The second quarter begins with Alabama having the ball near the Tigers end zone, 3rd & goal. The Tigers have a slim 14-13 lead.
3rd & Goal. 11 personnel, Bama receivers in a bunch away from the TE, vs. 4-3 over. Tua rolls out with an option to shovel pass the RB, Lamar blitzes and forces the throw, Bryant sits on the back and tackles Damien Harris for a loss. The Tigers have the shovel option, which memorably hurt them against Pittsburgh in 2016, played perfectly.
Alabama field goal good. Although this drive ended with points it was troubling for Alabama. One, the Tide hadn’t been forced into too many long drives all year. Tua had led only a handful of drives longer than eleven plays the entire year, and Alabama was averaging well over five points per trip inside the opponents forty, good for 11th best in the country. To leave with only three points after eleven plays isn’t cutting it. To leave with three points after a stuffed run, an unforced error, a screen pass and a misdirection is a failed possession, particularly when the ensuing kickoff gives the Tigers good field position.
Ball kicked out of bounds, Clemson ball on the 35 yard line
11 trips vs. 4-1, corner in man on Higgins backside gets beat off the line, fade route to Higgins incomplete, PI on Smith. 10 trips vs. 4-1, shift shows Alabama in man, Tide defenders pressing outside, four man rush, screen pass to Feaster, Feaster’s man goes too far outside chasing the screen and Feaster is off with blockers, gain of 26.
10 stacked receivers vs. 4-2, cover 3 rip, zone read keeper tackled after a gain of one. Lawrence takes a hard hit. Even if Lawrence ducked, that sure seems like it could have been targeting. 11 vs. 4-2, inside zone handoff to Feaster good for 5. 3rd & 5, 10 tight trips vs. 4-1, mesh between Higgins and Rodgers, Higgins is open because Smith is playing zone while everyone else is in man. Higgins takes the cross for a gain of fifteen. Saban said after the game Clemson ran “copycat plays” and this appears to be one of them. Mesh is an air raid staple and I don’t remember this play or formation from the Tigers this year.
Great protection by the offensive line. Alabama can’t get pressure with four. With Quinnen Williams handled surprisingly well by the interior protection Lawrence had time to throw for most of the night. Christian Miler’s injury really hurt Alabama’s pass rush. Alabama struggled on passing downs (54th in marginal efficiency, 90th in marginal explosiveness) but they usually were at least getting home (10th in passing down sack rate). Without Miller those weaknesses were shown and exacerbated.
1st& Goal, ball on the five. 11 vs. 4-2, both safeties in the box, zone read handoff to Etienne, Etienne bursts through the line and stopped just short of the end zone. Timing makes so much difference on inside zone double teams, the offensive line doesn’t let the defensive tackles go too early, instead they drop them in the linebackers laps.
11 trips vs. 3-3 nickel, both OLB’s walked up, zone read handoff to Etienne and he walks into the end zone. The Tigers are being pretty significantly outran by Alabama at this point but their ability to run better in the red zone, particularly inside the ten-yard line, is showing up on the scoreboard.
Alabama Ball, Alabama 25
10 vs. 4-1, shift to trips, Tigers in man, inside zone handoff, Jacobs makes Turner miss and falls forward for gain of 7. 10 trips vs. 4-2, ILB blitz, Jacobs tackled by Ferrell at the line and falls forward. 3rd & 1, 10 vs. 4-2, Alabama hurries to the line, inside zone handoff hit by Thomas pursuing backside, Pinckney drags him down. 4th & 1, Saban surprisingly going for it on his own 35 yard line. Wildcat vs. 4-4, power keeper by Jacobs, squared up by J.D. Davis in the hole but falls forward for the first down.
11 vs. 4-2, Simmons has been playing at almost safety depth for parts of this drive, power handoff, cover four, Jacobs tackled by Turner after a gain of 8. 12 trips vs. 4-2, Alabama liked using two tight end sets to see if teams can hold up against the run. Pack the box too aggressively, or let a slow linebacker get matched up on a receiver and Alabama would kill teams with quick RPO’s or by flinging the ball downfield. Tigers in 4-3 over, Skalski in at OLB for Simmons, duo with the extra tight end lead blocking from a wing position, Skalski gets washed inside, Turner comes up field too fast and Jacobs makes Terrell miss.
1st & 10, 12 trips vs. 4-3 under, Smith Jr. split out wide, his versatility lets Alabama create a lot of looks out of 12 personnel, Skalski is forced out to cover the slot like Simmons would be expected to and that is a mismatch that favors Alabama. Smith Jr. has a size advantage on Mullen as well. Honestly, this looks pretty good for the offense. The execution though? Lacking, and the defensive call was pretty good too. The Tigers are showing cover two pre-snap. Clemson is actually running a blitz popularized by Michigan State’s defense, where you blitz six and play cover three behind it.
The two players left basically sit on the hashes (Skalski and Turner), try to read the quarterbacks eyes and break on the ball, it’s an aggressive approach that is prone to giving up short throws underneath. It’s a very hard look to complete a deep pass against, and being in zone Mullen has a lot of time to break on the ball. Unfortunately for Alabama they had a tendency to get greedy on offense, and Tua can be fooled by his pre-snap reads.
Both interceptions came on plays where Venables was able to disguise the coverage pre-snap. The corners were put in positions to make plays and excelled. Clemson sold out to generate pressure and confuse Tua in a way few teams are able to.
11 vs. 4-2, power handoff to Etienne, Falcinelli can’t take Williams and he makes the tackle. 10 vs. 4-2, cover two, out route complete to a diving Renfrow. I’m surprised by how few times Clemson has gone to empty formations against Alabama. The Tigers relied on them heavily in the last two title games. 3rd & 2, 10 tight trips vs. 4-1, whip route to Renfrow comes open. Tigers are running a “follow-pivot” concept.
This concept makes it look like Renfrow is breaking inward before he pivots open to catch the ball outside. It requires great timing and route running, but ran correctly it’s next to impossible to defend. Alabama’s defenders are taught to recognize common route combinations (and the Tigers have been running crossing routes much of the quarter), this concept uses that against them. If this sounds like a dick move, it is, and that’s why offensive coordinators love it.
1st & 10, 11 vs. 4-2, nickel blitz, cover one, Lawrence throws a quick slant but it’s broken up. 10 trips stacked receivers vs. 4-1, ILB blitz, screen pass to Feaster tipped, lucky he came down with it, falls forward for a gain of a couple. 3rd & 7, 11 trips bunch vs. 4-1, ILB blitz, cover 4, crossing route to Rodgers complete where the blitzing linebacker came from, noted deep threat Garrett Williams draws a double team downfield and helps create space for Rodgers underneath. ScElliot are taking advantage of Alabama’s zone rules to get multiple players defending a decoy.
1st & goal, ball on the five. 11 trips vs. 4-3 over, inside zone handoff stoned at the line. 2nd & goal, 11 trips vs. 4-2, Clemson is running the exact same shovel pass/sprint out RPO the defense stopped at the beginning of the quarter. Same formation, same pre-snap motion. Dylan Moses steps up to try to play both Lawrence and Etienne but the shovel pass to Etienne is complete and he barrels into the zone for a touchdown. John Simpson can put people on skates as a pulling guard if he gets his hands on them squarely and he and Anchrum created a massive hole.
Alabama Ball, Alabama 25
11 trips vs. 4-2, inside zone RPO, in route complete but tackled immediately in the flats. 11 vs. 4-2, inside zone, Bryant stunts inside and Harris cuts it all the way back outside, outruns Lamar to the hole and scoots off for a gain of ten.
1st & 10, 11 vs. 4-2, Lamar gets into the backfield almost instantly off a well timed blitz, forces a cut by the running back, outside zone handoff tackled in the backfield by Simmons. 11 trips vs. 4-2, outside zone handoff to Harris, Huggins gets moved off the line, tackled by a diving Lamar after a gain of eight. 3rd & 6, 11 vs. DOD, corner blitz from the boundary, five men release into a route, no one touches Mullen and he’s in the backfield in an instant for a drive ending sack. Clemson is letting Alabama win on first and second downs but betting they can force the kind of havoc that ends drives on third down. Even we noticed Alabama struggled with picking up blitzes during the regular season, Venables was obviously well aware and is always inclined to send pressure.
Punt fair caught. Clemson Ball, Clemson 21.
10 vs. 4-1, cover two vs. smash, Lawrence completes a long throw to throw the corner route to the opposite sideline, brought in by Thompson. The most impressive part of Lawrence’s game, to me, was his ability to read defenses so well. He was in high school a year ago and is dissecting a Nick Saban defense that is throwing everything at him. 10 vs. 4-1, man cover 2, mostly clean pocket, fade route to Rodgers overthrown. 10 vs. 4-1, smash vs. cover 6, corner route to Ross complete on the cover two side. Personal foul on Alabama. The Tide are clearly rattled. Offsides Alabama. 10 vs. 4-1, cover 4, crossing route to Ross complete. Lawrence threw a perfectly placed ball. 10 vs. 4-1, zone read handoff tackled for a loss by Williams. 10 vs. 4-1, cover 4, fade to Ross nowhere near complete. 3rd & 12, 10 vs. 3 down dime, six man rush, outlet pass to Choice overthrown.
Tigers field goal good!
Alabama Ball, Alabama 25, :45 left in the half.
10 trips vs. DOD, three man rush, still gets pressure, short throw underneath to Damien Harris dropped. Clemson would have been fine allowing the completion and the time to run out. 11 trips vs. DOD, Clemson showing that it’s blitzing everyone, drops eight, Tua takes off but is tackled short of the first down. Kiffin, who knows a thing or two about this Alabama team, was worried for them at this point. Seeing Alabama scared just doesn’t entirely compute. The only other time I can remember seeing a Saban team this flustered was the Kick Six game. Alabama just doesn’t lose like this under him. The signature feeling of the Saban era is a suffocating, inevitable hopelessness for his opponents. Most of the teams they play are defeated before they step onto the field. Even the teams that beat him have to go through a series of close calls and near death experiences. The Tigers aren’t scared of Alabama, and were probably the only team in the country with the talent and mentality to have ran a plan this aggressive against the Tide on both sides of the ball. It wound up working better than even the coaches imagined.