With Clemson on our sport's biggest stage, we decided to deviate from the usual opponent film preview and split our breakdown into four separate entities, in which we dedicate an article to the offense and defense of both Orange Bowl teams. This article focuses on the Clemson offense.
It is no secret the Clemson defense has a tough test against an Oklahoma offense that is every bit as explosive as Clemson's, which we covered here. Hype justifiably centers on both offenses, which is our focus in this outline of the Clemson offense and what it does well. Spoiler alert: everything.
Clemson must establish its run game to achieve the balanced efficiency which made it impossible to contain. When we looked at the Sooners' only loss of the year against Texas, we saw a diverse and effective run game but next to nothing through the air. Texas ran for 313 yards, with two different running backs breaking 100 yards rushing; it's not like one running back happened to have the game of his career. This bodes well for a Clemson offense which routinely puts up outstanding numbers on the ground thanks to a shifty Deshaun Watson and violent Wayne Gallman. Not to mention, Texas only threw for 55 yards; Clemson has Deshaun Watson to carry Clemson through the air if Oklahoma were to bring its safeties down in an effort to slow the Tigers' ground attack.
An established run game exposes defenses to all of Clemson's offensive threats. Only one defense took away Clemson's run game, but it didn't matter since Watson was more than capable to carry Clemson through the air against Boston College. Even with the best quarterback in college football, that's not the recipe for sustainable success in the College Football Playoff.
Oklahoma ranks 42nd nationally in run defense, which isn't championship level but is certainly decent. It's not stout like Boston College, whom you recall has the top ranked defense which Watson singlehandedly destroyed for over 400 passing yards. BC took away the run, but Watson burned them through the air. Clemson's struggle on the ground against BC was more the exception than the rule, and a well established run game sets up one of the Tiger's biggest threat, which is the play-action pass game.
Let's take a look at a few formations that are staples in the Clemson offense.
The Louisville game in September was probably the most frustrating offensive performance of the year (not counting the monsoon against Notre Dame), but it was the first time we saw patience and a reliance on A-gap runs since the "Smashmouth Spread" arrived with Chad Morris (ironically, the first year after his departure was the first with a legitimate power run attack).
Starting off, this is a very recognizable and simple zone read. You'll notice the weak side DE, #92 Devonte Fields, sits to contain the quarterback. Fields freezes long enough for Watson to essentially "block" him, creating a numbers advantage for running back for Wayne Gallman in the interior. While not flashy, this simple play is the staple of the Clemson offense; made scarily effective with a now completely healthy and confident Watson on the keeper.
Below, Watson reads the strong side DE, but it's the same result. Mitch Hyatt blocks down the line and leaves the DE free to pick his poison. He sits on Watson, and Gallman again finds 6 yards up the gut. Despite only putting up 400 yards on Louisville, this served as a "run game Renaissance" for the Clemson offense, since it was the first time we saw effective inside running throughout a close game. It paid dividends since now defenses know they cannot sell out to stop one single facet of the Clemson offense without getting burned elsewhere.
In Clemson's version of the triple option, Artavis Scott motions from the slot into the backfield which creates a 203 look. This is a zone read with a third option, but again, Louisville worried more about Watson and the outside threat. C.J. Davidson takes it up the middle for a modest gain.
If Watson wanted to keep it and run, he has the option to keep or pitch outside to Scott. He would read the play-side linebacker and either make the decision to keep it and run, or pitch it back to the trailing Artavis Scott. Later in the year, Scott scored a touchdown against Miami on this same play, but with counter motion:
Implementation of the H-back
Clemson usually operates from a 113 shotgun, but varies the positioning of TE Jordan Leggett; often he lines up as an H-back to help out in the run game or sneak a route in play-action. The H-back is a flexible position in what it can do. For most teams, it's used as an extra blocker close to the line for some power running. However, teams like Ohio State (who used Braxton Miller in the H-back position), will use it in special packages to get an athlete ball in space.
On the following inside power run (and plenty of similar plays where the Tigers use an H-back), Scott runs jet-sweep motion to hopefully pull the linebackers out of their running lanes:
Again, we see Clemson line up with Leggett as an H-back. Starting out on the left side, when the ball is snapped he arc blocks on an inside zone for Gallman to pick up a tough 4 yards.
The run plays and formations we discussed above are used to create balance and force the defense to worry about everything, because Clemson's aerial threats were a known commodity before the season began. The effectiveness of the run game not only relieves Watson, but makes him even more threatening through the implementation of play-action passing. Clemson executes the different types of run plays so well, that defenses are often caught out of position after any sort of play fake.
Below, Notre Dame over-pursues on the fake run after Clemson ran successfully early in the game. This leaves one on one coverage with cornerback Keivarae Russell. Watson is able to get out of the pocket and deliver a strike on the run, in the rain for 20 yards.
Again, Notre Dame blitzes while Clemson knocks on the goal line. Fearful of Clemson's surprisingly effective run game (this was only the 4th game of the season, after all) the Irish sell out against the run, and that leaves Elijah Shumate one-on-one against Jordan Leggett. That's an easy win for Leggett, who is able to barrel is way in to the end-zone.
The NC State performance vaulted Watson into the thick of the Heisman discussion, but Gallman's 172 yards on the ground opened up throwing lanes like this:
The facet which experienced the most growing pains due to the absence of Mike Williams, Clemson's offense regained its explosive prowess after halftime against Boston College. Since then, we've seen successful deep shot after successful deep shot. Deon Cain emerged as the Tigers' downfield threat, and even Charone Peake put forth a solid second half at the boundary receiver position to go along with his beautiful perimeter blocking. Watson is widely considered the best deep-ball passer in the country, and his numbers certainly support the eye test in that assessment:
Deshaun Watson on throws of 25+ yards, last 6 games: 12-of-22 for 533 yards, 9 TDs, 0 INTs. QBR of 99.9.— David Hale (@DavidHaleESPN) December 27, 2015
In the gifs below, there is little need for exposition; it's simply gratuitous.
To put it simply, Clemson has so much success with all of its different attacks that there is no way to stop every facet of this offense without a supremely talented front 7 to take away the run and pressure Watson into rushed passes. Even a defense with a dominant line and outstanding press corners cannot adequately account for Watson's ability to improvise. Unless Watson lays a proverbial egg, Clemson can score on anyone.