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Clemson Versus Alabama Preview, Notre Dame Demolition Recap

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NCAA Football: College Football Playoff Semifinal-Cotton Bowl-Notre Dame vs Clemson Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

I am late with my Notre Dame recap with the holidays, but I wanted to at least get something out on paper about the Natty before the game.

The Notre Dame game was what I was worried about in the first quarter, what I hoped it would be in the second quarter, and domination the rest of the way.

We gave Notre Dame the Will Swinney treatment in the College Football Playoff! The Playoff...(we treated them like a scrub ACC team with our 4th stringers...)

Yes, I know ND’s CB Love left the game, but Clemson barely tried in the 4th quarter and it was Gilman who was covering Ross in the slot for at least one of the big plays (I also contend that it wasn’t the coverage that was the problem on the other two throws, just great throws and effort from superior WR talent).

A lot of things went right for Clemson and a lot of things deserve credit and effusive praise, but I am jumping straight into concerns heading into Bama.

CONCERNS

In the national championship game and with Alabama, refs will let a lot of things go. They will let teams be more physical and have yet to call a targeting penalty in the actual natty. Clemson WR’s should expect tight, physical coverage and should be able to play physical against Bama WRs as well.

Bama will also have scouted every single inch of this team and be looking for areas to exploit. Bama found on special teams our alignment in kickoffs was a yard or two tight and kicked the onside. Their army of support staff and ex-coaches have a giant file on Clemson.

ND found one on extra point/FG protection and bowled over the interior players and snapper (probably a penalty, but refs don’t call things in championship games unless it is obvious).

Less than Special Teams

Alabama does not have great special teams play. They have a poor kicking game overall and below average punting. This is an area Clemson could exploit. They do have great coverage teams, however, and like to use kickoff coverage to physically push around the other team.

First, I would suggest a fair catch on kickoff returns every single time. Be safe and start at the 25 yard line. This will help avoid bad field position and will avoid a disaster like the Notre Dame fumble. I love Kendrick, but he still needs a bit of time in the weight room to improve upper body strength. Fair catch everything.

Clemson can’t miss FG’s against Bama. Everything within 45 yards must be made in this game. Punting is awful, but we know that already. Clemson just needs to not get anything blocked and limit returns while hopefully getting around 40 yards a kick.

Potter needs to put the ball out of the back of the endzone. I still have flashbacks to the Champs game in Arizona in 2016. I was in the endzone seating in the 4th Q and could see the TD kick return coming as soon as the ball was kicked (and it wasn’t a bad kick). Kick it out of the back of the endzone.

Defensive Hiccups

Rush Defense

Without Dexter Lawrence the defensive line still looked dominant. However, Clemson did give up a few extra yards in the rushing game than normal. All year Clemson has been the best team in the nation at yards per carry in run defense. Bama, despite the potent passing attack, is still a really good rushing team.

If Bama is feeling threatened or behind, they turn to the run game and the three headed monster of Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, and Najee Harris. D. Harris is the starter, but Jacobs is the weapon—versatile out of the backfield and an inside and outside runner. I said this in the lead up to the first National Championship that Jacobs was the RB to watch despite the depth at the position and I wasn’t wrong (ask the Oklahoma secondary he trucked). N. Harris is the late game finisher, coming in fresh, but just as talented as the other backs. Bama averages 5.3 yards per carry.

Clemson matches up well in the run game, just like they have in past games with Bama. That can’t change with the absence of Dexter. Clemson must shut down the running game and make Bama one-dimensional. They must completely stop Bama with a 6 man box, if not a 4 or 5 man box, and devote more attention to stopping the passing game.

Albert Huggins had a fine game against Notre Dame and he will need to repeat that performance against the Alabama line. One part of missing Dexter Lawrence that did show up in the ND game is the ability to double team other players. Clemson fans don’t understand how Dexter constantly commanded a double team, freeing up Wilkins and the ends to get up field. Wilkins is quick and instinctive, often beating double teams, but he doesn’t hold up as well as Dexter. Something to watch.

I do think Bama’s Oline is weaker overall than in the past. However, Tua gets the ball out quickly and negates some of those slight deficiencies.

Against ND Clemson was solid in run support, but missed a few open field tackles. Muse missed one on a third down stop. Simmons took a bad angle and lost the edge (that ND back had legit speed though). Teams continue to run at Xavier Thomas when he is in the game (to mixed results). Clemson must tackle well in run support from the secondary. Last year there were too many missed tackles (doesn’t sound like Fields will be playing much, if at all against Bama, and that isn’t a horrible thing when it comes to run support as he got handled last year by Bama WRs).

Pass Defense

We held up against Notre Dame. We played much better against some quality wide receivers.

Unfortunately, there were a couple of caveats to add.

Notre Dame’s coaching brain trust fell prey to their own hubris. I’m convinced of this. Rather than adapting their scheme and trying to exploit Clemson’s weaknesses—the way the ND defense did by bringing more pressure in the first quarter—the offensive coaching staff decided to rely on what they had been doing. They didn’t get the ball out quickly every play and abandon the run (or pass to run) like the Gamecocks did. They didn’t attack the middle of the field and simplify Book’s reads like Bentley was able to do. ND receivers also dropped some easy balls when they were open, which didn’t help Book.

Instead, they allowed BV to bring pressure and impact the QB so that he felt pressure and footsteps. They could have gone 4 wide and found favorable matchups. When you go through the tape there were at least three times where if Book hung in the pocket and delivered, he would’ve found an open man—probably for a TD. Credit to Clemson’s defensive line and BV for beating Book.

If I was a ND fan I would be livid. Smells to me like Brian Kelly was meddling in the offensive gameplan/playcalling.

For example, on the interception to Nolan Turner, I have no clue what Book saw. No clue. He had two wide open receivers who would have gotten first downs, if not 20+ yard gains. Easy passes. He decided to throw it behind his receiver to a cluster of three Clemson defenders. He wasn’t seeing the entire field and fell apart at that point. That throw and decision were horrible (I’m not sure I saw him make that bad a decision in all the games I watched, maybe once or twice).

Clemson also needs to thank the ND coaches for some of the worst third down calls I have ever seen in a playoff game. It wasn’t Love missing that hurt ND it was those calls. The run play I at least understand to set up a fourth down and manageable call, but the others were a disaster. Clemson loves to defend tunnel and slip screens. There were plenty of yards to be had throwing into our zone coverage and I started laughing in the 3rd Quarter when the abysmal play-calling continued. ND also never returned to some creative playcalls in the first quarter that worked against our defense. Not ready for primetime.

Against Bama

Clemson won’t have it so easy against Bama. The wide receiver talent is the best Clemson has seen all year, if not the past five years. They don’t have a TE as fast as OJ Howard, but he probably has better hands. You can’t give up inside slants and need to play more press man or quarters coverage, but then you are susceptible to being beat deep. If you play too much press man, Tua will beat you with his legs (if he is healthy enough, which he is according to what I know). You still need a spy and containment with rush lanes.

I like Mullen and Terrell on the corners—Clemson can hold up there, but you can’t just shadow Ridley with your top corner like we have done in the past. Jeudy, Rugg, and Smith are too talented. And the player who scares me the most is Waddle. He is ridiculously fast and anyone they put in the slot is a potential nightmare. Tua, apart from the UGA game, excels at reading run or pass and taking what the defense gives him. He carves up LBs and Safeties with the help of really good WR play.

What was BV solution against Bama?

Against ND the Clemson Defense ran a ton of Tampa 2 coverage, a variation of Cover 2, where the MIKE LB gets depth to try and eliminate some of the deep balls down the middle of the field. Clemson was also able to get pressure and disturb Book and then confuse him with some exotic looks—dropping DE’s into coverage effectively (one play we rushed Bryant and a LB and dropped everyone else, which worked beautifully) to minimize the short game. Clemson did a great job against ND of minimizing the number of plays the Safeties had to line up in straight man coverage, but I saw Muse get caught flat-footed on a bunch of plays where the D-line helped him out with pressure. Wallace played a much better game overall. Saban is good at exploiting weaknesses and this is the biggest weakness on our defense. This matchup will probably decide the outcome of the game. Bama also mixes up deep and short routes effectively (although Tua is used to having time to hold the ball more than other QB’s).

BV has to decide what he is going to do with the slot receiver. UGA was able to hang with Bama because of their Safety play and their LB play in coverage. UGA used a lot of Dime looks to put another DB on the field. Against ND BV went with Nolan Turner more on the field in passing downs. On rushing downs he went with Lamar and Joseph with Simmons and the rest of the starting secondary. Clemson had a lot of success using Simmons as a QB spy on Book (who was ridiculously slippery). They also used JD Davis to spell Lamar and as a spy (I know JD will be used to spell Lamar and in coverage but he looked lost in the flats and as a spy against ND—limit the time he is on the field).

If Turner is on the field (or whoever plays that role with the slot or in zone coverage), they become one of the most important defenders on the field. I said before the ND game that I thought Fields or one of Goodrich/McMichael should play that role, but the D should have been preparing for this all year. If none of those guys are able to go then you have to rely on a Safety or Simmons to matchup with the slot. Does anyone feel great about that scenario with Jeudy or Waddle (a tough assignment regardless)? Tua and the Bama offense love to run RPO slants. Easy play action pitch and catch all day.

Clemson must limit yards after the catch. Bama actually doesn’t take as many deep shots as you might think—they do take their fair share (and Tua got panicked in the UGA game and started chucking it down the field on almost every play), but they like to hit out routes and passes to the flats to get first downs. The problem is those WRs are so good, they take short routes for break them for big gains. Tua likes to be aggressive though and sling it over the middle of the field, but again is sometimes prone to holding onto the ball a little longer than he should.

Simmons needs to play the best game of his young career. He gave us a glimpse of that against ND. The fourth down pass batted down was a thing of beauty. Muse can’t get caught in no-mans land, in-between pass and run. Wallace can’t give up inside leverage. When blitzing LBs need to get to the QB and not get lost in zone coverage.

In summary, if you play man you can’t get burned deep and you must contain Tua because he will run. If you play zone Safeties can’t get caught flat-footed and LBs need to get appropriate depth to minimize shots in the deep middle. The slot can’t be allowed to slice up the defense. Defensive line needs to get pressure and get home to speed up Tua’s clock. Defenders have to tackle after the catch. Stop the run and set the edge. Mix in those lovely BV blitzes and weird packages to disrupt the play calling.

Simple, right?

OFFENSE

CONCERNS

No turnovers. Bama will be hitting hard/head hunting and impacted ETN last year. They tried to impact Deshaun and will be looking to hit TL. Was that the first time ETN has lost a fumble all year?? Good to get it out of the system.

Clemson got off to another slow start against ND. It would really help the Clemson defense if the offense can get a lead. Bama isn’t used to playing from behind and have shown that they can panic a bit, revert to rushing the ball. That would be positive for Clemson.

In the run game ND limited Clemson for much of the first half. ETN didn’t get in a rhythm, missed some run lanes and missed a block in pass protection. On the break away TD, the ND defense busted and completely vacated a gap (most likely ND’s LB #4). On third and short with the rest of the defense close to the line, it was over. Clemson did get a taste of a more physical brand of football, however. Gilman and the secondary came up and hit. It was a good sampling and warm-up for the main course.

It would be awesome if Clemson could blow Bama off the ball, but they didn’t do that against ND. ND didn’t have a great run defense, but they were keying in on stopping ETN. TL correctly kept the ball a good bit (and was punished a few times, but played tough). What needs to happen is the Oline must keep the Bama defense honest. They need to respect the run, even if Clemson can’t beat them on the ground.

The pass blocking was really good against ND for most of the game. A few times ND beat our guys, but there weren’t many busts. TL had a couple times where he held onto the ball too long as well with the better ND coverage. Clemson has to be ready for the giant arms and length of Bama’s defensive ends. Q. Williams has been a problem for every single team this year. He is a force and will test our interior in both the run and the pass.

Still, this Bama D isn’t as good at rushing the passer as other Bama teams.

Hunter Renfrow doesn’t have to deal with Minkah Fitzpatrick this year. Renfrow should give Bama fits because the Bama defense will need to respect Higgins and Ross. In the first quarter against ND, the WR’s were adjusting to the physicality of the ND secondary. They will see the same thing against Bama. Higgins was a bit tentative to begin and missed the wide open TD (called back for holding, that was a bit of a bogus call), but then started to dominate.

Ross was unconscious and physical. Clemson needs to continue to put pressure on the defense by lining up in four wide looks. This was the plan with Higgins last year, but he was injured.

The game largely rests on the strong arm of Trevor Lawrence. He will need to run some and avoid turning it over. TL will need to move the ball methodically and score points with shots down the field. Bama will try to confuse him and will bring pressure like ND did with LBs Wilson and Harris (Miller is probably their best LB pass rusher and should be sidelined with a hamstring injury). He had his best long/deep throwing ball game against ND. Clemson recruited Surtain, McKinney (heart breaks again), and LSU transfer Saivion Smith. But Clemson will need to win one on one matchups with those DBs.

But this is why TL came to Clemson. It is why I said he would be the best QB to play at Clemson and would win the Heisman.

In Trevor we trust.

Clemson by a million (or Clemson 31-28).