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Clemson vs Pitt Film Review: 1st Quarter

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Clemson
The two best Clemson’s ever seen
Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

In a surprise to almost no one, Saturday was overall one of the most impressive performances Clemson delivered so far this season. Pitt is much better than Clemson made them look, and you almost have to feel bad for them taking what FSU deserved. Trevor Lawrence was brilliant in his return, the defense looked sharp and competent again with its best players healthy in the middle, and even the run game exceeded admittedly modest expectations against one of the best defensive fronts in the nation.

There were plenty of lulls in the second and third quarters, but rotating walk-ons heavily into the rotation early rather than sticking with the two-deep can make it hard to keep a mental edge - like when you see Will Swinney getting WR snaps in the first quarter. Save the walk-ons for garbage time in order to build the competent depth you’ll actually need throughout the year and beyond (in fairness, the wide receiver walk-ons may have been on this week’s two-deep). Regardless, Clemson found its edge again later in the third quarter before adding style points in the fourth, and Clemson’s first quarter was so dominant that national voters and writers were already checked out before Clemson sputtered in the second.

Here I’ll dive into a highlight-filled first quarter, though not explicitly each play as usual given the sheer length of the quarter and the lack of any lengthy drive charts to compile between quick Clemson scores and Pitt turnovers. DLG will cover the second quarter later this week along with anything he deems prudent in second half garbage time (little if anything other than gratuitous Lawrence highlights I would imagine).

Championship Phase has visibly been engaged. Venables threw at us yet another new wrinkle, with Trenton Simpson playing weakside DE and James Skalski the lone linebacker in a 4-1-6(ish) dime look to begin the game. Malcolm Greene provided a spark at nickel corner for the first time this year, and Joseph Charleston looked much better in place of the injured Zanders. A young team is at last showing true improvement with healthy veterans returning to the fold. This should be a very fun December.

Pitt ball, 15:00, Pitt 25 yard line

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 ace vs an interesting nickel/dime look. Simpson is a hand down weak side end, Greene is playing nickel in front of 3 safeties. I'll erroneously call this a 4-1-6 for simplicity's sake so if you see this that's what I mean. Jet sweep to the WR, Malcome Green sets the edge from nickel/Sam and Turner crashes the alley, gain of 3. Greene was a welcome addition in his first serious action, played very well and has me much more optimistic for the postseason than I've been since early October.
2nd & 7 Empty shotgun against 4-1-6 Slot fade against Goodrich in man cover 1, back shoulder incomplete. Goodrich was in good position but not to defend the back shoulder, WR couldn't adjust in time.
3rd & 7 10 shotgun vs 4-1-6 Simpson squeezes inside the RT for an easy sack, beautiful, PUNT. Hello Trenton Simpson. A mixed bag against ND, I like having him focusing on simply rushing in this package -- lower risk and higher reward.

Clemson ball, 13:50, Clemson 38

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun (Galloway flexed) vs 4-3 PA, double slant to Williams throw way behind against cover 3, incomplete. Lawrence missed badly. Pitt was bailing from a tight cover 4 shell into soft cover 3, safety and SLB both bit on Rodgers and Williams had a big cushion and running lane.
2nd & 10 11 shotgun vs 4-3 IZ to Etienne gains 7! McFadden absolutely worked the 3 tech 5 yards upfield and got a seal for good measure. Putnam caught the Mike after getting off a double with on the 3 tech!
3rd & 3 Empty shotgun vs 4-3 Quick in route to Rodgers against cover 4 broken up. Great play by the Mike jumping and undercutting the route. Normally a crossing route underneath kills cover 4 once it gets past the single inside underneath zone, this time the Mike anticipated it and got the hand in.

Pitt ball, 13:04, Pitt 14

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4-1-6 RB draw gains 6. DL stunt took Davis right out of the hole.
2nd & 4 11 shotgun vs 4-1-6 Quick out vs cover 4, incomplete. Good out break and coverage by Charleston, safety play has looked much better than last time out thus far.
3rd & 4 10 shotgun (tight double stacks) vs 4-1-6 Tight man cover 2, shallow zones, Davis tips the throw and Greene catches the deflection. Poor decision by Pickett, Clemson knew he was throwing short and had 4 bodies in the window if Davis hadn't tipped it. Point Venables.

Clemson scores in 3 plays on an RPO fade to Williams (with the obligatory bubble option to Rodgers underneath), highlight gif party commences.

Pitt ball, 11:36, Pitt 25, 7-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 10 shotgun vs 4-1-6 Delayed RB dive gains 3. Bresee stunted away from the hole, center climbed but Skalski beat him to fill and thump.
2nd & 7 11 shotgun vs 4-1-6 Quick curl vs man cover 1 Mike bullet, dropped. Turner was in soft coverage but broke on the curl, Pickett threw way too late and Turner knocked the late ball loose on arrival.
3rd & 7 11 shotgun vs 4-1-6 Cover 4 fire zone picked up, post against Thornton who had to bail from a blitz look incomplete. Poor throw but Thornton did well to undercut the deep post crosser and force Pickett to try back shoulder on a diagonal route, WR couldn't adjust.

Clemson ball, 10:56, Clemson 19, 7-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 pistol vs 4-3 Fake sweep, reverse shovel to Rodgers gains 17. This had no business getting positive yards, Pitt had two free blitzers into the gap Rodgers hit but he shook both, bounced outside and ran through people on the edge for seemingly impossible yardage.
1st & 10 Empty shotgun vs 4-3 Deep post to Williams against cover 4 is wide open, thrown late, Williams hangs on despite a big hit. The future. Lawrence almost got him killed but this showed elite ball skills. Throw some meat on his bones and you can see what Dabo means when he hypes up Williams. Still unsure if he can hold up against Ohio State or Bama physicality this postseason (Ngata please get healthy) but at least he is a downfield threat.
1st & 10 11 pistol vs 4-3 Counter to Dixon gains 2. Pitt had this sniffed out but Dixon at least finished the run with a thump of his own.
2nd & 8 11 shotgun vs 4-3 PA vs cover 4, Galloway is free up the seam but stopped to sit in an opening when Lawrence threw him upfield, Galloway dropped it. Galloway has to come down with this. Lawrence eluded pressure and stepped up to draw in the linebackers. Can't blame Galloway for sitting in an opening but he got two hands on it.
3rd & 8 10 shotgun vs 4-3 Dropback vs cover 4, Rodgers' dig was breaking open but Lawrence was flushed, eventually throws it away. Field goal is good. Williams worked back toward Lawrence well on the scramble drill but Lawrence wasn't going to throw back across his body in field goal range.

Andrew Booth immediately gives us another jaw dropping play...

I won’t even pretend to tell you I know what coverage this was unless Booth was just freelancing.

Clemson ball, 9:17, Clemson 35, 10-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4-3 PA, quick out to Rodgers gains 5. Not often we see Rodgers lose a one on one wrestling match with a DB, good tackle.
2nd & 5 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Cover 3 behind double LB bullets, easy quick curl vs bail technique to Powell gains 13. Savvy veteran WR play to peel off and become the hot read.
1st & 10 11 pistol vs 4-3 Swing pass to Etienne gains 5. Strong safety flew the alley when Etienne ran out of the backfield get ready for Clemson to take advantage of that.
2nd & 5 11 pistol vs 4-3 TROLLING FLEA FLICKER WIDE OPEN TOUCHDOWN TO POWELL LMAO. Safety biting any sort of action to Etienne, whaddaya know.

Ok, for real, this would be like the 9th drive chart, and we’re not even halfway through the quarter. In a few plays Pickett throws another INT off a drop/deflection and Clemson is in striking distance again...

Clemson ball, 7:09, Pitt 35, 17-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4-3 PA wheel route to Rodgers wide open against cover 3 between underneath SS and upfield corner, amazing catch for 17. Probably Rodgers best ever catch. The hurried throw off a free rush probably prevented a walk in TD.
Illegal sub, 1st & 15 11 shotgun vs 4-3 RPO give to Etienne gains 2. Correct read to give, Clemson had a numbers advantage but Stewart couldn't keep the DT out of the hole. Continually disappointing center play.
2nd & 13 11 shotgun vs 4-3 ZR dive to Etienne gains 12. This time Stewart did his job and gave Etienne the A gap!
3rd & 1 12 shotgun vs 4-3 Power option keeper gains 5, targeting for good measure. Odd to say our 6'6" 220 QB is the short yardage threat but here we are.
1st & 2 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Walk in TD for Etienne. This is how inside zone should work, the whole OL washed the DL left and the backside TE just needed a simple seal block on the backside DE.

Pitt ball, 4:55, Pitt 25, 24-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Quick comeback vs man cover 1, stopped immediately by Turner. Fun to see Clemson staying mostly single high and relying on man and under zones to stop all these short throws.
2nd & 5 11 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Nobody open against man, Pickett tucks and is met by Pinckney. Stopping a QB scramble in the open field? Man it's been a while.
3rd & 3 10 shotgun vs 3-3-5 Pitt sets a middle WR screen on a drag, Skalski eats it alive, loss of 3, welcome back linebacker emeritus. Pitt honestly set this up well this the outside block, unfortunately for them Skalski and Turner both flew to the ball, and Skalksi was unblocked. In terms of time off the clock, this was the longest drive of the entire quarter so far!

Clemson ball, 3:03, Clemson 13, 24-0 Clemson lead

Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
Down & Distance Formation Play Analysis
1st & 15 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Quick curl to Rodgers goes outside for 19. So simple but so difficult to stop.
1st & 10 11 pistol vs 4-3 RPO post to Spector wide open against cover 3 for 26 easy yards. Clemson is burning Pitt every time they rotate into cover 3. That time the SS was playing cloud (underneath hook or flat) in cover 3 instead of a deep quarter, he jumped the bubble action to Rodgers anyway. Wide open.
1st & 10 11 shotgun vs 4-3 Fake flare screen, backside fade to Powell is complete for 22. This is probably my favorite drive of the year so far. Tony Elliott is showing off and Powell is my new favorite smack talker ever.
1st & 10 11 pistol vs 4-3 ZR counter to Dixon gains 8, dear lord. Dixon pulled a Travis and spun out of a backfield tackle and got hard yards after the fact, this is the best he's looked all year.
2nd & 2 11 shotgun vs 4-3 ZR dive to Dixon gains 7 more yards. Hard running again, hit the hole with decisiveness and Pitt was moved backward. Where has this been???

Dixon punches it in on the next play to close out the best, most comprehensive quarter I’ve seen since probably the entire second half against Bama in the 2018 title game. By far the best Clemson has looked on both sides all year. The much-maligned OL and Dixon closed the quarter with power we had yet to see. Powell has become a beast both in the air and after the catch; QT is vindicated. I can’t wait for that Notre Dame rematch at full strength, and might even come around to wanting a piece of Bama or OSU based on the trends we can take from this game...