For the second time in as many weeks, Clemson faces off against one of its former defensive coordinators. Last week Clemson escaped Auburn despite an outstanding effort from Kevin Steele (2009-2011); this week the opponent is Steele’s predecessor, Vic Koenning (2005-2008). That’s an interesting subplot on its own, but there’s an extra bit of history which makes this matchup surprisingly personal.
If you didn’t already know, Koenning and Dabo Swinney had what I will call “professional disagreements” which came to a head back in 2008 when Swinney was chosen for interim coach after Tommy Bowden’s resignation in October 2008. Terry Don Phillips saw in Swinney a rising star who only needed an opportunity to lead, and chose Swinney over the more qualified defensive coordinator. Koenning did not take this very well, not only because he had a better resume (defense was the team strength, not to mention he had the coordinator experience Swinney lacked) but also because Swinney favored an aggressive man blitz defense — a polar opposite of Koenning’s defenses — and told Koenning as much when in charge.
Needless to say, there was a mutual yet tense parting of ways when Swinney was promoted full-time. It obviously worked out well for Clemson and we were fortunate Phillips went with the visionary over the safer pick, but it’s not hard to see why Koenning felt shafted.
You may remember Koenning returned to Death Valley to lead North Carolina’s defense in 2014, Deshaun Watson’s first start. Swinney will never admit it, but I can’t help but think it may have been personally satisfying and certainly vindicating to watch his offense drop 50 on Koenning. Two years later and Koenning brings another overmatched defense to an old stomping ground, now in his second year at Troy. You already read about the talent disparity, but is there anything Koenning can do schematically to slow the Clemson offense like Steele did? Not exactly, and there isn’t nearly as much to discuss this week (or next) as last week or over the remainder of the season.
Despite our frustrations with Koenning’s apparent “bend but don’t break” defenses at Clemson, his units truly carried Clemson throughout his tenure. The statistics are pretty good; like, almost Brent Venables good, but don’t paint the full picture of blown leads and folding in crucial situations.
Koenning aims to pressure the quarterback with a four-man rush and keep everything in front of him with zone coverage, much of which is well-disguised. This doesn’t mean he won’t run man or blitz, but without Auburn’s talent it would be folly. This means Koenning will stick to form and disguise conservative zone coverages until a lopsided score forces him to take chances.
Generally Troy will run cover 4, but it won’t always look like it until the ball is snapped. We’ll see plenty of cover 3 looks which are actually cover 2; cover 2 looks which are cover 4, etc. Koenning wants to keep quarterbacks guessing until they make a mistake.
Against 11 personnel, Troy employs a nickel formation which is of course what we expect to see the majority of the game against Clemson’s base 11. Beginning in a cover 4 look, the strong safety drops into the box to show blitz, which now looks like man cover 1 behind it. In actuality, it is cover 3:
Troy also plays plenty of cover 2, in which the outside cornerbacks cover the flat and pass downfield routes along to the safeties. Effectively, a zone cover 2 is just a cover 3 with the Mike linebacker playing the deep middle zone, but intermediate corner routes will be open between the corners and safeties:
Like I said, there isn’t as much worth analyzing with a conservative zone defense The point is already made, which is Watson will be able to methodically take what is given should he read the coverage correctly. With only a four-man rush on most standard downs, Watson should have time; the key will be diagnosing the actual coverage at the snap and trusting his receivers to find yardage after the catch on a bevy of short and intermediate throws.
This weekend’s defense will look about as different as possible from Auburn’s; not just in talent but in scheme. Auburn wanted to take away the QB run with its linebacker spies and underneath passing game with press man outside. It worked beautifully but left itself vulnerable on the outside, namely to Mike Williams. It was frustrating because we are spoiled by last year’s outstanding diversity and balance on offense, but Steele’s aggression paid off thanks to a surprisingly strong secondary and an even better defensive line to make it all work. So stop worrying about the play-calling or Williams throwing off the receiver unit’s chemistry; Troy will sit back in zone and let Watson distribute the ball as we are used to, pinning its hopes on confusing Watson into misreading zone coverages.
The run game may start slowly since Troy will likely employ line stunts (as overmatched defensive lines often do) but it will pick up as Troy begins to substitute and tire. Look for Watson to operate at peak efficiency vs a conservative defense; Scott, Leggett and Renfrow will make a living underneath with only a couple of deep shots to Williams and Cain spread throughout the contest until Troy begins to blitz. When Troy turns to heavy blitzes in desperation, the rout will be at hand.