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In-Depth: Clemson Defeats Florida State Part 1

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NCAA Football: Clemson at Florida State Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

I was in a state of utter disbelief that Clemson won this game. Down 28-20 at Doak in the 4th Quarter felt all too familiar. I was also in a state of disbelief two years ago, wondering how in the world Clemson had managed to lose the game at Doak.

It feels much much better to have this ridiculous grin plastered on my face. And it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

I literally felt like all FSU needed to do to win the game in the end was run a counter play, throw the ball down the field for a certain PI call, or just have Cook run any form of a wheel route (he would be wide open and wouldn’t drop it again). Heck, just keep handing the ball off to Cook towards the edge. Wow, did things seem grim (Dabo, my man, please never accept another 3rd down penalty for ten yards to make it 3rd and 23. Always try to end the game with a 4th and 13. Always. I have a huge chunk of hair that somehow got ripped from my scalp thanks to that decision).

But then a couple of monstrous sacks later and the game was done.

There was a lot of bad in this game from Clemson, but with the game on the line in the 4th Quarter, Deshaun Watson once again rose up. With the game on the line, the defense stepped up and delivered. Can’t lose sight of that. This was also a much improved FSU team. Nnadi and Sweat being healthy really improved their defensive line. Brian Burns is a future star. Lane played much better than I thought he would at Safety. The offensive line is still a work in progress for FSU, but much improved from the beginning of the season. Auden Tate is becoming a beast and Murray had a breakout game. Francois was obviously tough as nails—this was a quality team in an electric atmosphere.

Penalties/Refs

Lets start with the elephant in the room since Jimbo went ballistic on the refs after the game. The referees were bad. They had a bad night.

I think Florida State has a legitimate gripe. The illegal block below the waist was very questionable. SBNation has more on it here. My take is when downfield you have to engage from the front, the 10 to 2 of a player. He doesn’t hit the front of Smith because Smith angles toward the runner. FSU’s Stevenson hits the side of Smith’s thigh, but wraps his arm around the back of Smith’s leg and drags his arm down Smith’s legs in a chopping motion, which lands on Smith’s cleat and trips him up.

I think it is a questionable call, not a blown call by any means.

You can’t watch it in slow motion, you have to watch it in real-time. Smith also sells it really well with the stumble after the trip. If I was an FSU fan I would be livid, because it was such a pivotal play to take away from FSU in the game. I personally don’t see an ‘incidental trip’ however. I see Stevenson completely leaving his feet, jumping at the defender and basically missing Smith except for some weak contact to the thigh. But because he misses, he runs the arm down the back of Smith’s leg intentionally.

Regardless of that call, Clemson fans will counter with a missed hold in the endzone (which would have resulted in a safety), some missed false starts, an egregious facemask penalty, lack of holding calls on the FSU Oline, and some questionable PI calls. It reminds me of the GT game where Thomas Austin was called for a phantom hold that negated a long Jacoby Ford gain. Clemson couldn’t respond in those situations, this year Watson was able to overcome adversity.

FSU didn’t do themselves any favors with numerous false starts and a key personal foul on the first drive (Dickerson). Still, I would be peeved if I were an FSU fan. But, ultimately that isn’t going to wipe the smile off my face or make me feel like it was a ‘cheap’ win in any way.

The media narrative that Clemson keeps stumbling through the season needs to stop as well. Clemson has the strongest strength of schedule of any team in the top 10 and has beaten two top 20 teams on the road. Clemson beat the #5 team in the nation. Who has Bama beaten? A&M at home. That is about it. Clemson deserves to be ranked number one at this point in the season when the rankings come out. Bama will be #1 after they beat LSU and Auburn. Back to the game.

Special Teams

Do I love the decision to burn Jamie Skalski’s redshirt this year? Uhh...yes. Very much so. Kickoff coverage was beyond excellent. Tanner Muse, Chad Smith, Skalski, and the ring leader Dorian O’Daniel have been lights out and deserve a ton of credit. Whitfield had a couple times where he had an insane burst of speed, but was met by a wall of defenders.

Gregory Huegel. Thank you for the deep kickoffs on the road! Clutch field goals, no extra points missed. Lovely.

Mr. Teasdall had a better night with a couple of kicks downed inside the twenty (one on the 7 yard line) and no returns on his kicks, but he did have two shorter kicks, including a 29 yarder when we needed to pin FSU deep.

DEFENSE

Jimbo wasn’t messing around. He wasn’t going to run the ball early and let Brent Venables blitz and stunt to get early TFL. Oh no. Jimbo went right after the weakness in the Clemson defense at the SAM/Nickel position and trying to isolate LBs one on one in space. What beautiful design by Jimbo on the first drive. Wilkins beating the RG to get a TFL and a well timed blitz kept FSU from scoring. Jimbo didn’t magically forget that Dalvin Cook was on his team, he purposefully went after the weakness of the Clemson defense. More on this and specific player performance in Part 2.

OFFENSE

I’m starting to worry more and more not about specific playcalling from ScElliott, but about design, tendencies, and predictability on offense. There were three times at least where Walker knew that Clemson was going to pass on first down and batted a DW ball down. Not only did he know we were going to pass, but knew that it was going to be a quick throw, timing route. After going all the way to the Championship last year and giving Bama all they could handle, Clemson’s offense has been under heavy scrutiny from everyone in the entire country. I’m not sure we have been creative enough in our design this year.

Sure we have thrown in a couple of new packages, like the super duper jumbo (which I was very glad to see on fourth down). and an I-formation under center look. But by and large we haven’t seen a lot of creativity. For example, McFadden on the first drive doesn’t follow Scott on the jet sweep motion, but instead shoots down the line and tackles Gallman for a loss on first down. Did he read a tendency? We have the talent to mask all this for now, but it will become a greater weakness moving forward. We also seem to be consistently losing the halftime adjustments battles.

Deshaun Watson had a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde game. He looked unmatched in the first quarter and was nails in the fourth. ScElliott really need to help DW out with more rhythm and tempo. He is so good in the two minute that Clemson needs to stick to running tempo more of the game. We run tempo, get up and then decide to protect the defense and have an awful second quarter. I’m not saying we 60 minutes of mayhem, but DW is too good when we open things up and run tempo. The throw on 3rd down from the goal-line to Cain and the long third down throw to Renfrow that set up a fourth and two were money NFL throws. Got to highlight those...

But there are some troubling trends.

Turnovers. FSU got the better of Watson. On one play McFadden cheated in like he was going to blitz and Mike Williams gave Watson the sign that he was a hot route, McFadden would be blitzing. DW got lazy with his eyes, looked one way and then went straight to MW—not seeing that the Safety and McFadden had bracketed him with double coverage. Lazy pass that should have never been thrown. On the other interception the corner doesn’t break to the flat and follows DW’s eyes to the target and ball. DW telegraphs this one down the field instead of taking the easy first down.

The worst part about this is that it continues to happen against better teams and secondaries. I think it is time to curb the Heisman talk for the present moment until the TD/Interception ratio balances out (if it ever does). Ten interceptions is a lot. Cutting down on the interceptions was a large part of the progression we wanted to see this year.

The other worrisome trend is deep ball accuracy. Cain got behind the defense yet again but DW is missing these shots by five yards. They aren’t even close. This is befuddling and Coach Streeter needs to get this fixed asap. Nothing will push DW down draft boards faster than deep ball accuracy. Cain is wide open, at least give him a chance to go up and make a play.

DW seemed to lose a bit of his confidence in the third quarter. But to his credit (and because he is the man) he put it together on the road in the most hostile of environments. No glazed over, deer in the headlights. Just a steely resolve that went and won another game in the fourth quarter. I’ll take that every day of the week.

I’ve got a lot more to say on offense and defense coming in Part 2.