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Clemson’s Run Game is Too Good to Simply Take What’s Given

Plus a 1st quarter film review

Clemson v Wake Forest Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

60 point wins on the road are few and far between to say the least, and I don’t care who they come against; domination doesn’t discriminate. I love when I get bored with a blowout and can’t wait for it to end in time to watch the night game lineup...until Hunter Renfrow comes in at quarterback and brings me back to the edge of my seat with maniacal and derisive pleasure. But this...this backfield is what I really want:

This is the most exciting Clemson run game since, what, 2006? We’re in the middle of what has suddenly become the most explosive and efficient Clemson offense ever, based on statistics, and the best part is most of the explosiveness is found on the ground.

Yet if there is a week to let Lawrence air it out early against an unreliable back 7, this is that week. Not to say I want Clemson to go pass-happy, but yards on the ground will come regardless given the strength of the Clemson running backs and offensive line in run blocking. I merely won’t be frustrated to see Tony Elliott open it up for Lawrence from the start and allow him to build a rhythm...unless Wake starts racking up the play count with their own offense.

Remember when I said this on Friday? Well, I was wrong. I was very frustrated in the first 3 series when Travis Etienne had only 1 carry and Clemson wasn’t moving the ball. It’s spurts like these which make it hard to believe the stats which tell us this is the best offense in Clemson history on a yards per play average. But upon review, Clemson and Elliott weren’t actually pass-happy or pig-headed. Called runs were checked to screens more than a handful of times (screens are built into Clemson’s inside zone runs) based on pre-snap alignments and soft coverage outside early in the game. Look no further than the game’s very first play:

This is a called inside zone handoff. Lawrence sees soft coverage from the corner and the strong safety too far inside to get outside. It’s easy to say it was the wrong read in hindsight, but with Wake running a Mike/SS overload blitz it’s actually correct to try and flip this outside. Given Wake’s issues in gap integrity though, this would’ve been a big gain for Etienne.

We know-it-alls and Twitter blowhards can harp on Elliott for not establishing the run early, it’s not like he wasn’t calling run plays. Simply put, Clemson is built to take what is given, and Wake was giving Clemson quick screens outside early. But moving forward I hope this is yet another lesson learned that Clemson can impose its run game from the start — not even needing to take what is given — with power and counter handoffs where Etienne is the most beautifully lethal. It’s no coincidence the first counter run was an easy touchdown and foretold what was to come throughout the entire game.

Impose your will and make the opponent bend to it. Give Etienne a heavy dose of power and counter handoffs in the opening script. Then sit back and listen to how ESPN will shut up about finesse.

Clemson ball, 15:00, Clemson 25

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel Bubble screen to Rodgers vs cover 3 Mike bullet gains 1. This was a called inside zone but Lawrence checked to the quick screen, which is always a pre-snap check; A gap had an easy 10 yards so it's easy to suggest it was the wrong one.
2nd & 9 11 shotgun vs nickel Flare screen dropped by Etienne. Etienne is many things but a pass catcher is not one of them. Play was sniffed out anyway.
3rd & 9 11 shotgun vs 3-2-6 Dropback vs 3 rush cover 4, nobody open and Lawrence checks to Williams in the flat, gain of 3. Drive undone by checking to a screen and then a dropped pass. Can't blame Elliott here.

Wake ball, 13:49, Wake 29

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 10 shotgun vs 4-3 Power handoff RPO to Colburn gains 4. Simmons and Wallace stayed home on the potential bubble to Dortch and forced the give.
2nd & 6 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Zone read dive gains 1. Hartman rides the mesh far too long and Muse smacks him on a blitz. Riding the mesh this long is risky, can spring a big run but as we'll see later, allows one good defender to destroy both backs on his own.
3rd & 5 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Dropback vs man cover 1 Mike bullet, Hartman steps up and scrambles for 6. Joseph was acting as a spy, manned up on the back in pass pro, but Hartman ran to the space Simmons vacated and Joseph couldn't get there in time to prevent the conversion.
False start, 1st & 15 Empty shotgun vs 4-3 Rollout vs cover 4 fire zone (Joseph bullet, Ferrell drops into flat), flare to the TE dropped. Joseph's blitz was clean and Hartman had to roll immediately, Lamar had this sniffed out and was ready to lay a big hit anyway.
2nd & 15 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Power handoff RPO stopped for no gain. Edge is set, Lawrence works outside and sandwiches the runner with Wilkins from the backside.
3rd & 15 10 shotgun vs 4-3 Lamar's bullet is completely clean, sacked for a loss of 11.

Clemson goes 3 & out on the next series when Lawrence fumbles on his windup. Insult to injury, he tweaked his leg...

Wake ball, 10:19, Clemson 41

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4-3 PA vs Sam fire, Hartman never has a chance to survey cover 2 because Ferrell swarms him, loss of 5. Ferrell was unblocked and the poor running back had no chance in pass pro.
Illegal block below the waist 2nd & 30 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Quick curl vs man cover 1 FS fire, dropped. Good read and throw before pressure arrived, should've been caught.
3rd & 30 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Handoff draw swarmed by Ferrell again, no gained, punt. Good response to a sudden change.

Clemson ball, 8:56, Clemson 18

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel RPO, BCB blitz leaves Higgins unmarked and Lawrence flips it out to him quickly, gain of 11. Wake is still sending blitzes from DBs in soft coverage, which is mystifying to me. Too long to develop.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs nickel Quick bubble to Thompson gains 5. Another called run where Lawrence checks to the quick screen, and it's the correct read.
2nd & 5 11 shotgun vs nickel Power option pitch to Feaster loses 2. And here's the first play call I actually don't like on review. Too slow to develop and to easy to sniff out. Feaster was laid out to dry.
3rd & 7 11 shotgun vs 3-2-6 Dropback vs cover 4 fire zone, linebacker stunt gets around Feaster and Lawrence has to throw it away, punt. It's not an unwillingness to run which is stalling Clemson out so far; the screens were run calls. The power option killed this drive.

Wake provides another 3 & out; Xavier Thomas stuffed a run and Mark Fields dropped another interception. Clemson runs its first counter handoff of the day immediately following Wake’s punt and you’ll never guess what happens!

The rest of the quarter proceeds uneventfully, with Clemson and Wake each trading 3 & outs before Wake converts a 3rd & long with, for some reason Jalen Williams in man coverage against Greg Dortch. The drive lasts a few more plays before Tanner Muse picks off Hartman on an underthrown rollout scramble in cover 4:

From here the dam is set to burst in the 2nd quarter, where we’ll resume coverage later in the week.