Clemson finds itself on the eve of another home game which surprisingly bears far more weight than we expected before the season began. Like Louisville, NC State pulled out a surprising win over a power program and thus draws more interest to Death Valley than either the Cardinals’ or Wolfpack’s history led us to expect. With Clemson’s secure lead in the division, the Tigers have the unforeseen luxury of a mulligan, since it is a safe bet Clemson can still make the College Football Playoff with 1 loss — as long as that loss is not in the ACC Championship game. Considering this and the looming matchup against the program which is truly our biggest rival down in Tallahassee, is Clemson set up for the often spoken of but yet to materialize letdown?
My focus as always is on the opposition’s defense; highlighting where I think they can give Clemson trouble or what I think Clemson can exploit. With the talent discrepancy between Clemson’s offense and the rest of the ACC sans FSU, however, it is far more difficult to find match-ups where Clemson will struggle on offense since in theory, they simply shouldn’t. The stats say State’s defense is pretty darn good, though, so they deserve a bit of context.
S&P+ suggest State isn’t bad on defense at all — in fact quite good, rating 20th in defensive S&P+ — but the roster’s talent or lack thereof leads me to believe the defense is either over-performing or inflated by opposition. S&P+ accounts for inflated stats vs bad teams, so non-conference cupcakes didn’t lead to such a high rating, but it does not account for weather. Undoubtedly, the Notre Dame game did much to unfairly influence the high defensive rating, since what was usually a great offense had a historically bad day against State due to the worst field conditions I have seen in my lifetime. Therefore it is not unreasonable to expect Clemson’s supremely talented offense to find success against an overrated defense which has seen nothing like what it will face Saturday in Clemson.
With the statistical prelude out of the way, I want to outline scheme and strengths/vulnerabilities. State operates out of a base 4-2-5 nickel which relies on its very good front to take away the run and generate a pass rush while the back 7 tries to survive with a lot of cover 2, cover 4 and disguised cover 3; i.e., conservative coverages/looks which try and protect its struggling secondary.
Everything Begins Up Front
Despite the torrential downpour and submerged playing surface, there is actually more relevant film from State’s victory over Notre Dame than I expected: we can glean from State’s performance up front vs a more talented ND offensive line and some of State’s coverages vs the spread. The strength of the State lineup can obviously be found at defensive end where they boast excellent players in Kentavius Street and Bradley Chubb.
Whichever end lines up against Jake Fruhmorgen (likely Street) at right tackle will certainly draw my eyes, since Clemson has been inconsistent at the position all year and Fruh was particularly awful BC.
To put it plainly, State wants to pressure the pass and stop the run with its front so it can better support its poor secondary with safe, conservative coverages. If it can do this, we will probably see mostly cover 4 and man cover 2; the latter would leave State particularly vulnerable to Watson’s legs, but again they hope the line can handle it much like we saw Clemson’s front handle Lamar Jackson for a half. Should State need to dedicate a safety to the box against Clemson’s run game and thus play more cover 1 and cover 3 behind various blitzes, the game won’t stay competitive for long since Clemson is far and away the most dangerous (based on potential) downfield passing team in the country.
Disguising Coverages to Mask a Struggling Secondary
When a secondary operates at a talent deficiency or simply struggles, often you will see teams rely more heavily on disguising their coverages in order to confuse the quarterback in the hope it can manufacture any sort of advantage. That first image I used to showcase State’s base in which they showed man cover 2? It was actually cover 3; watch what happens at the snap:
If Clemson faces any cover 3 or man cover 1, it will likely not be apparent before the snap; State has more cause than most teams to fear Clemson’s deep passing game and will not want to show the 1v1 match-ups downfield inherent in cover 3 and cover 1 which would invite the deep ball. State will show conservative looks and hope to force Watson to work underneath or hold the ball long enough for their DEs to reach him. It’s a sound strategy, but what makes Clemson so deadly is its ability to force opponents to pick its poison and Watson’s brilliance on the fly should all else fail. State has good ends, but not enough talent elsewhere to force Clemson to beat it one way as Auburn nearly did (not to mention Clemson can beat most defenses only one way if necessary).
With playmakers in Matt Dayes, Jaylen Samuels, and Hyheim Hines, State is well-equipped to attack Clemson’s weakness in underneath and flat coverage; it would not surprise me to see State eclipse 28 points. The issue for State is keeping up with Clemson, and unless their ends completely own both of Clemson’s offensive tackles — certainly not outside the realm of possibility — then State won’t be able to keep up in what it hopes can be a shootout.
NC State was the game last year in which Watson truly burst into the Heisman conversation, and I expect he will make a push for the top spot on Saturday against an overmatched secondary and conservative coverages which will allow him to use his legs and operate at devastating efficiency before connecting on the inevitable deep throws. State will need turnovers on defense and coverage busts in the flat and on wheel routes to keep this one close.