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In Depth: Clemson Tigers are the Champions

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My friends...

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Virginia Tech Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I remember a time (not too long ago) when Clemson was happy to make it to the Gaylord Car Care Birmingham Bowl. Times have definitely changed—for the way better. Clemson has won back to back ACC Championships for the first time in 28 years and will face Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl (probably the best matchup Clemson could have asked for amongst the elite playoff teams this year). We can’t forget these moments, we can’t be too critical of a team that is winning at such an elite rate.

If you want your ACC Championship with nothing but sunshine and sparklers, then don’t read on. I will miss Deshaun Watson and this entire senior/junior class. It was a lovely night and a lovely memory. We are the champions, not Florida State, not Louisville. Clemson.

What was not lovely (notice the awkward segue), was the amount of yelling I did in the 4th Quarter. Clemson won this game because ultimately they had more players, with more talent. Virginia Tech is a very good football team and they will be a force under Fuente (remember when I said the hiring of Fuente and Babers were some of the best hires in the country last year). I hope VT has some NFL defections next year because I am not enjoying this idea of having to travel to Blacksburg after Fuente has a complete offseason with Jerod Evans.

Penalties

Clemson committed way too many penalties during this game. The false starts were inexcusable.

The officiating seemed a lot worse live than it did after review. For example, the Scott penalty for kick-catch interference was the right call. Scott hit the punt returner as the ball was hitting his hands. Lots of the pass interference calls went our way (or should have been called defensive holding), but VT got a couple of calls too. The really bad call was the phantom Hyatt holding call that happened because the VT pass rusher fell down by himself. That was an awful call that killed a possession at the 4 minute mark in the 4th Q, going from 3rd and 6 to 2nd and 20.

Indefensible, really.

The targeting call was correct and really hurt us badly. If O’Daniel just wraps up there then the defense doesn’t give up 35 points on the night. I’ll talk more about this, but Fuente started targeting Jalen Williams as the game progressed and Williams got slower and slower.

I’m not sure the last time I saw 4 false starts in a game from Clemson. Hyatt with three in a game? Leggett jumped on one. This veteran team (in terms of experience) shouldn’t have that happen ever. These were killer in the 4th. Credit to Deshaun, who didn’t let all of these penalties rattle him.

Cardiac Cats?

How about cardiac arrest cats giving me an actual heart attack and making me pull out my remaining hair? What is that—7 games this season decided on the last possession of the game? Every team is going to have their lapses, but this is just too much Jekyll and not enough Hyde.

We can all point to the ameoba, mannequin challenge drop of all 11 players that led to the huge Bucky Hodges reception as a turning point in the game, but I’d rather focus on the next two play (someone screwed up an assignment on the play and was supposed to rush). After the huge reception Evans runs some play action and then takes off to run. Rather than meeting him and pushing him back, he falls forward for four or five yards.

This started some of the worst tackling we have seen all season long. Jerod Evans commenced to fall forward for four yards for the rest of the game. He is a load to bring down but our large defensive line was getting pushed back. Our LBs were getting punished. Our Safeties and Corners were playing patty-cake.

The next play Bryant gives up the edge to the VT RB McMillan, Jalen Williams gets cut and wouldn’t have made it anyway because he is too slow, and then at the 15 yard line Tankersly gives the RB a shove in the back—in the direction of the goal-line!?! Jadar Johnson then tried to grab the RB at the 10 yard line and hack at the ball as he is taken into the endzone.

Is that the decrepit state of our tackling?? (decrepit meaning elderly and infirm, worn out or ruined because of age or neglect)

On the next drive Fuller misses his blocks and cuts up too early and then can’t catch a pass out of the backfield. Leggett is stopped short and Clemson has to punt.

The next drive was embarrassing as Evans sliced up the defense and ran all over them, turning a 21 point deficit into a TD ballgame. Just before the start of the 4th Q, Evans runs QB power and carries Safeties and LBs 9 yards on what should have been a 4 or 5 yard gain. Williams/JJ can’t stand up the pile. On the next play, Williams has a chance to make the 3rd and 1 stop at the line of scrimmage but gets carried past the line to gain. The next play is a simple pass to the flat and JJ makes a poor arm tackle and Williams can’t get off a block or make the tackle without giving up a first down. On a third and seven, Boulware and Williams blitz and Evans calmly places the ball in the spot they vacated for the easy first down. Boulware gets rocked by Evans as VT scores on the drive. Williams would later bust a coverage on a double move that got VT to 35 points.

My point is not to vilify Williams. He was a grayshirt who has given us everything he’s got and more. He was actually moving much better earlier in the season before his knee injury. But I can’t help but question how he was used in this game. He played almost every snap after the DO’D ejection. I know we wanted someone who could tackle Evans, but Williams didn’t do a great job of that and his speed and 5’9 stature were a liability. We didn’t see K’von Wallace at all on the field to provide better pass coverage or quickness to get out to the flat. We didn’t see Carter move to Nickel, we didn’t see any creativity with the SAM/Nickel position. If we have no one else, that is a problem with our recruiting and shows our depth concerns. It means we really need a true elite SAM (like Drew Singleton but unfortunately Michigan has the lead) or we need to move a bigger Safety to the Nickel spot like Tanner Muse.

Samuel has too much speed and can burn us if we can’t figure this out (luckily we have D’OD back, problem solved...for the most part).

OFFENSE

How good is Tony Elliott and company at scripting the first few drives and dominating the first quarter? I loved the mix of pass and run to begin the game. DW was involved in the run game and Gallman (clearly hampered by his knee a bit) was gashing VT. Fuller came in and had some positive runs (I must say though, when you evaluate Fuller closely, he lacks vision and routinely picks the wrong gap--getting some yards but missing big gains. He also doesn’t have that elite speed that Feaster provides).

Another positive was the redzone scoring. Clemson was 6 for 6 in the redzone and we didn’t settle for any FGs. Great mix of pass and run .

My main complaint on offense was our inability to adjust to Cover 0, Foster bringing the house. We kept running Vertical routes instead of some crossing patterns or stick routes. At times the middle of the field was wide open, but we didn’t take advantage. I think that was a good experience for Watson though, he stood in and got hit a few times and managed the pressure well over the course of the game.

The Oline played pretty well overall considering all the pressure VT was bringing. You had a few series where guys missed some assignments. At the 8:48 mark of the 2nd Q, Hearn missed a block on a stretch play, falling on the ground and then the next play Crowder got beat on pass pro that led to a sack. Pollard didn’t cut his guy on the batted ball interception of DW. Sometime guys were still standing around.

I will say that the DW rushing TD at the 4:45 mark in the 3rd Q made me so happy. Props to Taylor Hearn and Mitch Hyatt for PUSHING THE PILE!! That was a thing of beauty.

I love that we have made a concerted effort to get Artavis Scott the ball early in games. Scott is at his best with underneath routes and the horizontal game, that along with the QB run, softens coverage. Scott doesn’t get enough credit for his YAC (yards after contact) running.

However, I am convinced that the Clemson offense goes from good to elite when Jordan Leggett is used as a weapon. Leggett forces Safeties to make decisions. If they give help over the top on Mike Williams or Cain, they leave the middle of the field open. If they cover Leggett then they leave the corner on an island. Pick your poison. Normally you could stick a LB/SAM on the TE, but Leggett is too good a route runner for that and he is too big for corners. This will be a key matchup for the athletic and versatile LBs and Safeties of Ohio State. This bears repeating—Leggett should win the Mackey. Key TDs against VT. He wasn’t great blocking, but he wasn’t awful either.

Watson’s second TD pass to Leggett was an ‘NFL throw’.

Deon Cain makes a few mistakes and then makes a few amazing plays. I’m not sure we win the game without his 2 key catches in the second half.

Oh and did you forget—Hunter Renfrow also is on this team. Oh and he also is ridiculously talented. The Cain and the Renfrow catches pushed this team across the finish line. Talent. The Renfrow RPO was another great play call and read from Watson.

DEFENSE

The secondary was challenged by Evans big arm. Tank and Johnson got caught a couple of times out of position. On the long completion to Ford at the 5:52 mark in the 2nd Q, Johnson falls down and Tank was playing too shallow. Tank partly made up for it with that toe-tapping interception. That was a great play for any DB, any level.

Johnson had his worst game to date, missing tackles left and right. Evans and the Hokies were more physical on offense.

The defensive line played extremely well early. Clelin Ferrell had one of his better games. He played inspired all the way to the end. Wilkins surprisingly faded as the game went along. Bryant still hasn’t recovered and couldn’t set the edge on a couple of plays or get home on passing downs (the break will be good for him, he still needs to get in better shape to regain his form from last year). Even Dexter got tired as the game progressed. When he gets tired he starts playing a little high and reaches too much for arm tackles.

None of them played badly, but it is a reminder of how important depth is along the D line. We need Scott Pagano this year and next year.

I love that every team tried to put in a shovel pass since the Pitt game. Clemson doesn’t struggle with the shovel pass, it is a shovel option combines with a zone read where the defense has to account for a RB, running QB, and the inside pitch. The Canada Shovel is tough to defend, but the plain shovel pass is nothing. I’m not complaining though, by all means, please continue to run the shovel opposing OC’s.

Special Teams

Greg Huegel didn’t miss any extra points. Give him a ton of credit. His kicks didn’t go as deep into the endzone as I would have liked (they need to be deep in the playoff), but they had adequate distance and height.

Kickoff coverage remains one of the most improved positions on the team. I do question seeing #36 in there (he played well against VT though), but the job that Chad Smith has done with this group has been nothing short of phenomenal. I love seeing D’OD, Smith, Lamar, Muse, etc. on kick coverage. Can we not slim Chad Smith down a tad and use him as a SAM??

The pop pass trick punt play was just a really great design. It starts with a bit of a pick on the line of scrimmage that frees the crossing runner. I still don’t agree with the rule that you only have to touch the ball behind the line instead of gain possession, but tip your hat to Fuente on that one. Credit to Feaster for running the guy down.

That is the kind of thing I dread seeing in the playoff. If we shut that play down, the game could have been a blow out with the good field position. VT then did the same thing that USCjr did after a change of possession, HB pass against an overly aggressive defense (Hodges actually grabbed Tank on the play and helped sell the PI, great play by him).

Teasdall. It keeps getting worse and worse, and the people trying to defend his play are running out of excuses. His kicks were awful against VT. Some 30 yard stinkers. What happened to rugby Teasdall? If we play Bama, that will be a huge question mark. I’m glad there are no returns and all, but the VT kicker made Teasdall look like a JV player. I am serious about giving Jeff Scott a recruitcation to Australia to land us one of these Aussie kickers.