz, orbit ZR keeper, Shaq rides the dive and can't get out on the QB quickly enough, BB blocked 5 yards downfield, Mahoney untouched for 12 yards...

1st & 10, 113 Shotgun vs 4-3 (safeties at LB depth) C0 man, orbit ZR dive, gain of 2...2nd & 8, 113 Pistol bunch vs 4-3 over BB and BJ blitz, dump off to flat for a gain of 6...3rd & 2, 122 Pistol vs 4-3 BB bullet C0, orbit ZR, Shaq takes away the keeper which forces the give to the dive, met by the entire front for a loss of 2, Mahoney probably should've kept there but he didn't know Shaq would slip...FIELD GOAL GOOD.

Close one

More awful run fits. This looks like the defense most expected in the preseason, a great secondary with a questionable and shallow front 7. With a 10 point lead in the 4th quarter the LAST thing a defense should do is give up chunk plays. Make them work their way downfield and use some clock. We were fortunate to hold them to a field goal because if Mahoney kept on 3rd down, it's at least a 1st down and probably another touchdown.

Watson almost scores on a lead draw before he nearly fumbles as he reaches top gear, pulls up and dives to secure the ball, points off the board...Gallman hurt two plays later, then we are stoned up the middle again in short yardage, really miss Crowder...FIELD GOAL GOOD.

13th drive, 6:51, Syracuse 35, 37-27 Clemson lead.

1st & 10, 113 Pistol vs 4-3, orbit ZR dive filled and met beautifully by BJ, gain of 1...2nd & 9, 122 Pistol vs 4-3, BB fire, orbit ZR PA, Tank beaten on the go route but it's overthrown by 2 yards, incomplete...3rd & 9, 113 DIME OF DOOM vs 4-3, BB and BJ fire from opposite ends, DL stunt picked up in time for a short cross, dropped but still punished by Kearse, wouldn't have been 1st down anyway, PUNT.

As bad as we were at times, we still got the stops when they mattered. This 3 & out sealed the game.

The offense runs out the clock to end the game, great ball control to kill the game and survive.

Defensive Summary

Hooboy. The good news is that almost all of the problems we saw on Saturday are correctable. The bad news is that these problems surfaced midway through the season and have not been remedied. Ben Boulware is a phenomenal football player, but his eyes betrayed him all day against the zone read. More importantly, this film will show future opponents how to force Clemson's linebackers into mistakes. (UNC should scare you).

This many busts will get Clemson beaten by better teams. Even South Carolina is capable with some luck along the way. Clemson's defense is still good, in fact nearly elite, when there are no/fewer mental errors. It is still nearly impossible to believe that the same unit which embarrassed Paul Johnson a month ago was so sloppy against a much less imposing offense.

There is a weakness to our defense: linebackers in space. Syracuse not only took advantage of this, they took used our aggression against us by using motion and options to let our linebackers take themselves out of position. We don't have a Jaylon Smith or Stephone Anthony who can recover with 5 star athleticism. We have run stuffers who destroy everything in their path -- but when they run themselves out of position they can't get back on path.

Watch for our remaining opponents to stress our linebackers with options and play fakes. They hold up very well when they play their assignments, but the increasingly common mental busts of late are frequent enough to exploit. They're not anomalies anymore.

Player Grades

Game Ball: Shaq Lawson

All-America: none

All-ACC: Shaq Lawson

Honorable Mention: Cordrea Tankersley, Carlos Watkins

Solid: Mackensie Alexander, Kevin Dodd, DJ Reader, Christian Wilkins, Jayron Kearse, TJ Green, Travis Blanks

Less than solid: Ben Boulware, BJ Goodson

Past Game Balls: Pagano (Wofford), Boulware (ASU, Louisville), Alexander (ND), O'Daniel (GT), Lawson (BC, Miami), BJ Goodson (NC State), Christian Wilkins (FSU).