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Boston College’s Defense Provides Clemson the Perfect Test for its Trouble Spots

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It won’t be an easy one, but it’s what Clemson needs

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Boston College Adam Richins-USA TODAY Sports

This will be a different opponent defensive preview column than usual for two reasons: one, it’s a “get right” week for Clemson, plain and simple; two, Boston College calls a lot of the same man coverage and single high cover 3 looks which new coach Jeff Hafley employed for Ohio State’s defense. Thus, I will focus more on what we want to see from the Clemson offense against the BC defense rather than over-explain straightforward man cover 1 and cover 3 defenses.

These two points coincide wonderfully, since the stats back up what our eyes told us about Clemson’s mounting struggles against man coverage. Clemson’s wide receivers need to improve against man, and BC provides an opportunity to do just that.

There’s no sugarcoating just how alarming the numbers are against man coverage beyond 10 yards. Though I didn’t want to panic in this week’s film review, those numbers are beyond hideous when you have the best arm in the country throwing to the self-proclaimed “WRU.” This is where the Justyn Ross injury really hurts, and where we see just how badly Clemson needs Frank Ladson to improve, Joe Ngata to heal up, or EJ Williams to add 10+ pounds of muscle (which won’t happen in-season).

The book is out on the 2020 Clemson offense. In recent years, teams loaded up against Travis Etienne and played conservative zone outside to try and keep Tee Higgins and Ross in front of them. The aforementioned pair dominated the sidelines all the way through the schedule anyway and made deep plays to boot, until Ohio State (this is where BC and Jeff Hafley come in) and LSU obliterated WRU with aggressive press man and pattern match coverage. They showed how Clemson’s long, thin, jump ball specialists couldn’t hold up against physical corners who had the talent and strength to jam and throw off their timing.

Fast forward to 2020 and defenses still key on taking away Etienne, but have learned they can equally play both aggressive coverage outside to alter a route or sit back in softer zones to keep Clemson from running past them — because the wide receiver development sans Ross remains a work in progress.

A healthy Ngata should be able to overcome tighter coverages with his frame and technical prowess, but he’s not there yet based on recent outings. Syracuse didn’t allow many openings in either softer zones or the occasional tighter man coverages. They basically said, “We just won’t let Ladson run past us, we’ll jump routes on everyone else from a safe cushion, and bet those WRs won’t have enough separation to make any sort of contested catches.” Syracuse was right, and their DBs largely won the day.

Fortunately, Clemson does have an inside passing game with slot Amari Rodgers and TEs Braden Galloway and Davis Allen, along with lethal checkdowns and screens to Etienne. It isn’t hyperbole to say this has carried the offense despite still-developing outside targets and an interior OL overwhelmed by heavy run blitzes. It’s why Lawrence’s completion percentage is high overall despite the poor numbers against man coverage downfield. This should help open up the perimeter, but since Ngata pulled his core muscles, we’ve yet to see much out wide beyond Ladson merely running himself open on go routes — though Williams has acquitted himself well enough in his opportunities thus far.

The BC game is the best opportunity to change this disturbing trend. They offer the types of coverages Clemson will increasingly face throughout the schedule and almost certainly against Ohio State or Alabama, though without the talent which should threaten Clemson outside.

That said, if BC is strong anywhere, it’s in the secondary. Playing man coverage behind aggressive linebackers rushing against any inside run action, like opponents routinely throw at Clemson, is right in BC’s wheelhouse. They are wont to lean on a good linebacker group — headlined by All-ACC MLB Max Richardson — to help an underwhelming DL anyway, and the confidence and improved man coverage techniques Hafley has instilled in an experienced cornerback group have already paid dividends. This will be a tough test, but it’s exactly the test Clemson’s interior OL and outside WRs need.

The Eagles run your typical 4-down front with stacked linebackers, and will far more often keep the strong safety down near the line than show a two high look — meaning the strong safety effectively becomes a 4th quasi-linebacker, or splits out against a slot WR so the Sam can remain in the box against base 11 personnel.

Notice the Sam stacked in the box and the SS split out on the slot. Clemson, for what it’s worth, generally takes the opposite approach — best exemplifying the differing man vs zone philosophies between BC and Clemson, respectively. BC keeps more bodies in the box and mans a DB on the slot, while Clemson throws a hybrid Sam on the slot and keeps both safeties at depth to disguise pressures and coverages.

This obviously creates an aggressive single high look with a lone free safety, meaning unless BC disguises coverages, Clemson will find plenty of 1-on-1 matchups outside. And Clemson must win them; this is a better linebacker group than anyone Clemson has faced to date, and they can keep the inside running lanes clogged without reckless run blitzes.

Your typical, aggressive man cover 1 robber. The free safety is the lone deep defender, with the SS and Sam splitting the slots, the Mike on the back, and the Will dropping into a robber (a lone underneath zone defender, which also creates a convenient QB spy).

In the defensive backfield, cornerback Brandon Sebastian headlines the unit. BC generally doesn’t flip cornerbacks depending on the field and boundary side, so Clemson could find a matchup it likes and go after it with formations and alignments — though BC has a lot of length and depth at corner and should provide a considerable challenge outside based on recent performances.

Like in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, aggressive man coverages allow Clemson to scheme QB runs and RB receptions beyond mere checkdowns if the WRs are contained by the DBs. Inside running lanes will likely be at a premium, but Etienne should find space on the edge both as a runner and receiver. Underneath, Clemson can continue to rely on Rodgers and the TEs on a bevy of play action and RPO schemes to generally stay out of bad situations. It’s the deep ball outside where the difference lays between a blowout and another angsty afternoon.

I’m watching for more split zone and counter runs to pull a linebacker out of position or get Etienne to the edge, respectively, but especially eager to see how Clemson schemes receivers open against what we all expect will be man coverages. Most of all, which outside receivers step up? Can Ladson create separation beyond his speed and hold onto the ball more consistently? Is Ngata healthy enough to be the go-to target on back shoulder and contested throws like we glimpsed in the season opener? The answers there are your answer for the final margin. BC has enjoyed an offensive renaissance and injuries afflict the Clemson defense, so we can’t rely on the defense to bail out the offense all day like against Syracuse.

This is a more likely candidate to be an “ugly win which pays developmental dividends later on” than Syracuse ultimately became. Clemson should still pull away, but the known trouble spots on offense will determine how long it takes. Watch the guards and center trio up front, the boundary receivers, and the backup defenders stepping into critical roles — but bear in mind the growing pains we’ve seen are evidence for growth. This is a stronger test than your usual “get right” game, but it’s perfect for a quick diagnostic run-through.

Clemson 48, BC 28