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Clemson Might be the Nation’s Most Complete Team

The first half of the season brought more unforeseen adversity than many teams face in a year, and the dividends were evident on Saturday.

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Each of these last three years, Clemson has been questioned and doubted for its slow starts or sloppy performances early, and dropped a few spots in the rankings relative to its preseason position; that’s just fine with Dabo Swinney, who craves a chip to place on Clemson’s shoulder and liberally builds depth along the way, often to his statistical detriment. 2016 in particular found all sorts of restless natives and a September drop all the way to 5th before Clemson kicked it in gear on its way to the national title.

This year Clemson had to survive Kellen Mond’s game of his life in College Station with an unclear QB rotation, later chose one QB and lost the other to transfer a month into the season, only for the new starter to get knocked out of the next game a few days later and ride its previously 3rd QB to a comeback win over a pesky division foe. A week after that, recent graduate and 2014-2017 running back CJ Fuller passed away unexpectedly. The first half of the season brought the same doubts and questions, plus the quarterback drama and the death of a beloved former teammate. Late September and early October couldn’t have been any more tumultuous, yet Clemson entered the weekend 6-0 anyway.

Clemson entered the 2nd half of its season more battle-tested and forged by adversity on and especially off the field than perhaps any team in the country — certainly more than other elite teams — and was a qualitative reason why most here expected Clemson to beat NC State by roughly the spread (18 points) rather than labor through or even falter in another close game with the Wolfpack. What we witnessed was above and beyond merely covering that spread, it was evidence that the growing pains, improving depth, and leadership brought this team into postseason form by midseason.

Suffice it to say Saturday went about as well as most around Clemson expected, and then some. It was both gratifying and vindicating to see Clemson leave no doubt in another big game because we did in fact put our necks out here at STS with all of the Dave Doeren jokes. I personally don’t have any animosity for the man or his program (nor do I think many here actually do). He’s simply easy to label a villain since he’s one of the few coaches who have ever visibly fought hard for NC State — it’s why they justifiably love him so much — and has done a great job elevating State to respectability. I’d rather have this back and forth with a division rival than the boring alternative; remember when living corpses Chuck Amato and Tom O’Brien led the way in Raleigh? No thank you.

Clemson knew it would move the ball against State one way or the other, depending on how State chose to defend, and Trevor Lawrence responded to a loaded box with a sublime performance. State’s was a predictable strategy based on film but also a prudent one: sell out to contain Travis Etienne with aggressive safeties and linebackers, and force Lawrence to beat them. State completely took away the run, even Clemson’s previously unstoppable power and counter handoffs, but Lawrence picked on hapless man coverage outside with ease.

Throughout the first half it looked like Clemson was beating State at its own game on all the quick outs against soft coverage outside, and State couldn’t do a thing about it. THIS is taking what is given, and it’s why the QB change was made. The run game was disappointing, but since Clemson was able to move the ball in short yardage/goal line with ease I’m not overly concerned; State completely sold out against it but Clemson had four walk-in TDs inside the 5 yard line. When your running backs jog into the endzone untouched up the middle from a yard or two out, your running game is just fine.

Don’t look now, but Clemson’s performance in both passing offense (400 yards without a running game to support it; oozing with potential but previously yet to round into form) and passing defense (shut down the nation’s most efficiently methodical passing team; previously considered the team’s weakness at worst and unknown at best) strongly suggests this is suddenly a complete team. Dare I say — with Alabama’s own growing pains in its defense — the most complete team?

We said all offseason if Lawrence takes over by November and can develop in time for the postseason, Clemson has a better chance against Bama than anyone because it can beat teams in many different ways offensively and has a defensive line which might make Tua look mortal. Well here we just past the halfway point, and the Tigers are ahead of schedule with plenty more tuneups ahead. There should be no more doubters; Clemson has proven its mettle in addition to its talent.

1st Quarter Film Review

Clemson ball, 14:51, Clemson 44

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel PA post vs man cover 1 Mike bullet, deep shot to Renfrow overthrown incomplete. Attacking the nickel from the start like we saw on film last week. The deep safety was in an adequate depth to help and Renfrow wasn't open; overthrow was the best outcome here.
2nd & 10 11 shotgun (H flexed to trips) vs nickel ZR keeper gains 12. This is about all we can ask for in the zone read game now and I'll take it. In theory it opens things up more for Etienne, but in actuality we won't see many defense respect the keep and it's just an attempt to sneak one by. Worked this time.
1st & 10 Empty shotgun vs nickel Quick slant to Higgins vs man cover 1 Mike bullet gains 5. Easy yardage against soft coverage, wonder if this will become a trend.
2nd & 5 11 shotgun vs nickel (SS in box and NB soft outside) Power to Etienne gains 3. Clemson sealed an inside lane for Etienne but the Will flowed from the backside to fill just before Etienne could burst through the 2nd level.
3rd & 2 11 shotgun vs 3-2-6 dime Deep out to Higgins wide open against soft man cover 2, gain of 11. Higgins didn't even give an inside move but had the corner spinning around anyway, awful coverage.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel Called IZ but checked out to Renfrow with the NB beyond safety depth in man coverage, gain of 4. Again as we saw on film, State is playing soft outside since its committing its linebackers and safeties to heavily to immediately filling run lanes. Taking what's given is working.
2nd & 6 11 shotgun vs nickel Curl to Renfrow vs man cover 1 Mike bullet, Renfrow abused Ingle on his break and then fights for more yardage, gain of 17. This is the best underneath route runner in the game. Ingle was playing up for once and Renfrow made him look foolish before and after the catch.

Etienne scores standing up 2 plays later.

State ball, 11:23, State 25

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 pistol vs 4-3 Out vs cover 3 Mike/Sam fire zone, Terrell breaks on the out and arrives at the perfect moment for the PBU. Perfect corner play but also a poor throw. It was slow and too far inside, made it easier for Terrell. Finley is a great QB but his poor velocity will keep him from being a high draft pick.
2nd & 10 12 pistol vs 4-3 Cover 3 FS fire vs PA, Muse has a free rush and Finley sits down immediately, loss of 9. Perfect call, it's like Venables expected a PA bootleg. Already sending more pressure than I would've expected and it paid off.
3rd & 19 10 shotgun vs DIME OF DOOM RB flare vs 3 man rush cover 3 gains 8. Scared play call. Spooked. With Clemson showing pressure and backing off they weren't burned by it.

Clemson ball, 9:37, Clemson 36, 7-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel ZR to Etienne stoned but gains 3. State held up well but Etienne moved the pile.
2nd & 7 11 shotgun vs nickel Deep fade to Kendrick in man cover 2, no safety help but Kendrick could only get one hand on it. It's a low percentage throw but the deep half safety was shallow and inside helping Ingle on Renfrow, not a poor read and actually a good throw.
3rd & 7 10 shotgun vs dime Dropback vs man cover 1 FS/Will overload, Lawrence finds Ross on the skinny post, gain of 13. State tried tight coverage this time but Ross won at the line when he got inside, kept the corner on his back hip.
1st & 10 Empty shotgun vs nickel Deep go to Higgins vs man cover 1 robber, just overthrown. A couple yards shorter would've been a TD.
2nd & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel RPO skinny post vs man cover 1 NB fire, dropped by Overton. Good throw, Overton got both hands on it. Simply couldn't hold on in traffic.
3rd & 10 10 shotgun vs dime RB screen dropped by Etienne, would've been stuffed anyway. I'm not sure how Etienne's hands are this poor but the incompletion here was fortunate.

State ball, 8:36, State 12, 7-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 pistol vs 4-3 OZ, Wilkins slips the cut block attempt and crashes from the backside, gain of 2. Best 3DT in the game.
Offside, 2nd & 3 10 shotgun vs 4-3 (Ferrell in the flat; Joseph at Mike and Jalen at Will) IZ gains 4. Bryant was sealed and the RT climbed to Joseph.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Stretch handoff gains 5. Wilkins was doubled and Lamar caught outside.
2nd & 5 10 pistol vs 4-3 (Bryant drops into a Will role) Quick bubble screen vs soft zone gains 4. Mulllen is doubled but still forces the receiver inside to Simmons
3rd & 1 21 offset I vs 4-3 Strongside overload completely stuffs the inside zone, loss of 2, punt. I remember panicking at the snap here, fortunate Finley didn't check out to his 2 on 1 advantage outside, Simmons and Wallace both fired off the edge and nobody was on the slot.

Clemson ball, 5:11, Clemson 25, 7-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel Counter to Feaster gains 2. State's linebackers aren't fooled by the line blocking down, they're flowing to where they know the pulling blockers are going. Wake Forest may have spoiled us...
2nd & 8 11 shotgun vs nickel Dropback vs man cover 1 robber, deep curl to Higgins gains 15. Excellent blitz pickup from Feaster and excellent anticipation by Lawrence, who threw it before Higgins broke and before it even appeared he might get open.
1st & 10 10 shotgun vs nickel Bubble screen to Thompson brought down around the corner, gain of 2. This is an attempt to loosen up State's linebackers more than anything else, Thompson almost stole a few more yards but was tripped up rounding the corner.
2nd & 8 11 shotgun vs nickel Deep corner to Thompson in man cover 1 incomplete. Essentially a throwaway, 5 yards upfield and out of bounds.
3rd & 8 10 shotgun vs nickel Man cover 1 NB fire, Lawrence throws away from it to Renfrow on the comeback, gain of 11. Renfrow aligned in the boundary-side slot which put the Will linebacker in man coverage against him. Renfrow faked upfield and cut out when the ball arrived.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel Jet, PA, deep crossers, post to Higgins complete for a touchdown against cover 3. This is all play design. Jet motion pulled the free safety down and Renfrow's underneath cross sucked in the strong safety. That left a mere corner with no chance to chase Higgins down once he had the inside release.

State ball, 2:59, State 25, 14-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 21 offset I vs 4-3 PA out and up vs cover 3 Sam fire, Harmon dropped a potential touchdown, Terrell was burned and PA pulled Muse out of the deep middle. Mullen would've stopped him short of the endzone but a 40-50 yard gain just went through Harmon's hands.
2nd & 10 11 pistol vs 4-3 IZ blown up by Ferrell, loss of 2. An inside move got Ferrell through the B gap where State had no chance.
Delay of game, false start, 3rd & 22 10 pistol vs DIME OF DOOM IZ vs cover 3, gain of 21, yikes. Wilkins was doubled and washed out, the linebackers were already retreating into coverage, and half the State line climbed to chase them down before Lamar was able to avoid a block and bring him down.

Etienne gains 3 and a bubble screen to Thompson gains 13 as the 1st quarter expires.