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Clemson vs Syracuse Film Review: 1st Quarter

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday wasn’t the affair most expected coming off Clemson’s historic win at Georgia Tech and Syracuse’s dud at the hands of a school which I don’t even want to acknowledge. I humbly include myself in with most, since I rounded up my pregame piece on the Syracuse defense with a jinx on every single point below:

This should be another ho-hum nooner unless Clemson piles up a ton of unforced errors. No matter what Dabo said about them publicly, the Orange shouldn’t force nearly their usual amount. Syracuse’s saving grace has been turnovers borne from aggression in the back end, but Clemson has been clinical through the air and remembered they can out-scheme instead of merely out-talent opponents. This should be a monster game for Travis Etienne if he actually gets 10 carries. Trevor Lawrence merely needs to pick up where he left off and exit this game by halftime.

Welp. It wasn’t a ho-hum nooner until nearly 3 o’clock; Clemson did indeed pile up more unforced errors than any point in the last 1.5 seasons, seemingly; Clemson was nowhere near clinical through the air; there was little “out-scheming” or “out-talenting” (and we could argue the complete opposite regarding the wide receiver positions); and neither Travis Etienne nor Trevor Lawrence had monster games.

DLG and I will go play by play here over the next day or two to try and explore what happened. I had notions going into review on who/what is perhaps most to blame, but I won’t harp on specific individuals up here. I’ll merely point out the two biggest concerns entering the season reared their ugly heads, and then some: interior OL play and outside WR development.

The past few seasons, we’ve seen defenses load up against Etienne to take him away. This is pretty much a no-brainer approach against an elite running back, but then you realize the #1 overall draft pick is next to him at QB. It numbs the brain to think the correct strategy is, “yes, let’s force the generationally talented quarterback to beat us with his arm,” when (of course) he can blister you with any and every possible throw. Yet this year, more than the last two years, it can work because defenses like their chances against the guys Clemson trots out at field and boundary receiver.

The staff is correct when they say the constant inside run blitzes Syracuse called all day make it seem the OL is worse than it is. This is why there are quick flares and screens to Rodgers thrown into every inside zone, and why it seems Clemson throws so many short passes and never feeds Etienne enough — defenses force this and Lawrence is right to pull the handoff and flip it outside.

But this is where the wide receiver group, excepting Amari Rodgers, leaves a lot to be desired. A year ago Clemson countered this same normal tactic (often to a fault) with elite outside threats, and no one could cover them consistently until Ohio State and LSU showed the country that the way to blow up Clemson’s lanky outside WR group was with physically overpowering and aggressive man or pattern match coverage. This year, Clemson is nowhere near as good outside, and defenses have learned they can play even more conservatively out wide and still not worry about Clemson getting open.

Until the WR group begins to show some development — Ladson leads the nation in drops, Ngata doesn’t look 100%, and Williams isn’t yet big or strong enough — Clemson may grow increasingly inconsistent against some of the better defenses in the back half of the schedule because they don’t have developed outside threats to bail out the scheming or the OL play like in recent years.

The good news, though, is that the defense was solid given they were down their top player at each level of the defense. A pick 6, a blocked punt, and a slot receiver beating a backup safety with tempo were the only scores surrendered. The defense bailed out the offense with scores and short fields most of the day, and basically forced the offense to finally put the game away.

This was a remarkable defensive effort given all the new faces playing major snaps (and on offense as well, it must be noted), but this was against the worst QB and perhaps overall offense on the schedule, and it shouldn’t have come to this. I’m not going to sound any alarms, but we need to look for more urgency and development from the WR group if Clemson hopes to keep up with OSU or Bama in two months — and that’s assuming you only need to score 20 points or so to get past Notre Dame.

Clemson opening drive

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4 down nickel alignment PA bubble to Rodgers gains 10. Not a run blitz, this was a called bubble not a check out.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Split zone pull, bubble to Rodgers gains 10 more. Love seeing split zone action in the run game, at this point in the year I'm all for moving on from mere inside zone runs. On split zone, the TE arc blocks to kick out on the backside rusher. Works great for slide routes and flares to the flat off play action as well.
1st & 10 11 shotgun (TE split) vs 4 down nickel Tunnel screen vs fire zone dropped by Ladson. Normally a screen behind a blitz is a big play, but Syracuse sniffed this one out and recovered. A catch would've been a loss, but there are fewer and fewer excuses for all Ladson's drops.
2nd & 10 11 pistol vs 3-3-5 Split zone read dive gains 2. There's a 6 man run blitz, most pressure coming to clog the middle. This will be a recurring theme...
3rd & 8 11 shotgun vs nickel Dig route to Powell complete against cover 4, cuts outside and wins the race to the pylon, 25 yard touchdown. Happy for Powell (and QT!) since he's a great blocker and can be a good underneath possession target. This catch and run subtly showed us some of his limitations though; he looked slow to accelerate and never hit a high gear in a race to the endzone...

Syracuse opening drive

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 3-3-5 ZR dive loses 1, Jones on a fire made first contact. Venables had a good bullet blitz but got sealed out, Spector was there to fill with Jones.
2nd & 11 11 shotgun vs 3-3-5 OZ handoff gains 1. Bresee had good penetration but was knocked down from behind, preventing a TFL. Murphy ran down the line well to fill the cutback hole.
3rd & 10 11 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Deep fade open vs inverted cover 2 (corners bail into deep halves with the Mike dropping into deep middle; safeties and OLBs cover underneath), receiver quit on the route or else it's a big play. Booth busted here, he got caught peeking on a curl route and the fade snuck past him. He already had inside leverage as deep half coverage warrants, but was nowhere near deep.

Clemson ball, 11:47, Clemson 26, 7-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4 down, cover 4 shell Stick and go to Powell against cover 4, broken up, could've been picked. I said above Powell is a solid possesion target on underneath routes...not contested downfield balls. I don't like this route to anyone but the rotating boundary receivers, Powell was nowhere near open and I doubt he has the ball skills to make himself open on jump balls like these.
2nd & 10 11 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Outside split zone into another run blitz, no gain. There's a big initial hole and Etienne cuts into it but finds Carman in the way with his back to the hole, defender walks past his literal backside to easily fill. Syracuse thus far has thrown run blitzes in every time they're in a 3 down look.
3rd & 10 11 shotgun vs 4 down nickel Nobody open against a cover 3 fire zone, Lawrence rolls and throws it out of bounds. On this drive we saw the first of what will be many blown run assignments and receivers' consistent inability to get open.

Syracuse ball, 10:41, Syracuse 20, 7-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 10 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Swing pass to the RB incomplete. Charleston was on the line in a stand up DE/OLB look, had cloud flat coverage and would've been there big TFL if the throw were accurate.
2nd & 10 10 shotgun (trips bunched left) vs 3-3-5 Dig route intercepted by Turner underneath tight cover 0. Horrible decision by the QB. Booth and Turner had the boundary dig bracketed, needed to check to a different receiver. Clemson had sound coverage against the trips bunch too, good zero coverage with underneath hook zones from Spector and Turner.

Clemson goes 3 & out for a short field goal on 3 consecutive touches for Etienne. Stewart gives up a horrible TFL on an OZ in particular on 1st down, easily let the 1 technique get past him without even a technical move.

Syracuse ball, 8:46, Syracuse 25, 10-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 ace vs 3-3-5 Stretch zone blown up by Spector on a bullet and XT! Loss of 2. Perfect blitz from Spector, your most outstanding player on defense halfway through the season. XT in the game early and on the stat sheet as well.
2nd & 12 10 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Quick curl vs inverted cover 2 gains 14. Phillips was there to wrap up in flat coverage but missed the tackle.
1st & 10 10 shotgun vs 3-3-5 IZ dive stopped in the B gap by Henry. Great play by Henry to hold the edge while being blocked to prevent it bouncing outside, and getting off the block to make the solo stop.
2nd & 8 11 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Spector comes free on a fire blitz to force an errant checkdown, incomplete. Soft cover 3 left the flat loosely guarded but bodies did at least rally toward it quickly.
3rd & 8 01 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Tunnel screen vs 5 man rush in front of man cover 1, gain of 7. Good call against the blitz, Venables recognized and recovered in time to hold on and bring him down before reaching the marker.
4th & 1 11 Wildcat vs 3-3-5 Power stuffed for a loss, turnover on downs. Great line play, especially with only 3 down on a 4th & 1. The entire front 7 got great push and Charleston came free off the edge to make first contact in the backfield.

Clemson ball, 5:54, Syracuse 43, 10-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun (all strength to field) vs 3-3-5 IZ to Dixon gains 8. First run success up the middle we've seen today against heavy LB bullets.
2nd & 2 11 shotgun vs 4 down nickel PA quick curl to Powell broken up. This should've been an easy pick 6, Syracuse jumped the route but the defender went for Powell instead of the ball.
3rd & 2 11 shotgun vs 4 down nickel Rollout, corner to Ladson complete for 19 yards. This is one of those throws where Trevor is just showing off. Rolling left and throwing a dime to the corner? NFL stuff.
1st & 10 11 pistol vs 3-3-5 IZ pull, bubble to Rodgers gains 5. Heavy heavy run blitz this time off both edges, correct read to pull it.
Holding, 1st & 20 11 shotgun vs 4 down nickel Jet motion, split zone to Etienne, spins through traffic for a highlight touchdown. Etienne shows again what he can do with even the simplest of holes, it's a low bar for an OL to clear!

Syracuse ball, 4:25, Syracuse 25, 17-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 10 shotgun vs 3-3-5 IZ stuffed, gain of 1. Murphy held the point of attack on the edge, Venables filled and plugged.
2nd & 9 10 shotgun vs 3-3-5 All LBs fire in front of man cover 1, slant complete in front of Booth for 10. Syracuse has held up well in proection thus far, Booth beaten inside fairly easily.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Inverted veer keeper gains 4. Eric Dungey was a nightmare on this, I'm triggered. Syracuse won the numbers game here and got good push.
2nd & 6 10 shotgun vs 3-3-5 All LBSs fire in front of cover 3, PA, deep post is doubled and wildly overthrown in what is truly a throwaway. Venables is sending a lot of pressure, it's not finishing in sacks but these pressures are getting through well enough and forcing poor reads/throws.
3rd & 6 10 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Dropback vs man cover 1 behind LBs and a late Zanders bullet, pressure is there again and it's a throwaway. I said earlier this month I'm not a fan of late blitzes like this but it worked as intended: the late rush was a free rush.

Clemson ball, 1:59, Clemson 23, 17-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4 down cover 4 shell Bubble to Spector gains 5. A good read with 2 on 1 outside and the Sam inside, Williams has to block the edge better so Spector can get outside.
2nd & 5 11 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Split zone handoff to Dixon gains 8. Good push, hole, and tough running by Dixon. Interior OL did well here, Carman helped with a good seal.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4 down cover 4 shell Deep dig to Ngata vs cover 4 overthrown, bobbled 3 or 4 times and finally dropped. That's the 3rd ball which should've been picked off already. Ngata was bumped by the Mike right when Lawrence threw it and that messed up the timing, but still thrown too high and not wide enough outside.
2nd & 10 20 shotgun vs 4 down nickel Fake swing to Etienne, throwback flare screen to Dixon, tipped away by the line. I like the idea with defenses keying on Etienne in the pass game now, but that swing really was wide open with Etienne only needing to beat the Sam. Dixon would've had big yards on the other side as well. Bookmark this, it has great potential.
3rd & 10 11 shotgun (trips to field) vs 4 down nickel 6 man pressure in front of man cover 1, deep in route to Ladson is dropped. Ensuing punt is blocked, teeing up the 2nd quarter angst and malcontent which used to belong to STS alone in fanboy circles! Tight coverage but Ladson won the route by getting inside early. Wasn't an easy catch but it should've been completed.

The quarter ends with Syracuse in the red zone after the blocked punt. Prepare yourselves for the doldrums...