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Faced With an Unexpected Defining Moment, Clemson Found Itself

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Plus some film review obviously

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

It took me the better part of 24 hours to wrap my head around Saturday’s dramatic victory over Syracuse. Our worst fears were realized before halftime, and what very well could’ve been the most tumultuous week in Clemson since Tommy Bowden’s removal almost exactly 10 years ago nearly became the most disastrous.

We all know what happened Wednesday. We then learned of Mark Fields’ suspension, taking away one of only three known commodities at cornerback on the eve of an air raid. When Trevor Lawrence and later Trayvon Mullen went down, the perfect storm hit Death Valley a hell of a lot harder than the remnants of Hurricane Florence did only two weeks before. Clemson, already lacking depth at QB and cornerback, were suddenly forced to rely almost entirely on untested freshmen Chase Brice and Kyler McMichael at two of the most crucial positions.

Down 10 points in the 4th quarter following another muffed punt, I can’t be alone in thinking Clemson had blown its championship hopes 5 mere weeks into the season. One of the ACC’s few pleasant surprises this season, Syracuse would have to lose twice for Clemson to have a chance at simply winning the division; never mind its College Football Playoff aspirations.

But Clemson survived. Its defense held Syracuse completely in check in the 2nd half and kept the crowd (wonderfully noisy for a noon kickoff) in the game while Brice gained his footing. Clemson found just enough from its once-spectacular QB depth to — make no mistake about it — save its season with Chase Brice In His Veins on a 4th down throw I don’t think Kelly Bryant would’ve even attempted. (Not to say I think Clemson wouldn’t have ultimately won with Bryant on the team). I’ll detail the 4th quarter on Wednesday, but this throw is worth a look right now:

Clemson called a slant corner route to Higgins with a flare from Galloway underneath it, against Syracuse’s disguised cover 2. (I know I tweeted about this being cover 3 initially, I was wrong). Unlike normal cover 2, where safeties split the deep halves, the field corner on the backside has a deep half, which is why this looked like cover 3 at first glance). Moving into cover 2 from a single high cover 3 look means the safety with deep responsibility against Higgins is out of position at the snap, and the corner route will be open between the free safety and boundary corner.

Syracuse tried to fool Brice into thinking it was cover 3 with a single deep safety look; when a corner has a deep zone it’s usually cover 3 or cover 4. But the middle linebacker dropping into a deep coverage, the deep safety immediately running to one deep half, and the boundary corner sitting in flat coverage all tell cover 2.

The boundary cornerback releases Higgins to the safety and has to mind Galloway in the flat, which is the corner’s responsibility. The deep safety has to run across the field to get to his half, which is why the corner route to Higgins was going to be open for a split second. Brice, in turn, has to let it rip before the safety gets to his deep half and before the corner peels off his flat coverage, so he can fit the ball between those two converging defenders.

Notice the corner sit in his flat coverage (basic cover 2) before trying to peel in front of Higgins. This is an unbelievably gutsy throw. If it’s late it’s an easy interception, but the call, read, and execution were perfect. Whether or not Brice ever starts another game, dare I say his legacy at Clemson was secured with this play. Hyperbole? I don’t care.

Many wondered what it would take for Clemson to finally show commitment to feeding Travis Etienne more than roughly 15 times per game, but none of us imagined it would take a 4th quarter comeback against Syracuse. The greatest development post-Syracuse isn’t Swinney’s “we can win with all our quarterbacks” comment vindication, but hopefully a renewed focus on running the ball upwards of 65% of the time.

Etienne, Tavien Feaster, and some beautiful power/counter run blocking gashed Syracuse in the most spectacular of ways all game long, taking pressure off Brice when it mattered most, and there’s nothing Clemson fans should want to see more. Regardless of quarterback, moving forward the expectation should be to run the ball as often as it did in the 2nd half Saturday, and feast on RPOs when defenses have to commit against Etienne and Feaster. Clemson’s real Heisman candidate (Lawrence has Heisman betting odds despite limited snaps) isn’t at quarterback; it’s Travis Etienne. Run the ball and everything else becomes so, so easy with the talent on this offense.

With more than a full season’s share of adversity behind it already, Clemson now has to flex its muscles against a schedule which is growing weaker, well, weekly. Considering Clemson’s shaky moments and the reputation of the worse-than-ever ACC, it will take some help for a 1-loss ACC champion to make the Playoff yet again; meaning there is absolutely no room for error. Clemson has played with fire, and in the most unexpected way, been forged by it. Now the Tigers must unleash it.


GOOD TWEETS

I love when my friends document a pending meltdown. I can hear myself screaming internally.


1st Quarter Film Review

Syracuse ball, 15:00, Syracuse 25

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 12 shotgun (strength to boundary) vs 4-3 Power handoff gains 5. Narrow lane in the scrum behind a double team on Lawrence, enough for a quick burst.
2nd & 5 12 ace vs 4-3 Counter handoff gains 2 more. Lamar filled in front of the lead H back and made the clean stop.
3rd & 3 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Inverted veer to the slot gains 20 on the sweep. Muse set the edge and Joseph was sealed by the back, Lamar was a step too slow and suddenly Cuse is 20 yards downfield.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4-3 WR sweep gains another 9. Tempo while ESPN wanted to show a replay allowed no chance to actually see this play.
2nd & 1 11 shotgun vs 4-3 QB power gains 3. Cuse sealed out the entire DL except Bryant, who then had to take on two pulling linemen. No chance. Lawrence had to fight off to wrap Dungey from behind as he met the linebackers.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Pop pass from the boundary to the field gains 3. Wallace was carried upfield in man coverage but flies in to meet Lamar for the stop on the edge.
2nd & 7 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Quick drop against man cover 1, Dungey is flushed and lobs a wheel to Neal, who beat Joseph in man coverage down the sideline. Simply Dungey extending a play and finding an improvised mismatch.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Power option, Ferrell forces the pitch and Lamar flies to meet Ferrell, loss of 1. Force the pitch and make the tackle? Get you a DE who can do both.
2nd & 11 11 ace vs 4-3 Bubble screen completely stuffed by Terrell, gain of 1. Terrell got outside his blocker, knowing help from Ferrell was forcing the runner out, and made the big stick. Excellent physical play from a corner.
3rd & 9 11 shotgun vs 4-3 ZR dive against a Mike bullet, Lamar burst through before Dungey could even make a read, loss of 2. The center wanted to climb to the linebackers at the snap and Lamar ripped right past him, immediate stop. Cuse field goal is good.

Clemson ball, 9:44, Clemson 21, 3-0 Syracuse lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel Dig route to Higgins against cover 3, easy throw and gain of 14. Soft coverage outside meant the middle of the field was open behind the linebackers.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel ZR mesh fumbled, recoverd by Syracuse. Lawrence tried to pull too late and Etienne thought it was his by this point. The DE slow played the mesh before crashing on Etienne, so keeping would technically be the correct read, but I'd rather see Lawrence give than keep for maybe a 2 yard gain and (crying internally) risk injury or a fumble.

Syracuse ball, 9:13, Clemson 30, 3-0 Syracuse lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 Empty shotgun vs 4-3 Seam vs man cover 1 against Terrell, tight coverage but just overthrown incomplete. With Wallace elsewhere, Terrell as beaten inside even though he was tight on the outside hip and Dungey could've led the receiver farther in for a possible touchdown. Bullet dodged.
2nd & 10 10 shotgun vs 4-3 Flare to the RB in the flat against cover 4, Simmons flies in and makes the hit for a loss of 3. With double slants into linebacker zones on the play side, Simmons was free to fly in from flat coverage and made a good low tackle in the open field.
3rd & 13 10 shotgun vs 4-3 Delayed screen vs cover 4, nothing open and Dungey throws it at the back's feet. Field goal good. Absolutely in love with Wilkins and Bryant getting in Dungey's face, and especially Wilkins' flop at the end. Give me all the theatrics from this defense.

Clemson ball, 8:21, Clemson 17, 6-0 Syracuse lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel Counter run to Etienne gains 15. Easily my favorite standard run play. Simpson sealed the backside, Falcinelli and Williams pulled, Hyatt climbed, and there's an easy lane up the gut for an elite back.
1st & 10 20 shotgun (Rodgers in backfield, Ross at field) vs nickel IZ to Etienne gains 4. Good drive blocking from Falcinelli and Pollard, Etienne followed them.
2nd & 6 20 shogtun vs nickel PA, double LB bullets in front of cover 3, Lawrence steps up and throws an off balance go to Higgins, incomplete. Higgins was open but Lawrence had to rush the throw. Did well to reset his feet but the ball was overthrown out of bounds. Here's the first A gap pressure look which A&M showed can affect Lawrence.
3rd & 6 11 shotgun vs nickel Comeback route to Higgins vs tight man is complete a yard short, punt. Lawrence was locked on Higgins the whole way but wouldn't have time to go through progressions.
Start every drive with this please.

Syracuse ball, 6:58, Syracuse 5, 6-0 Syracuse lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4-3 under Quick slant complete against Mullen in man, gain of 8. Gave up inside leverage.
2nd & 2 11 shotgun vs 4-3 ZR keeper effectively becomes a lead draw as Dungey follows the back inside, gain of 1. Excellent play by Lamar again, he was cut by the TE but regained his feet and made solid contact in the hole.
3rd & 1 11 shotgun vs 4-3 ZR dive is stoned for no gain, punt. Xavier Thomas got penetration and spun into making first contact in the hole, Simmons crashed from outside to pull the back down, excellent play.

Clemson ball, 5:04, Clemson 40, 6-0 Syracuse lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel IZ to Feaster, redirected in the backfield but shoots off tackle for a gain of 9. Simpson was stoned and pushed back while trying to seal, smart running from Feaster.
2nd & 1 11 shotgun vs nickel Bucksweep to Feaster gains 2. The 3-tech DT got outside and forced Feaster inside, right into the backside DE for a big hit.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel Pop pass to Rodgers gains 8. Richard made an effective lead block(!) and Rodgers had a nice stiff arm to free himself down the sideline; ran out of room along the boundary or else it's a big gain.
2nd & 2 11 shotgun vs nickel Tunnel screen vs Double LB bullets in front of cover 3, Rodgers gains 10 more. With pressure coming from the middle, Syracuse only dedicated 2 defenders to underneath coverage and they both had middle hook zones; quick screen outside is the perfect call vs a 6 man rush cover 3.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel PA vs man cover 1, comeback to Higgins complete for 9. This is an example of why the quarterback switch was made. Bryant doesn't deliver this throw; he either airmails it or tries to run.
2nd & 1 11 shotgun vs nickel (soft cover 4 look) RPO bubble screen to Renfrow, Kendrick easily blocks the corner and Renfrow has plenty of room, gain of 12. Taking what is given. The nickel back was splitting the distance between Renfrow and Pollard, meaning there was no way he could defend Renfrow outside. Kendrick simply had to seal the corner inside.

After an egregious Syracuse personal foul and a couple of stoned runs later, Clemson gives us the most beautiful sight visible to the human eye:

YES THIS GIF IS ENTIRELY NECESSARY DO NOT ARGUE.
I love this. Going wildcat pulls a defender outside and removes the QB/center exchange which bit us in the same situation at A&M. Give me more jumbo wildcat beef.

The 1st quarter expires after a Syracuse 3 & out and punt.