WHAT WENT WRONG AT UNC?
Clemson coaches didn’t expect this to be in a dog fight. Dabo was being honest when he said post-game they got outcoached.
First, Jay Bateman ate Tony Elliott’s lunch. He had Elliott a step behind all game and Bateman’s scheme and disguise of coverages was a problem. But more importantly UNC had figured out Clemson tendencies and formation tells. Remember when Ben Boulware was pointing to the backfield, calling out the Bama play before it was run? That is currently happening and formations are tipping off defenders as to what plays are being run. Many times in the UNC game the defense was able to diagnose exactly what was coming.
Why is this happening? Lots of reasons that come from having your scheme picket apart and scouted, but here are a few standing out:
- Clemson has largely abandoned tempo. If you are going faster it is harder for calls to come from the sideline, for more complex blitz packages to be used, and defenders can’t read and react as quickly. You don’t always want to push tempo like FSU’s lethal simplicity (lethal to your defense in the 4th Q), but it can tire defenses without much depth and make them a step slower. Clemson is also substituting more than in the past, which is slowing the tempo.
- Stripping out eye candy makes it even easier to read offensive plays and has left the offense very basic. In fact, when you see any change it alerts the defense that something is coming (as soon as Powell lined up it was clear it was a wrinkle play—one of the few we have seen). The past two seasons lining up in four wide has been part of the variation to keep defenses off balance, but not it is all on tape. The offense rightly stripped down eye candy years ago when it wasn’t giving any competitive advantage (and was actually tipping off defenses as to where the play was going), but may need to build a little more back into the scheme.
- Relatedly, sometimes you need to actually use a jet sweep or two to keep LBs from keying in on tendencies. Putting LBs in conflict is what motion and RPOs are all about and the offense isn’t doing enough to make like difficult on LBs/Safeties and to create more indecision or cause gap conflicts. Powell was wide open on his little wrinkle play because LBs were committing and no one moves or flinches when Rodgers comes over in motion. Give him the ball or give Ngata the ball on a jet sweep. Take that 5 yard profit. Playmakers need to get the ball in space to loosen up the D more (or else this offense starts to look like Spence’s cluster with the best RB and QB and some of the best WRs in the country).
The defense is dictating to the offense what they are going to run. I have mentioned this in weeks past as a potential problem, but Bateman pretty much said it in the press conference after the game. You show certain looks and you can dictate run or pass to the offense. Our offensive staff counters that you need solutions based on what the defense is showing, but if the opposing defense can fool the OC (and QB by extension) then you are the mouse and the D is the cat for much of the game (and Clemson is relying on talent to win the day).
For example, Bateman said that UNC played light in the box much of the game. But wait—Clemson threw the ball a ton, right? That was because the looks the defense was giving were pass (but really run looks disguised as pass). Chaz Surratt was their Simmons. Using an odd front, the offensive line was completely confused by UNC’s pressure. Not every team or DC can do this, but the offensive line was not up to the task in the game and TL wasn’t able to read it (just good disguise from Bateman). You give the offense a run look but because you know they will run—you can crash your safeties/nickel players since you know it is a run play, especially when Clemson’s run scheme is pretty vanilla overall by design.
Short story—UNC’s defensive line was able to stop the run initially and then disguised really well as Clemson abandoned the run (almost entirely in the second half) because the defense dictated to the offense what was going to happen. This made Clemson even more predictable in the pass game.
Going into the season I flagged these areas on offense:
- TE play
- Third down conversions, especially third and short (losing Renfrow)
- Offensive line depth, specifically interior line
- Loss of Feaster??
TE play is still not good. I really wanted Garrett Williams to stick around for another season and you see his loss as a blocker. Chalk is catching some balls, but doesn’t stretch the field or consistently block. More Davis Allen please.
Overton has disappeared and barely caught a meaningful pass all season. Rodgers is great, but needs to get more separation. All of the wide receivers need to get more separation (granted defenses are squatting on predictable routes).
I’m going to say this as nicely as I can—the offensive line had a rough game. You can’t have those false starts, but I can live with that honestly. One of the big problems was identifying the rush, where the blitz was coming from and that falls largely on the Center and the QB. Center wasn’t able to see it.
What I can’t stand, CAN NOT STAND, is the interior line, specifically the center play, getting consistently blown up against an average UNC defensive line. The line isn’t getting much push, guys are falling down and losing their balance too much, and the center and QB couldn’t identify and weren’t sliding the protection effectively (again, a lot of that was Bateman). Pollard must step up, but has been decent much of the season. Cade Stewart is not the answer at all, however. He is stiff, misses blocks, gets moved consistently—I mean, it was rough. If you are going to pull Pollard, I’d rather move Cervenka over (although he struggles with snaps) and use Bockhorst at RG. Rough.
Feaster was the best pass blocker and Clemson misses it. ETN is trying, but it isn’t great and Lyn-J can’t be trusted yet (it would help ETN if the Center was doing a better job identifying coverage).
I’m not all that concerned.
AJ Terrell got beat because he cut off his coverage, likely expecting help over the top.
Simmons and Muse (pretty sure it was on Simmons) got lost on a crosser man/zone coverage bust in the redzone.
The defense gave up an 11-12 minute 4th Q drive with multiple 4th down conversions. Brutal.
The defense is susceptible to giving up run yardage. To a certain degree, you need to be ok with that this season. Tyler Davis is still a true freshman and will be moved from time to time. Pinckney is ok and Williams is inconsistent. Defensive ends still need to mature and aren’t great in run defense (Xavier Thomas needs to play more!).
Chad Smith has struggled at times, some of that has to do with the defensive line not keeping the LBs as clean.
I’ve watched probably 6 hours or so of practice footage of FSU from fall camp and during the first weeks of the season. Briles, for all his baggage that isn’t talked about enough, is a talented OC and the offense is completely different from last season. Last season the offense consistently self destructed and was awful. So many penalties, no rushing offense, very few explosive plays, and tons of TFLs.
The entire offense is still crippled by poor offensive line play, but the ball is getting out faster and the tempo tries to minimize this deficiency. Still three and outs can be deadly and FSU has paid the price with second half collapses after playing really well offensively early in games.
The FSU wide receivers are starting to make plays down the field. Hornibrook doesn’t have a great deep ball, but he is accurate and efficient. Blackman has the arm talent, but isn’t as efficient or accurate at times. WR Terry is a matchup problem with size and speed. Helton has been a bright spot and Matthews has talent and open field wiggle.
Akers and Laborn are talented RB’s with really bad offensive lines.
On defense FSU can stop the run with their interior talent. When they went with a three man front, there were too many gap busts and RBs torching the front and LB play. The past couple of games this has been largely abandoned and Wilson, Durden and Robinson have shown their talent. Cooper comes in and gives FSU some serious interior beef. Robinson got called for a questionable targeting penalty and will be out for the first half. That is a big loss since Robinson is FSU’s top pass rusher. The offensive line is going to have to step up and not get pushed back along the interior of the line.
Linebacker play is still a question mark for FSU, but since Leavitt has come in as a
co-defensive coordinator a limited member of the staff the personnel usage has improved and run fits are tighter. Rice is playing more and Jackson is reading offenses and reacting better. Nasirildeen will come up and hit you. He got the targeting penalty last season after an ugly hit on TL, but before his ejection the defense had played pretty well. The game was still close after the first half despite the really, really bad offense (remember when they got in the redzone and then snapped the ball 60 yards back after a couple of penalties!!). The secondary is talented, but often undisciplined.
If Clemson handles FSU and wins a 42-14 or 45-21 game—this team is back on track. If this is another 4th quarter game then it might be time to reevaluate where this team stands. GT, Syracuse, and even A&M have looked really weak in the weeks after playing Clemson. Obviously, Clemson has national championship talent and can plod along with this schedule and still make the playoff, but this should be a good gauge for the direction the team is headed coming off the bye week.
Lastly, this is an important game for FSU, perhaps pivotal. The majority of the talent on the FSU team are draft eligible juniors who will likely jump to the draft. Names like Akers, Wilson, Nasirildeen, and others. The past two recruiting classes haven’t had the same kind of talent and the 2020 class is particularly weak in the areas where FSU needs to improve. The talent isn’t walking through the door likes it needs to for Willie T. I’m skeptical Taggart is going to return this team to elite status (although Briles and Leavitt would certainly improve things next season and they would become a dangerous team, but not a championship team) and every year under Taggart the ability to climb back quickly into the upper echelon gets more difficult.
Don’t forget 51-14.