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Clemson’s O-Line Paved the Way to the National Title

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NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson was 14-0 and riding a streak of nine straight 20+ point wins, yet in the week preceding the National Championship game against Alabama, I was fretting. Much of the season’s success had felt futile as this inevitable clash with the “greatest team of all time” loomed. The previous year’s Sugar Bowl loss hurt, but this would be worse. The season had felt so special all along and something about the inevitability of this fate it made it worse. The path to victory I imagined Alabama could pave went something like this:

  1. Alabama would establish the run game and get into manageable third downs: Correct
  2. Meanwhile, Clemson’s run game would struggle against a strong run defense: Correct
  3. As a result Clemson would face third-and-long situations where Alabama could bring pressure and beat Clemson’s good, but not great offensive line. Trevor Lawrence wouldn’t have time to shine: Laughably Wrong

Trevor Lawrence, Justyn Ross, and Tee Higgins may have headlined the dynasty dismantling, but the job the offensive line did in pass blocking was an equally big part of the story.

Here’s a play from early in the game where Alabama thought they could generate pressure with a three-man rush. They did not. In the .gif below (ignore the yellow circle at the start) you see Mitch Hyatt pushes #49 Isaiah Buggs behind Lawrence out of the play. Falcinelli stonewalls the DT and Anfernee Jennings can’t get around Ancrum. Lawrence connects with Tee Higgins for the Tigers first big offensive play.

A bit later Lawrence would climb a clean pocket and hit Amari Rodgers on what looks like an in-route. He showed advanced pocket presence, but also was not pressured.

This time Alabama has four guys trying to generate pressure, but again Lawrence gets to throw from a clean pocket, and that’s deadly. It’s third-and-13. Alabama knew this was coming.

Look at the pretty pocket he had to throw from:

Here’s another third-and-long situation. Alabama decides to send five this time, but still no luck for the Crimson Tide pass rushers. The line buys Lawrence time and Adam Choice makes a nice blitz pick-up. Here’s how it unfolds:

Beyond the beautiful throws and circus catches, this was the story of the night for Clemson’s offense.

The Tigers finished 15th in sack rate, but as the season entered its “Championship Phase” they became much more spectacular than that. Lawrence’s maturation and feel for the pocket certainly played a role, but the zero sack performance against Alabama earns both the O-line and Trevor Lawrence endless praise regardless of how you divide it up. Their success against the always talented Alabama front was not widely expected:

Alabama entered the game with 45 sacks, 5th in the country, but couldn’t muster even one against this veteran Clemson O-line. The O-line wasn’t ultra elite all year (Texas A&M and Boston College gave them trouble), but they - in classic Clemson fashion - exhibited growth all season and by the year’s end, were one of the best units in the country. As a result, they reversed their fortunates from the prior year’s Sugar Bowl debacle and played a huge role in Clemson’s third National Championship.

With only the two seniors departing, Mitch Hyatt and Justin Falcinelli, this group should build on their accomplishments from this year and literally and figuratively pave the way for Clemson’s best offense ever next season.