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Play of the week: Getting an edge

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Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the most important development of 2015 for the Tigers has been the emergence of the running game. Wayne Gallman is one of the ACC's breakout players of the year. There have only been eight games this year (including several that were over by halftime) and Gallman has already cleared his rushing yardage and touchdown totals from last year. He's averaging about three quarters of a yard per carry more too. Gallman could pretty easily run for 1,500 yards this year. We did not see this coming. The emergence of the running game lets Clemson stress defenses in ways that are near impossible to cover. Especially with Deshaun Watson making the decisions.

Take for example this play, which begins with Jordan Leggett lined up as the furthest outside receiver.

He's a threat to bully a smaller cornerback out there. Charone Peake is lined up as the slot, letting him either work against teams lesser coverage players or use his blocking ability to crack block. Getting crack blocked sucks. As a linebacker you read guards, maybe running backs, and see that the ball is being run outside. Then you turn to pursue and some guy is hitting you right in the chest with a good angle and a ten yard running start, and you're on your back with the air knocked out of your chest. State is lined up in a pretty standard 4-2-5, hinting at quarters or cover two.

Leggett motions before the snap and suddenly this is a very different formation. With a tight end and a receiver within a yard or so from the tackle Clemson is taking a page from the Auburn playbook, who took it from the wing-t, who took it from the single wing. Putting a lot of blockers to one side of the line of scrimmage is hard to handle for defenses. Compounding this are the two receivers split out to the wide side. There are a handful of secondaries in the nation that can handle Clemson's receivers one on one with that much work. NC State is not one of them, which means that three defenders are pretty much removed from the equation should Clemson choose to run to the boundary.

The offensive line does pretty well, my only complaint is that play side penetration forces Mac Lain to engage a player behind the line of scrimmage. Leggett does a fine job of sealing the defensive end, and Peake provides a shove on a linebacker who has all but ran himself out of the play. Deshaun Watson "blocks" the backside defensive end by faking as if he was a threat to keep the ball. This means that there are five offensive lineman and two receivers blocking seven players. State is out formation'd here, with the safety making a touchdown saving tackle. Clemson is running the "horn" play, except with what looks like buck sweep blocking. The horn play also borrows/steals liberally from the Wing T.

(image via offensivebreakdown.blogspot.com)

(image via offensivebreakdown.blogspot.com)

In short, the buck sweep series wants one thing. To run the ball inside relentlessly with the fullback (or the T in this diagram) and then catch your defenders peeking inside. The second that happened running back (H) gets the ball running outside, with two lead blockers pulling around the crack blocks by the Y and W. The difference between the buck sweep and the horn play is how the fake dive is accomplished. Look at the gif above. Do you notice how Gallman runs as if he is running the ball between the tackles before cutting outside? In the horn play the running back fakes the dive, then cuts outside. Is it as effective as having two running backs? No. But it does enable you to have an extra wide receiver, and in 2015 teams will take that and the attendant run pass option possibilities happily.

Wayne Gallman picks up eighteen yards on the above run. Few would argue that it is the most crucial play of the game, however in that run there are lessons from both the cutting edge and the ancient past of football strategy. Calling football a cyclical game has always sounded wrong to me. Offenses can, and will, die. The odds that the single wing or the wishbone return to being the base offense of most division one teams are infinitesimally slim. The run 'n shoot is extinct at the highest level since June Jones retired. What is more fair to say is that coaches take what worked from older offenses and apply them to what is being run now. Option running is as dangerous in 2015 as it was when Darrell Royal was insane for installing it in Austin. Overloading one side of the field provides at least as many advantages in the running game now as it did before the forward pass. What so many great offenses are doing now is combining these lessons with what we learned in the early 2000's. Putting the ball in a receivers hands with room to work tends to end well. Especially if you're too deep. Teams that can use versatile players and diverse strategy are uniquely dangerous. Clemson is doing it as well as anyone right now.