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ACC Championship Game - Clemson vs. Pittsburgh Preview: Depth Chart & Statistical Analysis

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Plus a quick review of the Palmetto Bowl win over the Gamecocks.

Pittsburgh v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

South Carolina at Clemson Review

Clemson was coming off a game against Duke in which their offense struggled, yet they remained in complete control because their defense was totally dominant. It flipped this week as the offense moved the ball at will, but the defense got eaten up over-the-middle and with deep busts all night. Both starting safeties made mistakes while linebackers got beat by TEs that hadn’t contributed much all season. In fact, 111 of Gamecock TE’s 216 yards this season were tallied against the Tigers.

I’ve seen some folks say having these gaffe’s on tape is a disadvantage for the Tigers. I disagree. Our talented coaching staff having this tape to instruct from is far more valuable than opponents having it to draw from. Last week, we wrote the following:

“...the linebacking corps’ pass coverage may be the defense’s relative ‘weakness.’ Fortunately for Clemson, TE Hayden Hurst is on the Ravens, not the Gamecocks (a more respectable bird, no?). They’ll need WR Deebo Samuel to attack Clemson over the middle, and they’ll need to hit him quickly as anything slow developing will yield havoc.”

If we knew about this and were writing about it before it happened, don’t you think Coach Saban would identify it in 100x the detail and rigor?

Clemson’s offense looked elite. Obviously, a big part of that was South Carolina’s porous defense, but Clemson was balanced and prolific. We wrote that South Carolina had struggled to stop the run and figured they would therefore struggle against Clemson’s multi-faceted offensive arsenal. We were right. Nevertheless, Clemson exceeded even our gaudy expectations. Trevor Lawrence threw for 393 yards while Clemson ran for 351 more.

I especially appreciated Clemson’s continued heavy use of the H-back. Garrett Williams caught my eye in run blocking as he had several nice blocks to help Clemson running backs pick up positive yardage from sets like this one:

#44 Garrett Williams lines up behind the left tackle
Ryan Kantor

The offensive play that stood out most though was this 3rd-&-12 throw and catch between Lawrence and Renfrow. There’s nothing a defense, no matter how elite (looking at you Alabama), can do to stop a play like this:

Clemson got their 70th Palmetto Bowl victory, while the Cocks highlighted some areas of focus for the staff before the postseason. While a 100-0 victory in every game is preferable, I don’t lament a 21-point victory.

Lastly, I think Coach Muschamp deserves a ton of credit. He has a battered and frankly just below average defense right now, and he game-planned about as well as possible to give that roster a chance to go into Death Valley and earn a win. He recognized they weren’t going to run the ball effectively and he relied on the passing game and exotic formations in creative and productive ways. He attacked Clemson’s weaknesses while leaning on his best players while involving seldom-targeted players like TE Kiel Pollard to take advantage of Clemson’s injury at middle linebacker. We give him a lot of flak for his failure at Florida, mediocrity at South Carolina, and some funky antics, but he is a solid coach and South Carolina is lucky to have him.

ACC Championship Preview

Pittsburgh’s offense, coming off a 3-point showing against 7-5 Miami, is a more favorable matchup for Clemson. Their offense is run-based, which plays right into Clemson’s strengths. Let’s take a look at the talent they’ll rely on to execute, but first our usual caveat:

In our analysis of the depth charts, we divide the offense and the defense into three portions each. For the offense, the starting QB, the starting O-line, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall offense rating. Similarly on defense, the two-deep at D-line, linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.

This shouldn’t have to be said, but there are always players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Qadree Ollison) as well as those who underperform their star ratings. Additionally, there are occasions where the less talented team wins (e.g., 2016 Clemson vs. Pittsburgh), but there are exponentially more examples where the more talented team wins (e.g., 2009-2018 Clemson vs. Wake Forest, 2012-2018 Clemson vs. NC State, etc.).

The first thing that stands out in the chart above is the gap between the QBs. Kenny Pickett, a three-star recruit out of New Jersey, burst onto the scene as a freshman in Pitt’s final two games last season - leading them to a near upset of Virginia Tech and an actual upset over then undefeated Miami. He didn’t start off this season quite so hot though. In his first 6 games he threw 5 INTs and averaged just 147 yards passing per game. Since then, he hasn’t thrown a pick, but is still averaging just 158 yards passing. He is a true game manager, a good one over the past six games, but a game manager to be sure. Pitt relies on their run blocking OL and their exceptional running backs to lead the way.

Pittsburgh’s offensive line, despite being rather unheralded, has been very good in run blocking. The Panthers rank 21st in line yards (Clemson ranks 13th) and 3rd in power success rate (short-yardage) (Clemson ranks 100th). On the flipside, they’ve been less impressive in pass blocking, ranking just 115th in sack rate (Clemson ranks 17th and has been improving in the past few weeks). In that context, it’s no surprise their 51st ranked offense ranks 12th in rushing and 87th in passing (S&P+). It’s worth noting that their starting center, Jimmy Morrissey, injured his ankle against Wake Forest. Without him last week, they failed to score a TD. It’s still TBD how they’ll adjust, as he will again be out this weekend.

Pittsburgh splits carries between two impressive running backs - Qadree Ollison and Darrin Hall. Both are 225 lbs physical backs, but they’re fast too, especially Darrin Hall who averages 7.6 YPC. Pittsburgh’s explosiveness (17th in IsoPPP) comes largely from their rushing attack. In just their last four games, this duo has runs of 97, 75, and 73 yards. Corralling these two offensive stalwarts is Task #1 for Clemson’s defense. Fortunately for Clemson, their strength is stopping the run.

Pittsburgh v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

If Clemson is able to force Pittsburgh to throw it to get in the end zone, they’ll have the advantage. Pittsburgh wide receivers have only 11 receiving TDs on the season (Clemson WRs have 26). Clemson should be able to force Pitt to beat them through the air, as they have every opponent so far this season (South Carolina wisely didn’t bother even trying to establish the run), but Pitt is also the best rushing attack they’ve faced all year. This will be a good precursor for how well Clemson’s defense will hold up against Alabama’s rushing attack (which ranks 7th) - though Alabama obviously pairs it with a much more dangerous passing threat.

The Panthers don’t have any 4* receivers and have a first year starter sophomore QB. Their offense overall ranks between Georgia Southern and Wake Forest. If Clemson’s secondary gets burned again, you can start worrying, however I feel confident about how Clemson’s defense will rebound against this offense.

Pittsburgh’s defense is hard to get a grasp on. They rank 66th overall and appear balanced with the 65th best rushing defense and the 70th best passing defense. When you look closer though, it reveals how good QBs have generally shredded them. Against Trace McSorley (PSU), McKenzie Milton (UCF), Eric Dungey (SU), and Daniel Jones (Duke) they surrendered 44.5 points per game. Nathan Elliott also passed for 313 and 2 TDs as UNC scored 38 in a win in Chapel Hill. Conversely, they managed to stop teams with less skilled passers holding GT (19), UVA (13), VT (22), and Wake Forest (13) all below 23 points. The exception to this trend, depending on your opinion of Notre Dame, is their defense holding Ian Book and the Fighting Irish to just 19 points.

If you - like me - think Notre Dame’s offense is inconsistent, it’s easy to look past that single performance and see that good QBs are prone to feast against this defense. They rank just 100th in IsoPPP defense, which is a measure for avoiding explosive plays, and their overall defense ranks between Syracuse and Georgia Southern. They’re better than South Carolina, so don’t count on 700 yards of offense again, but Trevor Lawrence should nevertheless be the star of the game (well, he and his deep threat receivers).

Pittsburgh offers an interesting test simply because they’ll be the best rushing attack the Tigers have seen. We’ll see if The Tigers #2 rush defense is as good as the stats say. I am betting on it. Lastly, be sure to savor the moments up in Charlotte this weekend. Extended championship runs like this are rare, fleeting, and glorious. Clemson is surely experiencing the “Glory Days” right now!

If you enjoyed this ACC Championship game discussion and would like more, check out my discussion with Mark Rogers on MarkRogersTV where we discussed at length: