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Clemson v. Oklahoma: Key Match-ups - Green v. Mayfield

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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.

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The next one on one match-up to keep an eye on will be the chess match between TJ Green and Baker Mayfield. This match-up may not be the most apparent, but I hope that by the end of the article, you will see why I think it could be a crucial one.

Stats

In order to consider the Mac v. Shepard slugfest in my first "Key Match-Up" article, I introduced some of Mayfield’s stats. Here, I want to throw them all out there to see what we’re up against. I include Watson’s stats to give us Clemson fans a benchmark for what Mayfield has done, though it should be noted that Mayfield played in one less game than DW4.

Passing

Rushing

Comp

Atts

Yds

Comp%

Yds/Att

TD

INT

Rat

Car

Yds

TD

Baker Mayfield

243

354

3389

68.6

9.57

35

5

178.9

131

420

7

Deshaun Watson

287

413

3512

69.5

8.50

30

11

159.6

163

887

11

Stats compiled from OU's and Clemson's espn.com pages.

From just looking at the basic stats, it’s clear that Mayfield is an elite passer. Most Clemson fans I know go ga-ga watching Deshaun throw the ball around, and Mayfield’s passing stats are even better than Deshaun’s. Mayfield’s total yardage is less than Deshaun’s, but given that he averaged 282 yds/game, it’s safe to assume that given a 13th game, Mayfield would’ve passed Deshaun. Mayfield’s completion percentage is a little lower as well, but this is due to the fact that Oklahoma takes more shots downfield than Clemson does. This fact also explains why Mayfield averages a full yard more per attempt than Deshaun. Mayfield was able to accumulate a similar amount of passing yardage despite only averaging around 30 attempts per game, never having to throw the ball 40 times in a single game. Watson, on the other hand, averaged 32 attempts per game, but threw more than 40 passes 4 times in the last 8 games, including a 48 attempt outing against Syracuse. The really scary thing when looking at Mayfield’s numbers is his interception total. Only five over the course of the whole season? Wow. He averages an interception every 71 times he throws the ball. He threw two picks against Tennessee, and one pick in three other games, meaning there were 8 games this season where he didn’t throw a single interception. The man just doesn’t make many mistakes throwing the ball.

Mayfield isn’t as effective or dangerous of a runner as DW4, but he does factor into OU’s run game. Mayfield actually has the second most carries on the team, only behind Samaje Perine. However, he is not a very effective runner. With fewer carries, Joe Mixon, OU’s other RB, almost doubled Mayfield’s yardage. Mayfield only averaged 3.2 yds/car this season. By comparison, Deshaun averaged a solid 5.4 yds/car. Mayfield isn't likely to scare our defense with his running ability, but he has to be accounted for. That’s where TJ Green comes in.

TJ Green has been the starter at free safety for Clemson all season after being a backup to the dependable Robert Smith last year. Green had all the athleticism you could want in a safety, but it took him a while to understand his assignments. In the season preview, Dr. QT stated that Green was a "breakout candidate" on defense and, as usual, he was correct. Green has become a steady and trustworthy defender for our surprisingly effective defense. Green started all 13 games in 2015. On the season, Green is Clemson's second leading tackler, with 74 total tackles, but he has more solo tackles than anyone else on our defense, 54. Of those 74 tackles, 5.5 were for loss, and 1 was a sack. Green hasn't picked off a pass yet this year, but he does have 3 passes broken up (PBUs) and 3 passes defended (PDs). Green is also credited with forcing 2 fumbles. Green has largely gone about his business quietly, but he is a big part of why our defense is so highly rated. (Stats courtesy of Clemson University)

Place in the System

As I’ve already stated, it’s not an exact parallel but Mayfield is to OU’s offense what Watson is to Clemson’s. The QB position in any offense requires quick recognition and decision making. The style of offense that OU (and Clemson) runs amplifies the importance of these traits. First of all, OU runs a lot of read option. While many of the handoffs may be called with the option look simply used as a decoy, Mayfield keeps the ball enough to force defenses to account for it. When running the read option, Mayfield has to read the defensive end and in a split second decide whether to keep the ball or let the RB have it.

Mayfield on the read-option (which actually looks like it may have been a designed keeper). (All OU video from Top College Football's YouTube channel.)

Mayfield threatens defenses with a third option from the read-option look. Mayfield will often fake a handoff before rolling out to pass. Perine and Mixon require attention, and Oklahoma likes to take advantage of linebackers and safeties following the run fake. From there, Mayfield can roll in either direction. As Mayfield rolls, he usually has a number of receiver options available to him. One of those options is typically a RB or TE that runs a shallow pattern in front of Mayfield. If no one is open, Mayfield has the option to pull it down to run. If he does, that shallow receiver turns into a lead blocker. With the QB outside of the box, away from the defensive linemen and linebackers, and with all the DBs busy keeping track of OU’s WR corp, often the one lead block springs Mayfield for a gain.

Mayfield completing a pass on a roll out after faking the handoff.

Mayfield taking off for a run on the bootleg.

Where Mayfield is most dangerous as a runner, though, is when his protection breaks down and he is forced to run. Oklahoma’s offensive line has struggled in pass protection. Surprisingly, while OU’s offense is ranked 3rd in overall S&P+, their offensive line is ranked 105th in adjusted sack rate. Oklahoma QBs were sacked 36 times in 2015, with Mayfield going down 34 times, putting OU in a tie for 113th in the FBS for sacks allowed. Mayfield was sacked three times by Baylor (the game I’m pulling all these examples from) for a loss of 18 total yards, twice on second down and once on a third down, and all three times the drives stalled immediately. So, it would appear that getting after Mayfield is an easy and effective way of stopping the OU offense. However, if the rush doesn’t get Mayfield to the ground, he’s able to tuck it and run. I counted 5 times in the Baylor game when Mayfield took a straight drop back, looked for a receiver, couldn’t find anyone, and had to take off running. Those 5 rushes went for 73 yards. This is the primary way Mayfield hurts a defense with his feet.

You're feeling good about covering all those wideouts, and then this happens...

And, of course, he throws the ball. OU’s passing scheme differs from Clemson’s in a number of ways. First of all, as I already mentioned, they average a full yard more per attempt than we do, which tells me they throw the ball downfield more than us. While they will throw WR screens, they don’t run those plays as often as we do. They will run a lot of the same quick slants and outs as us. However, they attack the intermediate zone much more frequently than we do, while also taking plenty of deep shots. Secondly, their best WR plays in the slot, so the first read on a lot of plays will be different than our progressions. Lastly, their starting tight end, Mark Andrews, has only caught 17 passes on the season, compared to 34 for Jordan Leggett. Andrews might not play as large of a role in their overall offense, but he has 6 TDs on the year—while Leggett has 7—so he is a threat in the red zone. Mayfield rarely makes mistakes, so it is imperative that we are able to lock his receivers up tight and force him to either throw the ball away or take a sack.

While defense is obviously a team effort, I want to highlight how TJ in particular is tasked with taking on the opposing QB, both in the passing and running game. From the second half of the Notre Dame game forward, nothing worried me about this Tiger defense more than our LBs and NBs in coverage. One way we have tried to cover up that weakness has been by providing safety help over top of the linebackers. With Mac and Tank able to handle the outside on their own, Venables has the luxury of leaving the safeties in the middle of the field. Since he also likes to bring Kearse up into the box, often Green is the lone safety back.

In the Mac v Shepard article, I talked about how starting with the Miami game, we brought Mac down to the NB position whenever we lined up in a nickel formation. That was another way we masked the weakness of our backers in coverage. We were able to have Mac, Tank, and Baker in coverage, with Green often taking a WR in a four wide set. As you see in the still image below, Baker is at the top of the screen, Mac is on the inside receiver at the top, Tank is ready to jam the outside receiver at the bottom, and Green is waiting to pick up the inside receiver that’s toeing the line. We still end up dropping Boulware and Goodson on this play to clog the middle, but Green is able to provide solid coverage on the WR going deep. This type of lineup gets our best defensive backs on the field all at the same time.

Mac at NB

All Clemson videos and images taken from tigerray's YouTube channel.

Of course, Venables is not shy about blitzing with the safeties either. When it works, it disrupts the passing game completely. When it doesn’t…

Ugh. Just make the tackle, TJ! Anybody!!!

And as I’ve said before, Venables likes to use the safeties up in run support. Our safeties are not shy about attacking the line on the read-option. Both Kearse and Green have enough speed to recover in the event of a fake, so their first step is always in toward the line. When facing mobile QBs, it appears Green is also in run support, spying the QB. In both of the clips below, UNC calls a QB run. On both occasions, as soon as Williams brings the ball down, Green heads downhill to meet him at the line. While Green stays back long enough to ensure Williams isn’t going to pass, it looks like he is watching Williams pretty intently, waiting on him to take off.

Projection

With all that being said, what do I expect to happen when Mayfield and Green face off? Oklahoma has an established offensive identity and no plans to change. Perine will surely continue to be their workhorse back, carrying the bulk of the running responsibilities. Mayfield will keep it on occasion, though, to keep us from simply collapsing on the RB every time. In fact, knowing that we send our LBs on blitzes so often, it wouldn’t surprise me if Mayfield kept it a little more than usual to take advantage of our aggressive style. When that happens, the hope is that Lawson or Dodd can adjust, or Goodson or Boulware will be coming around the outside, or, if all else fails, Green and Kearse will be there to mop up.

When Mayfield fakes the handoff for the rollout play that OU likes to run, I expect Goodson and/or Boulware will fire in like missiles. With them trying to track down Mayfield, Green will likely be expected to cover a TE or RB coming across the field. Green has proven that he can hang in coverage, but I expect OU will try to pick him with another receiver or sneak a man out expecting Green to get lost in the wash. We should be prepared for some sort of throw-back play on one of these rollouts eventually too, and that sort of play works if the backside safety doesn’t play his assignment. On standard passing downs, I’d expect us to run a lot of nickel coverage, with Mac shadowing Shepard in the slot. Since OU likes to line up with four wide, I expect Green to either cover the fourth WR in a four wideout set or in the case of a 3 WR and 1 TE set, provide support for the linebacker covering the TE and/or give Mac over the top help so he can jam Shepard at the line.

Mayfield, like all QBs, likes to throw in rhythm, so affecting the timing of Shepard’s routes will go a long ways toward shutting the passing game down. A lot of Mayfield’s passes are based on quick routes, quick decisions, quick throws. If he doesn’t find an open man quickly, he will take off running. Since we like to blitz our linebackers and leave our DBs in man coverage, if Mayfield gets past the line, everyone else will be downfield with their backs turned, leaving a lot of room for him to run. This is one of my biggest fears on defense going into this game. Hopefully Venables has the same worry and allows Green to spy Mayfield. It would be easy to bring Green up at the snap to cover any quick slants and then let him hang out in the middle to see if Mayfield gets happy feet.

Mayfield is one of the most precise passers in college football. He doesn’t make many mistakes. Green and the rest of our secondary will have their hands full trying to shut down a passing offense that likes to attack all areas of the field. Green will also have to adjust to having the best offensive weapon lined up in the slot, something we haven't faced this year. And while he’s not a great runner, Mayfield is unafraid to take off and can hurt us scrambling if we’re not attentive. That being said, the more I have worked on these previews, the more confident I am becoming that our defense can handle this offense. If Mac can really take Shepard out of the game, then Green will be freed up to play more run support. This will help in neutralizing Perine, who is just as important to their offense as Mayfield. It will also allow Green to keep Mayfield from extending plays and drives with his scrambling ability. If Green plays with his head, using it to think instead of targeting defenseless players, then I think Green will win this matchup and our defense will frustrate Mayfield into one of his worst performances of the year.