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Clemson v. Oklahoma: Key Match-ups - Mac v. Shepard

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With the extra time bowl season provides, let's zoom in beyond the unit vs. unit level and examine some of the individual match-ups that will loom large in this semi-final game.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

There will be a number of interesting individual and position group matchups when Clemson lines up against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. One of the most important of these will surely end up being the head-to-head match-up of Mackensie Alexander and Sterling Shepard. In this article, I want to compare stats, talk about where each player fits in the overall gameplan, and offer some projections on what to expect as they go mano a mano.

Stats

Year


Games Played/Started


Receptions


Receiving Yards


Receiving TDs


2015


12/12

79

1201

11

2014


12/13

51

970

5

2013


12/12

51

603

7

2012


13/4

45

621

3

Sterling Shepard has been a significant part of OU’s offense since his freshman year. As a true freshman, Shepard started four games and played in all thirteen games of the year. He was recognized as a Big 12 Offensive Freshman of the Year Honorable Mention. In 2013, as a sophomore, Shepard started 12 of 13 games, only missing the Iowa St game due to injury. While his reception numbers were similar to his freshman output, he more than doubled the number of TDs he was responsible for, including one rushing TD. Last year, Shepard again started 12 of 13 games. He missed the Baylor game completely and was limited to just one catch over the final four games of the season. However, despite the low production at the end of the year, he had the same number of catches as the year before, but for much more yardage.

Going into this season, Shepard was on the Biletnikoff Award watch list. While he was never seriously in the conversation for "best in the nation," he still had a great season. His yardage total this season is good enough for 13th best in the country and his 11 TDs puts him in a tie for 10th best—and don’t forget that Shepard played in one fewer game than some of the guys ahead of him.

As a team, Oklahoma is one of the best passing offenses in the country. Oklahoma QBs completed 266 passes for 3,695 yards and 37 TDs this season. That’s good enough for 18th in the nation in yards per game, 3rd in passing efficiency, and 10th in S&P+ passing rankings (3rd best offense overall). Baker Mayfield’s 35 TD passes is 6th best in the country, his 3389 yards is 19th best, his 68.6% completion percentage is 7th best, and his 178.9 passer rating is 3rd best in the country. This is an offense to be feared, and Shepard is their number one weapon in the passing game. He accounts for 30% of the team’s receptions, 33% of the team’s receiving yards, and 30% of the team’s receiving TDs. By comparison, Corey Coleman, the Baylor receiver who won the Biletnikoff, accounted for roughly the same percentage of receptions and yards, though he did catch a higher percentage of his team’s TDs. All that to say, Shepard plays a massive role in Oklahoma’s passing game.

Shepard’s role in OU’s passing game is most apparent in their biggest games. In the last three weeks of the regular season, OU played @#6 Baylor, #18 TCU, and @#11 OkSt. Against Baylor, Mayfield threw 24 completions for 270 yards and 3 TDs. Of those totals, Shepard had 14 receptions for 177 yards and 2 TDs. By comparison, no other receiver had more than 2 receptions and 26 yards. Against TCU, Mayfield and Knight combined to complete 14 passes for 203 yards and 2 TDs. Of those totals, Shepard had 8 receptions for 111 yards and a TD. No other receiver had more than one reception. Finally, against OkSt, Mayfield threw 17 completions for 180 yards and 2 TDs. Shepard caught 10 of those passes for 87 yards and a TD. One other receive had 2 receptions, and five receivers only had one reception a piece. I’ve already stated that Shepard is a massive part of OU’s passing game. Looking at the past three games, it appears that his role grows in proportion to the stage Oklahoma finds itself on. With that in mind, we should expect Shepard to be Mayfield’s top target as they step on the biggest stage they’ve had so far.

Clemson will counter one of the best WRs in the country with the self-described best cornerback in the country, Mackensie Alexander. Mac’s official stats are nothing special. The fact that he doesn’t have an interception in his college career has been widely discussed. He doesn’t even have that many pass break ups, 6 last year and 4 this year. And Mac doesn’t have a lot of tackles on his stat sheet either, 21 last year and 21 this year. However, we all know that those stats don’t tell the whole story. Finding the more abstract defensive stats is much more difficult, so work with me as I try to hobble together something cohesive here. In an article posted on Oct. 5, David Hale of ESPN included a table of stats for the best cornerbacks since the beginning of the 2014 season. The table is replicated below. Hale has the CBs ranked by completion percentage, which Mac led by a comfortable margin. What really stands out to me, though, is the target rate. Opposing offenses are only targeting Mac’s man 12.5% of the time. No wonder he doesn’t have many pass break-ups, tackles, and no interceptions. People aren’t even throwing it in his direction. On Nov. 19th, just before the Wake Forest game that Mac sat out, CFB Film Room tweeted out this stat, "Clemson CB Mackensie Alexander: 10 rec allowed on 28 targets (35.7%) for 147 yards this season." Let that sink in, up until the USC and UNC games, Mac had only given up 10 receptions all year. Unbelievable.

Cornerback


Comp%


YPA


Target%


TDs


Mackensie Alexander


34.9

5.89

12.5

2

Kendall Fuller


40.2

6.67

20.0

3

Vernon Hargreaves


43.8

4.80

13.4

1

Eli Apple


44.3

5.80

13.6

4

Zack Sanchez


45.0

6.23

18.5

3

Jalen Ramsey


48.3

6.34

15.6

5

Something else that was almost unbelievable was how many times UNC was able to complete passes in front of Mac in the ACCCG. Throughout the game, Mac was bailing at the snap to prevent the deep ball. When you consider that Marquise Williams finished the year 6th in yards per completion, at 14.36 ypc, it makes sense that we wanted to keep things in front of us. Even knowing that, it was frustrating to watch Mac give up so much ground when our LBs and NBs couldn’t cover the flats quickly enough. There were also a number of times when Mac was left one on one with a receiver and, surprisingly, was beaten. Granted, it’s difficult to cover a lot of the slant routes that UNC was running, but we’re used to seeing Mac put guys on lock down. I have not taken the time to rewatch the UNC game to count, but I think it’s safe to say that Mac gave up more completions in that game than any other game of his career. While a few of them may have been due to some unfortunate defensive play calls, Mac still seemed off.

Place in the System

My Oklahoma friends tell me the point is being blown out of proportion, but I think it is mandatory in any article about the Orange Bowl to mention that OU is running a different offense this year than last. They spread the field, run the read-option, and play with tempo. There are a lot of similarities between OU’s offense and ours, though they’re not exactly the same. One similarity that’s worth pointing out is that while they claim to run a variation of Mike Leach’s "Air Raid" offense, they actually run the ball about the same proportion of the time that Clemson does. Everyone keeps talking about how Mayfield throws the ball all over the yard, but Clemson passes the ball a percentage point or so more often than the Sooners. The biggest differences I’ve seen, both between last year’s OU and this year’s and between OU and Clemson, is their tempo, their running game, and their downfield passing. Their tempo seems consistently higher than ours. We use tempo on occasion, but OU likes to go quickly as long as they’re moving forward. They’re not at the level of a team like Baylor, but their pace will test our defense. Another difference is that they like to line up with two RBs, Perine and Mixon, in the backfield with Mayfield. Perine gets the bulk of the load, 211 carries, with Mixon and Mayfield splitting most the rest, 110 and 131 respectively. This is a little wrinkle we haven't seen much of this year. Finally, the Sooners like to take shots downfield more than Clemson does. Mayfield averages 9.57 yards per attempt, which is 3rd best in the nation and more than a yard above Watson’s 8.50 yds/att.

So, when we face OU, we’ll be facing an offense that likes to do a lot of the same things we do, though not exactly. Thinking in those terms, Shepard functions in something of a mix of Artavis Scott and Hopper/Renfrow for the Sooners. Shepard is almost always lined up in the slot, the position Clemson has labeled the "5" position. That’s the position Hopper and Renfrow typically fill, though we have been known to move Hopper out to the edge.

Clemson's base alignment. (image stolen from Alex's WR Preview article)

By lining up at the 5 position, Shepard ends up covered by a lot of safeties, nickel backs, or even linebackers. Obviously, that’s the kind of matchups that Oklahoma wants their best receiver to have. A favorite play that OU likes to run is the "wheel route" to Shepard out of the slot. A perfect example is this beautiful TD play Mayfield and Shepard pulled off against Baylor. You see Shepard lined up in the slot on the far side of the field. Herbstreit mentions that it’s man coverage across the field. The man coming down to cover Shepard is #18 Chance Waz, a sophomore safety. Waz (what a name) supposedly ran a 4.5 40 coming out of high school, but still, this is not fair. There are very few defenders who could successfully defend Shepard one on one without help over the top. Waz appears to take inside leverage, probably fearing a slant, and for good reason. Shepard makes plenty of those plays.

Shepard on the slant. (from Top College Football's YouTube channel)

Instead, Shepard steps to the outside and just runs right by him. Mayfield drops it right on him, Shepard makes a nice catch, and an even better stretch to get into the end zone.

Shepard up the sideline. (from Top College Football's YouTube channel)

Another way OU likes to use Shepard is in the quick passing game. These are the types of plays Clemson fans are used to seeing Artavis Scott make. They’ll run Shepard on quick outs, quick slants (as we’ve already seen), and on quick screens. On this play, also from the Baylor game, Shepard is lined up outside, with OU’s TE #81 Mark Andrews lined up tight to the line. Before the snap, WR #1 Jarvis Baxter goes in motion to Shepard’s side, lining up between Shepard and the TE. At the snap, Baxter fakes a slant and blocks the backer in the middle of the field, while Andrews immediately runs out to block the backer covering the flats area. Mayfield hits Shepard on the screen for a nice gain.

Shepard in the screen game. (from Top College Football's YouTube channel)

Brent Venables has shown the ability to adapt his defensives personnel to match the threats of opposing defenses. When Clemson faced Notre Dame, we knew that their best receiving threat was Will Fuller. Venables decided to let Alexander prove to the nation that he was, in fact, the best CB in the nation by letting Mac follow Fuller around the field in one on one coverage all night. By having one CB shadowing one WR for most of the game, Venables could afford to blitz LBs and give safety help to stop Procise and the running game. Even if the 4th quarter of that game is still difficult to watch, you have to admit that Venables plan worked for the majority of the game. Fuller only had two catches in the game for 37 yards, and only one of those catches was beyond the line of scrimmage. In a game as close as the ND one ended up being, practically shutting out their best offensive weapon was one of the biggest difference makers.

Mac putting the clamps down on Will Fuller, and then telling him about it. (from tigerray's YouTube channel)

Another option that Venables has used a bit late in the year is moving Mac down into the NB position. We saw this for the first time (I think) during the Miami game. This allows Venables to get what he thinks are the best matchups across the field. When Mac is lined up at NB, we are able to bring Baker in to fill Mac's usual role at field corner. Baker and Tank at CB and Mac at NB is a stronger backfield for us than Mac and Tank at CB with Carter at NB. This worked great against teams that didn’t have a clear go-to receiver, but liked to spread the field. I thought we might see some of this alignment against UNC, since Switzer was UNC’s top receiver (in terms of receptions). Instead, Venables elected to take away UNC’s deep threat with Mac, a plan that kept UNC from hitting as many big plays as they’re accustomed to. However, playing Carter at NB also cost us a few times, so I'm not it was the safest play after all. Venables still has this alignment in his play book, though, and he’s not afraid to use it.

Mac lined up at Nickel Back to start the Miami game. (Photo stolen from Kraken's [peace be upon him] Miami defensive review.)

Projection

Venables has two options here for matching up Mac with Shepard. Which will it be? My guess will be a little of both. It would surprise me if Shepard is lined up across from another CB other than Mac for more than just a play or two. Since OU likes to line up with both Perine and Mixon in the backfield, they will often only have two WRs and a TE lined up in formation. Mac and Tank will handle the WRs, we’ll have TJ Green or Goodson on the TE, and everyone else will focus on the run. With Mac blanketing Shepard, it’s hard to imagine the Sooners finding much success through the air. Tank has proven that he can handle most teams secondary receiver fairly well, and OU hasn’t shown a commitment to including their TE in the passing game consistently (though he does become a bigger threat in the red zone). So it would seem that we could see a similar game plan to what we ran against ND, letting Mac take on Shepard one on one and committing safety help to stopping Perine and OU’s read option game.

If OU decides to go with three receivers, dropping either the TE or the two back look, then we could see more of the nickel package. When OU brings in this lineup, Shepard is usually in the slot. In our base defense, that would usually mean that Green is covering him. In the nickel that we ran against UNC, that would mean Carter is covering him. Green wouldn’t be the worst matchup in the world; Carter would be more of a mismatch. I would feel much more comfortable with Mac lined up at NB across from Shepard, letting Baker take the outside receiver. On the occasion that OU uses this alignment, but then puts Shepard on the outside, it shouldn’t be too hard for Mac to simply follow him out there.

Since OU likes to run at a fairly high tempo, my guess would be that whichever alignment they come out with to start the series is the one they’ll stay in for the majority of that series. Therefore, our alignment will probably switch back and forth, depending on what OU gives us. I would expect Mac and Shepard to be going head to head all night, though. It may be overly optimistic to expect Mac to shut down Shepard completely. Shepard is a quick receiver with good hands who has a knack for getting open. Knowing that he will draw the majority of OU’s passing attempts, you have to expect him to have a few catches. However, Mac showed that he can almost single-handedly take away a team’s best receiver when he nearly shut out Will Fuller. And, of course, Mac proved that he could shut down Shepard in last year's Russell Athletic Bowl. Some may wonder why I didn't focus on that match-up more than this season's results. Well, that was last season. Oklahoma is running a different offense this year than last. OU leans on Shepard much more this year than they did last year. Shepard plays in the slot now, but was lined up on the outside most of the time last year. And the bowl game was Shepard's first game back after missing five games with a groin injury. I felt that this year's performance for both would be a better indicator of what to expect. But, even with all those qualifications, it is still worth noting that Shepard only caught one pass in that bowl game. That makes me think that the advantage is clearly toward Mac. Shepard may get a few catches here and there, but it would surprise me if he’s able to dominate the stat sheet like he did the last three weeks of the season. If the Sooners are going to have a consistent passing attack, they need to look elsewhere. Alexander Island is not open to visitors.

[Shout out to Alex Craft for consulting and making some comments.]