First, this game was not close. Clemson didn’t get by Texas A&M. Clemson beat them 24-3 for all intents and purposes, especially when thinking about the playoff. I was nervous entering this game, and rightfully so, because it was the toughest game on the regular season schedule. This was a statement game and another defeat of Jimbo Fisher for Dabo and company (5 straight!).
The defensive gameplan was beyond legit. Jimbo tried to slow the game down and limit the possessions and Jimbo was successful with a 7 minute drive for one and a half quarters. While FSU is struggling to add/incorporate/kinda do a 3-4 look, BV is here with 6 different base defenses to pull from and adapt every snap. And without majorly shifting personnel. That is actual 3D chess.
The DIME package was fully operational. Simmons was sitting as a Safety for much of the game, blitzing when needed and Clemson kept everything in front of them. Apart from an early missed throw by Mond where Simmons was caught a bit flat footed, there wasn’t another ball that really got behind the defense. Guys were in position with very few missed assignments (and those came with backups in the game). BV wanted to keep everything in front, limit explosive plays, and stop Mond from running the ball. Most fans don’t see this, but Clemson was ready on about four or five different plays to attack Mond rolling out of the pocket (think of NC State last year at the beginning of the game where Muse sacks Finley on the rollout). Clemson knew the running game for A&M wasn’t going to be explosive and instead focused on confusing Mond.
Don’t give BV an entire offseason to prepare.
This is a huge win and should be celebrated, not nitpicked (but that is what I am here for...). The big picture is that Clemson can go toe to toe with anyone in the country and not be physically dominated or out-skilled. The defense is able to play at a national championship caliber level for four quarters and not blink. The team will also get better from this game.
Credit to the crowd. It absolutely made a difference in the game and resulted in multiple A&M penalties. It was hot and the crowd didn’t miss a beat.
I’m also not one to rag on refs, but I’m still not sure how replay didn’t overturn the Ausbon catch where his foot straddles the out of bounds with his left foot. He didn’t have possession when his right foot dragged and the two feet went down almost simultaneously. The play stands because apparently there are no cameras that catch the pass from the front (huh?), but what makes it the most frustrating is the front judge—who sees when Ausbon actually catches the ball is calling for an incompletion and the back judge, who can’t see anything overrules him. Awful.
Now that all the niceties are out of the way, let’s dig in and dissect some of those areas that need improvement. As Coach Elliott said, there were a lot of points left on the table. There were a lot of missed assignments (but on the other hand—it is kinda scary that Clemson could dominate, but still have another level to hit). And it hits you on the very first play of the game (this is better covered in Alex’s 1st Q Review but I add a bit here).
Justin Madubuike. Number 52 was a beast all night (and here I will add that his late hit personal foul on TL was really late and very dirty—TL was lucky to walk away without a significant injury. Trevor actually took a couple of nasty hits and surely has some sore ribs this weekend).
He completely blows up Gage and gets a free run at Trevor Lawrence. A&M only rushed 4. The next play is a screen of sorts to ETN (off of 10 personnel or 4 wide on the second play of the game), but the Aggies stunt and #52 is following #5 up the A gap to disrupt. Great call by Elko. TL hits Ross on a beautiful read and throw, which is important because ETN lets the LB through on a whiff as the defensive line drops in coverage.
The first down run is a TFL against ETN (very rare). Carman is stood up by Madubuike. Chalk can’t hold his edge block and Cervenka gets little push coming around pulling.
After another great throw from TL to Ross, we have another first down run to ETN that goes nowhere. Simpson and Cervenka are pulling and Carman can’t get out fast enough to block the LB. Gage completely overruns his block on the Safety and three guys converge on ETN. No chance.
2nd and 8 and it is a quick pass to Ross in the flat. Chalk can’t get over to make his block and Ross isn’t explosive here. TFL. On third down no one is really open and TL sends it into the endzone. BT Potter misses the 47 yard attempt.
The interior and TE blocking was a problem, but it got better as the A&M players started dropping like flies and we adjusted (we started running more outside and throwing the ball to the RBs). The good news is we won’t see another DT like Madubuike who is ready for the NFL and the Oline improved as the game went on.
The next drive TL gets his foot stepped on by Carman—another scary moment. But let’s talk Jackson Carman. Sure he has a few technique issues now and then and a few hiccups, but man—the physicality. He was pancaking A&M lineman. He also didn’t struggle against a faster pass rush from A&M’s #3 Johnson, who was a smaller, quicker lineman. He will face another challenge against Syracuse who, despite their putrid performance against the speed of Maryland, are very good pass rushers and disruptors (apart from Maryland—yikes was it bad). DE’s Robinson (#94) and Coleman (#55) have given Clemson problems for a couple of seasons and could be the best Clemson faces during the season. However, Carman is SKRONG!! He also played every meaningful snap at LT against A&M.
Matt Bockhorst played 32 snaps in the game and further showed he could not only fill in for Gage, but provide no dropoff (and in this game might have even outperformed).
Overton misses a high pass from TL and disappears much of the game. He needs to show up moving forward. Overton and Powell need to show up or Rodgers will start taking more and more of their snaps. Good to see Rodgers back, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone when he was tackled hard (can we ease him back just a bit more?). Ladson needs to catch that ball and it is so frustrating because he had it and couldn’t secure it as he rolled over.
Higgins was a first rounder in this game. His adjustment on the long ball where the pass is slightly behind him was stellar. Moar Ngata!
ETN couldn’t break away in the run game early, but he caught those passes! This is key against tougher opponents crowding the line.
Lyn-J Dixon also showed he can perform at the highest level. Apart from the goal-line stop/debacle/safety/blown whistle no-call, Dixon was perhaps the player of the game in the second half.
I’ll end on offense by quickly stating the obvious—don’t play reserve Olineman, in their first action during the game. on the half yard line. It is a recipe for a Safety! I am sure the coaches thought it was going to be on the 20 yard line and then didn’t want to pull the lineman and went ahead and trusted them. I am fine with playing reserves, but let’s be a bit cautious on the half yard line.
They tested DK early and often. He surpassed my lofty expectations. Receivers weren’t getting separation like they have in the past. No busts and every play was a competitive play without any silly penalties. Other than Bama, Clemson won’t face a better collective group of wide receivers all season. A&M got some throws on Terrell, but nothing over the top and Ausbon is a quality receiver. Goodrich came in and had some nice plays too. You have to feel good about the corner play, it is proving to be elite. Now the test is doing it against tempo.
Nolan Turner missed one tackle that would’ve forced a longer field goal. Pretty amazing game other than that miscue. Forced fumbles are wonderful and will hopefully be a part of an opportunistic defense that causes turnovers.
We need to talk K’Von Wallace. Rather than sticking him exclusively over the slot, it was Wallace who creeped up in run defense and blitz packages more in this game than I have ever seen. He was playing more of a Nickel/D’OD role with more coverage responsibility than a Safety in the Dime package. It proved to be really confusing and effective.
Muse also played really well. Obviously with the interception, but more importantly there weren’t any busts. Guys were in position, which is really the most important part of playing defense when your team has plenty of talent.
We have ourselves a player. It is remarkable what Davis is doing as a true freshman. What kind of impact is he having—just check out the snap count. Davis-44, Pinckney-27, Williams-11, Jefferies-5. No one else logged snaps at DT. In this game the defensive line was largely trying to plug holes and keep contain. You don’t have as many snaps when you play Dime, but it is clear who the coaches are trusting at this early stage.
I do think there is another level that this defensive line needs to achieve as the season goes on. Foster and Rudolph are solid, but adjusting to playing more snaps. XT has flashed (and I almost lost it when it looked like he was seriously hurt) and Henry and Mascoll need more seasoning. XT pulled the most snaps at DE in this game with 43. XT’s ability to cover in the flat (he was doing it on the Spector/Wallace sack to cover Mond’s hot read to the RB) allows the defense to be multiple and confuse QB’s. Henry had 21 snaps and is coming along, but still not there with run defense and technique (Rudolph-29 and Foster-32).
Now the test is whether or not the defense can handle teams running tempo (Wake, Cuse, UNC some, and even BC runs tempo now). BV has been signaling plays in faster this year, but we will see if it holds up against a lot of tempo.
At linebacker Skalski and Smith are much better in pass coverage so far. They still miss a gap here and there and Smith needs to wrap up all the time, but they are looking like an improvement over last year on the whole. They also don’t have as strong a Dline in front of them to keep them clean. Spector is really flashing. He is providing all of the depth because after him there is a big dropoff and then after Venables there is another drop off. Getting the backup LBs some seasoning is going to be a priority in the upcoming blowouts.
Wow. That Mann is a weapon as a punter and good to get the actual Ray Guy winner off the schedule. Spiers wasn’t bad and didn’t shank any kicks.
BT was dealing with some leg tightness, but still sent every kickoff through the endzone and hit the field goal he was supposed to despite missing the 47 yard attempt. No doubts on his extra points.
DK had a nifty punt return and should remain the returner.
Why was Cuse so bad against Maryland? Relatively new scheme and personnel were thrown at inexperienced linebackers who couldn’t keep up with the speed of Maryland’s RB’s and skill players. The run fits were atrocious. When Cuse stacked the box, they hit them over the top. I think some of that will get fixed this week, but not enough. DT’s have taken a step back from last season (one is injured), LB’s are a work in progress, and the secondary can cover, but aren’t as physical as in the past. DeVito hasn’t proven much of anything, but should be more relaxed at home.
Clemson has been preparing for this game, just like they did for A&M. There is an expectation that it is going to get ugly. It might take a quarter, but it is going to get ugly.