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Opponent Film Preview: Clemson at South Carolina

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A closer look at the matchups and strategies within Clemson vs. South Carolina.

CHICKEN BUTT HELMETS
CHICKEN BUTT HELMETS
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

A South Carolina fan is very upset with the noon start, and you better believe I am too. Not merely because the link went viral and cast further negative light upon the education standards in our state (seriously, it hurt to read), but because I have a flight at 3 on Saturday...just when the game should near its conclusion. This means I will pay for overpriced wifi on the flight, since it's cheaper than the legal defense fees I would require after a TOTAL MELTDOWN on a commercial aircraft if I can't at least stream play-by-play.

A noon game usually benefits the road team, but throw that notion out the window because it's rivalry week. South Carolina (the fans and players both) will come out with their best effort of the season with those chicken butt helmets for what would be the biggest win in their history and the worst loss in Clemson's, given the stakes.

I usually hate rivalry week with all its tired jokes, idiotic fans who come out of the woodwork (on both sides of EVERY rivalry), and the stress/dread that comes with the "what if we lose" line of thinking. I am out of the country at the time of this publication so I can avoid such nonsense, but I imagine the chest-thumping and posturing is rather one-sided this year. Everyone knows how this game should proceed; they don't need to hear it from us. Don't be that jerk.

Originally, I hoped to use film mostly from South Carolina's matchup against Florida; it's their most recent game (not counting The Citadel) and I wanted to highlight any success the Gamecocks had against a defense similar to Clemson's. In their matchup with Florida, the Gamecock offense...OH WHAT'S THAT:

SC lol

Oh. Ok I'm done, on to the analysis.

Images courtesty of ESPN and YouTube user Top Sports.

Overwhelmed Quarterbacks

Once again, Clemson must prepare to face multiple quarterbacks: the physically-limited yet scrappy Perry Orth, the athletic but unready Lorenzo Nunez, and the wildcard wildcat Pharoh Cooper. Given the shortcomings with the two actual quarterbacks, I expect to see plenty of Cooper at wildcat, likely with a few different gadget throws/tricks like you'd expect in any David vs Goliath matchup -- particularly in such a heated rivalry game in which the Gamecocks have nothing to lose.

Chatter from certain South Carolina mouthpieces hinted at the possibility of one-time starter Connor Mitch surprising Clemson with extensive playing time. I find this highly unlikely; Mitch is underweight, rusty, and likely shaken from internal bleeding and a separated throwing shoulder only two months ago. Mitch is not the answer at QB; he was unprepared, rattled, and poor in the first three games. In fact, SC fans clamored for Orth and Nunez before Mitch was injured. Now some hope for his return? Look at his film and convince me he can be effective against #1 in his first live action since serious injuries.

The offense operates largely the same regardless of quarterback, with primarily 113 shotgun sets. The run game features zone read even with Orth at the helm, to go along with the inside zone staple. No matter the QB, Clemson's goal is to take away Cooper and running back Brandon Wilds. The Syracuse game film is a huge boon for South Carolina, since the Orange showed how to stress Clemson into busts with motion zone read concepts. South Carolina was going to implement gadgets anyway, but if they establish Wilds, gadgets and fakes like we see below can be effective.

Wilds

With likely 1st round DBs Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse, Clemson is better equipped to handle Cooper as a receiver than anyone on the Gamecocks' schedule. The trouble is that Cooper will get carries both from the wildcat and on sweeps. Without consistent running from Wilds, though, the pressure on whomever plays QB is likely insurmountable.

If South Carolina is to sustain any success, it will likely stem from pulling Clemson's linebackers out of position with motion and play-action. Like Florida, Clemson is too strong in secondary for the Gamecocks to come out and move the ball through the air without establishing the run. This is how Florida embarrassed the Gamecock offense, and it all started with shutting down the zone read.

Rather than running away from a talented defensive lineman, offenses will often read him in an effort to remove him from the play:

SC ZR

South Carolina tried this with Florida DE Jonathan Bullard, but above you can see Bullard took away the keeper and tackled the dive. Syracuse attacked Shaq Lawson this way -- whose assignment was the dive on most zone reads -- only for Ben Boulware to repeatedly miss his assignment on the keeper. South Carolina will try to take advantage of the same bust. If Lawson cannot shut down both options like Bullard did above, Syracuse showed it doesn't take an athletic QB to make Clemson pay for its busts.

From a Clemson perspective, we can't help but like our chances against either QB. Orth climbs the pocket well, but with his relative lack of size takes sacks very easily. He does not throw a strong deep ball, and forces many throws in an effort to make something, anything happen. Nunez adds another dimension to the offense with his mobility, but he renders the passing game a mere semblance. The blown run fits against Syracuse may lead to more opportunities for Nunez, but like we saw in the Carrier Dome, to lack a consistent aerial threat is to lack a sustainable threat against the Clemson defense.

Inadequate Personnel on Defense

I could torment any Gamecocks readers with a look at how the South Carolina defense let a QB as God-awful as Greyson Lambert look like Tom Brady, but that would serve little purpose since it was so long ago and there are few parallels between the UGA and Clemson offenses. Instead, we will look at their defensive strategy against a spread team with a dual-threat QB: Texas A&M.

Keep in mind, A&M QB Kyler Murray is a far more dangerous runner than passer. South Carolina will afford Deshaun Watson much greater respect as a passer than they did Murray (unless they are as dumb as I hope).

Murray empty

Above, we see a formation and play Clemson uses with great success this year: empty Shotgun, QB power. SC is in man C1 with a LB spy, only has 5 in the box to adequately cover the 5 wide look. When Clemson shows this look, the passing threat is far more dangerous than A&M's. SC must respect Clemson's aerial threat, which in turn should make the QB run more effective for Clemson.

After Murray gashed the Gamecocks with his legs, A&M shifted gears with a standard slant in the redzone. The weak side linebacker doesn't drop into his zone (the slant) because he is preoccupied with not only the play-action, but also Murray's run threat:

Murray freeze WLB

This is a perfect example of the complications dual-threat quarterbacks present and is exactly why Watson is so deadly: the defender is wrong no matter what he does. He doesn't know whether to drop into coverage or take away the run threat; either way, he is burned. We saw Watson at his best when he used his mobility and forced defenders into these exact situations during the second half against FSU. The result was marvelous efficiency and a dominant end to the contest.

Against the Aggies, SC operated primarily from the nickel package but often brought a safety down into the box to account for the more dangerous run threat. To combat the quick screens, SC needed enough bodies out wide on the Aggie receivers. This left only 6 defenders in the box, which A&M could run against all day. The Gamecocks shifted a safety into the box, bolstering the run defense without sacrificing bodies against the screens outside. It left the Gamecocks vulnerable to the deep ball, but they were happy to take their chances against Murray's downfield accuracy:

SC A&M

Watch the free safety adjust from two-deep to a C1 robber look (the actual call is C3 Sky). John Hoke essentially said here that he did not think Murray's arm could beat them. From a Clemson perspective, that's a gamble you must hope SC makes on Saturday, because nobody is more capable than Watson. Clemson presents the same threats as the Aggies' run and screen plays plus the ability to burn opponents deep.

If SC keeps its safeties back like our early opponents did, the run will gash them. If they cheat against the run and screens like against A&M, Watson will hit the deep shots Murray couldn't. This balance is not possible to stop without an elite front 7. South Carolina does not have one. If Watson takes what he is given, points in bunches are imminent.

Another example in which A&M forces SC to pick its own poison, below the linebackers react to the play-action, the nickel chased the bubble screen route, and the slant was thus wide open:

SC slant burn

Clemson runs its version of the triple option using this play, but the Aggies added an extra wrinkle which takes advantage of the nickel defender. The linebackers must respect the dive or keeper, pulling them out of position in pass coverage. Then depending on whether the nickel defends the screen or slant, there is an opening. It is easy (as in salivating) to picture Clemson using this with Scott, Renfrow, or Leggett, not to mention the damage Gallman and Watson may do with their legs.

Bottom Line

There is little South Carolina can do to inhibit Clemson for 60 minutes without horrendous Clemson mistakes or giveaways. The Gamecocks have a talented player or two at each level, but not enough throughout the roster to combat Clemson's outstanding balance. Between the effectiveness of the inside running game, screens, deep ball, and QB run, very few teams can adequately slow our offense. We saw A&M successfully move the ball on South Carolina from a similar scheme, but it comes down to athletes. Like A&M, Clemson has them. South Carolina does not.

The outcome depends on how well Clemson executes, plain and simple. South Carolina will ride the emotional wave of Shawn Elliott's sweat as long as it can, but Clemson is clearly superior in all facets except punting. Come out sharp and the game is over early; come out sloppy and we suffer through the nerves we felt against Louisville, NC State, and Syracuse. South Carolina is not capable of the upset unless it forces Clemson into errors or benefits from a handful of unforced ones. Given what we've seen from the Tigers recently, I can't help but expect a handful of glaring mistakes -- but not enough for a team of South Carolina's caliber to pull the upset.

Clemson 45, South Carolina 23