This might be the pinnacle of Clemson football in my lifetime—let that soak in...
A complete dismantling, a blowout, of the best coach in modern college football and the best program in modern college football. This was quite possibly the best performance ever in a national championship game when you consider how historically good this Alabama team was considered entering the game.
Again, this might be the pinnacle of Clemson football in my lifetime and I will die a happy person (but I don’t think this program is done yet, not by a long shot).
What an absolute thrill ride of a game—I was spent after the first five minutes.
Keys to the Game:
ONE PENALTY. A clean game.
Clemson defenders limited yards after the catch. Clemson gave up a lot of yards, but didn’t bust for long touchdowns except for the first Jeudy TD against Muse.
Quinnen Williams was handled (more below). He was doubled and a non-factor in the pass rush.
Clemson gave up yards but didn’t give up touchdowns in the redzone. Two times the Bama offense got the half yard line and twice they were shut out. Combine that with the worst fake FG attempt I have ever witnessed in a major game and Clemson bent, but didn’t break despite the yardage Bama amassed.
The matchup of the game, we had highlighted over and over was the Safety play against the slot and LBs/Safeties in coverage. Well, Tua and Bama got a bunch of yards and plays. They drove down the field, but couldn’t convert. When Jeudy beat Muse on the second possession it seemed like it would be a long night, but Venables stuck with it. He got Tua on the pick six and the Mullen interception based off of film study and tendencies.
Almost everything was kept in front of the defense and the Clemson defense won on third down in the passing game the entire first half (when the defense got to third down). Conversely Trevor Lawrence was 8-11 on third down after the third Q of the game. Money.
A fourth quarter soul-crushing 10 minute 4 second drive to cap off an amazing night.
Bama fans—please stop embarrassing yourselves. You got lucky recovering two fumbles. You threw two interceptions, one a pick six, and you got stopped on the one yard line twice. Your coach was so desperate he tried a hilariously bad fake kick. Clemson had a 10 minute drive instead of running up the score. You didn’t score in the second half. Clemson took you to the woodshed. I know this is new for you—but this is how it feels (and Clemson did it without, arguably, their most talented defender). You are still the cream and class of cfb in the past ten years, don’t embarrass yourselves.
Both Clemson coordinators were prepared for Bama. BV had this thing scouted and added wrinkles to the defensive plan while exploiting Bama offensive tendencies and play designs. But Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott implemented looks that were brand new for this game, “copycat” plays Saban called them. The tight bunch formation with Higgins and Ross that Higgins hit deep for 62 yards was taken straight from Oklahoma, for example. Bama was clearly out coached.
During the first drive and the early portion of the game I was very upset with the refs. They missed a hold by Surtain of Renfrow on the third down and let McKinney just push Renfrow into the sideline. They also allowed Bryant to be grabbed and lifted, basically body slammed by the Bama RT Willis. That got Dabo hot and bothered—letting out a tirade of “do your job” yells to the refs that were classic on the replay. They let a clear targeting penalty go on a crown of the helmet hit by Wilson to QB Trevor Lawrence’s head. It was the QB, again!
That was textbook targeting even if the offensive player also lowers their head (and look, whether you like the rule or not, it’s inconsequential—you can’t have a rule and then just decide to not enforce it in the championship, that is 3 or 4 clear targeting penalties not called against Bama).
However, the refs were at least consistent. No holding calls for either team (and yes, Bama was holding too). They let a hold by AJ Terrell go late that should have been called and two plays from Fields where he put hands on players but made great plays. I wouldn’t have a problem calling the first for the hand on the back of Irv Smith, but Mark didn’t turn or impede the offensive player. With all the physicality that was allowed, that isn’t a bad no call. I wouldn’t have called the second where Fields knocked the ball away. Mark Fields, man...Mark Fields.
Real quickly—we knew Bama’s major flaw was special teams headed into the game. They had a great punt and a bad punt and they missed an extra point. They also didn’t trust the kicker come out of halftime, got a bit greedy, and tried a fake kick against our kick safe coverage. HAHAHAHAHA. Saban got away with the onside kick, but this was a disaster. Desperation move.
Clemson also missed an extra point, but made an important FG before the half to go up by 15. We had a great first punt that Bama went after, almost blocked, but it went 51 yards. This is why we switched to the rugby kicks to mixed results, but we didn’t allow a big return to Waddle.
But I love, love, love the fair catches. Bama was trying to bait Clemson into returning and going head hunting. They love to come down hill and hit to set the tempo and give bad field position. Credit to Derion Kendrick for sticking with it. Such a great coaching move.
Credit to BT Potter. Only one kick was returnable and the coverage got Jacobs around the 30-35 yard line. Those are two important parts of the game where Clemson executed.
I’ll just throw this in here. Thanks Butch! Butch Jones was on the sidelines to watch Trevor Lawrence, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers. Good stuff...
I think Trevor Lawrence, along with the offensive line, beat Q. Williams and the Bama defensive line. TL got the ball out of his hand on time all night. He didn’t get caught being indecisive or holding the ball at all, not once, something he had done a lot earlier in the season (Boston College’s front gave Clemson and TL way more trouble than Bama’s). He also didn’t rush many throws. Simpson was matched up on Williams much of the night and despite the trip penalty early and getting beat a bunch, he held his own. The interior of the line was able to double Williams. They couldn’t keep him contained when running zone rush concepts, but TL didn’t have to worry about busts up the middle. Huge.
Williams got fatigued quickly. This was really surprising and it wasn’t just Q. Buggs was loafing by the end of the game and was a liability. R. Davis was largely ineffective after significantly impacting the game in the playoff matchup the year before. Those players were gassed. I did not see the top overall pick with Williams on the field play in this game.
Only Jennings was able to bat some balls down and beat Anchrum on the few times that TL took a shot. They really missed Christian Miller and it was a mistake to not try and come after Lawrence with more disguised blitzes. Dylan Moses was totally ineffective as a pass rusher. They wanted to protect their secondary and not give up big plays.
TL climbed the pocket when he needed and protected the ball. Bama bottled up the run along the interior of the line for the most part, but let Etienne escape to the perimeter multiple times and gave up rushing TD’s. Clemson was able to get to the edge rushing the ball more than expected. Patrick Surtain was not physical on the edge in rush defense. Rodgers had a great block on the first ETN touchdown. Bama Safeties were so preoccupied with the run that they weren’t able to attack the line of scrimmage the way they normally do.
Mack Wilson who was physically dominant in the previous two Clemson/Bama games didn’t blitz very much and was unable to truly impact the game.
The corners and secondary were not battle tested by their schedule or the SEC. Bama did not see any semblance of quality QB play this year until Kyler Murray and maybe Fromm. Burrow did a bit, but they hadn’t seen anything like Trevor Lawrence. I have been saying all year that Bama’s OOC schedule was awful with Louisville playing so poorly—the secondary was untested.
Bama tried to be physical. They pushed around Renfrow early. They tried with Higgins. But Justyn Ross was having none of that at all. I mean Saivion Smith, and I hope the young man is able to recover fully and quickly from his injury, was abused with Ross just clubbing him away. And everyone says, well the corner fell, but the Safety Thompson was equally broken down and embarrassed.
With the Bama defensive line not getting home, Tony Elliott went to crossing routes in the pass game during the second quarter that completely confused the Bama secondary and coverage. Those crossers were lethal. Tosh Lupoi was schematically beaten and had no answers. When he brought pressure TL recognized it and burned it. No answers. None.
Clemson played every snap, every single snap, like it was their last. It didn’t matter if it was the first play of the game, on the goal-line, or in the fourth during the blowout. Tenacious.
Did they give up yards on the ground and through the air? Yes. But they made the stops they needed to and fought every inch.
I loved the timeouts Clemson took on defense in both halves. Settled the defense down and got them out of some bad looks. More great coaching.
The defensive line missed Dexter Lawrence a ton (I’ll always feel cheated out of these last two games, congrats to the DexStar as he declares for the draft). No doubt. Bama was able to run the A gap and get outside for 4, almost 5 yards a carry, most of the game. But Jacobs is a very talented back and Harris was the number one RB for a reason a couple of years ago.
Jacobs in the Wildcat was tough sledding for the defense. Muse missed some tackles and the LBs missed some fills. JD Davis missed Jacobs in the hole on a 4th down. The line got pushed around more than usual. We didn’t set the edge as well as we normally do and that will be a challenge next year. Bryant and XT got run on during the game. Schematically Venables responded by inserting Skalski for Simmons on run plays. That helped a bit, but definitely something to watch next year.
However, Clemson gave up yards, but made it really tough on short downs and distances. Goal-lines win championships. Effort plays like XT getting a slight push on S. Harris to get him out at the one and pulling down Najee at the one inch line made a huge difference. The tackle by Joseph and Muse on the 3rd down to stop Harris with Wilkins crawling over to help.
I mean..come on.
Christian Wilkins knifing past Leatherwood to trip up Harris. Ferrell going untouched to Tua for the fourth down stop. I’m getting misty missing the Power Rangers already.
What can you say about Clelin Ferrell. He brought a level of toughness to this team. He got the better of Jonah Williams, a supposed first round pick, many times in the game (put him on his back once), while being tough in the run and pass game. Then he goes Suge Knight on everyone in the post-game talking recruitin’?? Cle probably didn’t get home as much as he should have, but neither did the entire line, and Tua got the ball out quickly. But Tua was impacted by the rush and stopped going through all of his progressions as the lead for Clemson continued to grow.
Christian Wilkins deserves a spot in the Ring of Honor. He deserves everything. He played four years at multiple positions along the Dline (Safety in the spring game), special teams (fake punt reception!), and offensive TDs. Healthy throughout his career. Leader. Never missed the CFB playoff. Academic excellence. Power Ranger. Wet Willy Giver. And when he broke down singing the alma mater—that moment just got me...all the feels...
Got to talk about the Safeties. Muse got beat early—got it. But he didn’t get beat like that again. No one did. Wallace gave up inside leverage on a bunch of slants in tough one-on-one matchups—got it. But he didn’t give up yards after the catch. Nothing over the top. Both made some plays. Wallace had a great Irv Smith tackle and Muse was largely great in run support, got the batted ball and the hit on Tua to stop him short on another fourth down. They came through.
Nolan Turner got inserted for Muse and played in the Dime package as well. He gave up some runs, but delivered that clean hit over the middle and didn’t let anything behind him.
Trayvon Mullen got defensive player of the game and his interception and corner blitz were key plays in the game. On the interception Tua was looking off the Safety and just went to Jeudy as the deep man similar to the Georgia TD pass last year, but Clemson and BV were ready. Mullen leaves the under crossing route of Irv Smith and runs the vertical to intercept the ball and Tua never saw him. Smith was wide open, but this was just film study.
Venables also schemed up a great corner blitz off of a wide receiver motion inside (this must mean that the route was understood in film study to either be a shallow cross or some out route). Clemson actually has a mini-bust on the play. Muse as the Safety is either supposed to take Mullen’s guy or cover the flat with the RB and gets caught with the LB covering the TE, fighting through to the open RB late. The WR is open on the shallow cross, but Tua doesn’t have time to see it.
I saw some analysts critiquing Tua for not seeing and recognizing the blitz, but the Safety Muse didn’t tip his hand (and often comes down into the box anyway). With the play design Tua is looking to the right the entire time. Mullen cuts in and causes the fumble on a critical third down stop. This allows Clemson to get the ball back and score before the half.
Congrats to Mullen who declared for the NFL draft today (something we said in the season CB preview article was going to happen).
But Mullen goes down with a calf cramp early in the third quarter. AJ Terrell played a great game. I said he was a 5* who would play his freshman year and quickly become a star (and why landing Booth was essential). He played like a first round talent in this game. He had the interception, jumping the quick out (Simmons got a hand on the ball too, which is why the throw was inaccurate). Also really well scouted because the other WR was going to block and Venables must have picked that up in film study.
AJ also didn’t let any receivers get yards after the catch. Other than the Josh Jacobs cut (I told you all that guy was good...), he played a near flawless game given the WR talent Bama has on their team. No noticeable busts I have seen thus far (I’ve only rewatched the game 6-7 times so far though...PS watching McElroy after the Ross TD realize that Bama was indeed dead in the water and going to get blown out is a thing of beauty—he does a good job too, despite the cheap set).
Mark Fields wasn’t expected to play unless there was an injury going into the game. He came in and was lights out. He played almost half the game! Wow. He was not in the gameplan because he has had a tumultuous time of late. Incredible that he is able to go out in this way.
On Trevor Lawrence
I’m not going to say “I told you all so” too much, but give me a quick paragraph or two. I have consistently said since TL was a junior in HS that he would win the Heisman, be the best QB at Clemson, and win a National Championship. It is funny to see the national pundits all pivot. Luggy never liked TL as much as other prospects stemming in part from his decision to go to the Army bowl over the Under Armour and TL’s performance in the all-star game. They had Justin Fields over TL in the ESPN final rankings.
Remember all of the consternation over that all-star game, even with Clemson sites? Lots of hedging over TL and his ability as a true freshman. Many said he would have too steep a learning curve. You saw it from an ‘analyst’ like McShay near midseason when he was trying to criticize TL’s mechanics bizarrely (he was singing a different tune after the game).
Clemson sites were continually critiquing TL in the lead up to Dabo’s decision, saying Kelly Bryant was the better QB and attacking Trevor’s game. I’ve said it here before, but KB leaving the team was a blessing in disguise because it allowed Trevor to fully embrace the mantle. Heck, folks were ready to start Chase Brice after the Syracuse game and were questioning if TL could stay healthy or even win games this season. Granted, TL needed to progress throughout the season (there were bumps), but this is truly scary, he still has another level of greatness in front of him. Anyone who saw him throw and (sorry not sorry) was paying attention knew TL was the best player the minute he stepped on the practice field.
Here at STS we are happy to have been inaugural members of the TL hype train.
In this game TL was masterful. Remember when we were all worried about his deep ball accuracy??
HOT TAKE: He missed a few easy throws he normally makes every game (the early air ball to the flat, an out route to Ross, and the overthrow to Kendrick). He was that dominant. And it wasn’t what Bama was doing—those were easy misses.
Insert Elmo on fire gif.
30 unanswered points (and it could have been more...)
Slow start that was on the refs more than anything, but after the third down shot to Higgins this corvette was revving. Travis Etienne and the running game was getting stuffed with uncharacteristic TFLs from zone penetration and blocking the A gap. But ETN got some tough runs where Bama couldn’t bring him down with one person. When he got to the secondary he was able to run over some people. Clemson also ran very well on the goal-line. That is amazing. On the 4th Quarter monster drive, we made Bama submit through the run game and TL pushing over guys.
Justyn Ross was spectacular. He came to Clemson being able to do what Sammy Watkins did—beat players off the line. Our other wide receivers struggle at times with beating press man coverage, which is why we employ the double stack looks, but not Ross. Ross was not intimidated by the moment at all. Not a bit. The club move to get away from Saivion Smith and then beating the Safety who had no chance. Ross ran some pretty routes that had Bama defenders guessing.
The first juggling catch was nice as he fended off the defender and stayed in bounds, but TL dropped that pass in the bucket. The one handed pass, with his momentum going the other direction, is a Clemson sports moment I won’t ever forget. Glorious. (and PS the ball was off target because Bama blitzed and Jennings was hitting him, but TL stood tall and delivered in the pocket)
Don’t forget about Tee Higgins rising up for his TD either and his ability to jet for the first 62 yard bomb. How about Rodgers catch and run on the dig route on another third down conversion? This was the pass TL was able to climb up in the pocket and deliver. Renfrow with the third down conversions (I can’t wait for Renfrow to catch on in the NFL and then eventually come back to coach at Clemson).
The offensive line must be talked about and deserves more space. Anchrum had the roughest game, giving up some free rushes to Jennings. Hyatt played his best championship game and deserves a better draft grade than he is getting. Hyatt and Wilkins were the two constants over this playoff run. The interior of the line held up in pass protection beautifully. Trevor had a clean pocket most of the game. Bama didn’t send exotic pressures and the Oline didn’t have to deal with a lot of stunts and blitz pickups.
Falcinelli had the best game of his career. He was getting double team help and double teaming, but he rarely busted. RG with Cervenka had some hiccups and Pollard came in and played much better than he had this past year. This will be interesting next year because Pollard will be given a chance at Center. I want to see Bockhorst given a real shot at RG as well. Regardless, I kept watching for Q. Williams or R. Davis to beat our interior line, but they held up.
I want to write more and could go on and on (we have all offseason for this!), but will settle for quick hitters so I can publish this already:
- Tre Lamar declares for the draft, which was expected and why we loaded up at the LB position. Still leaves a large hole when your two starters leave. Shaq and Chad Smith will need to step up (and hopefully both stay) with Skalski.
- Overton will also likely transfer, but I also hope he stays. The back shoulder throw and catch were unreal.
- Tavien Feaster will be another to watch. I thought he played a great game. The swing pass he took for 30+ yards really settled the game down and led to a score. He also got some tough interior yards running the ball. I know we put in Choice and he deserved to play in this game, but Feaster gives you the pass catching threat. Dixon is another potential freak, but Feaster would be a loss for next season.
- Was this the best team in the college football playoff era? I would argue it was the best playoff championship game performance...
- We exposed flaws in the Alabama secondary, but that Alabama offense was legit. Tua got outschemed, and Venables caught some of his tendencies (especially with Bama playing from behind), but he is a great player with insane skill around him. Don’t minimize Bama too much—it was just that great a performance from the Clemson team.
Excuse me—this Clemson National Championship team.
We are the National Champions my STS friends...(thanks for an amazing season!)