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Film Study: Notre Dame Redux

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We are the Champions

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Notre Dame at Clemson Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After giving Notre Dame an unceremonious sendoff from ACC football and back into the realm of independence, it’s on to the Playoff. Due to having nearly two weeks from the ACC Championship game to our matchup against Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, I wanted to do a deeper dive into the film than I’m typically able to each week. The table format that is standard at STS Film Study is great for neatly analyzing play-by-play what occurred during drives, but sometimes I feel like having to quickly compile all these details in succession can leave me missing the forest for the trees sometimes. That being said, I’ve decided to write this review with a looser structure in place, allowing me to focus more on general narratives in the game for Clemson that I found interesting. Also, due to the fact that this game was basically over at the conclusion of the first half, I felt that this provided more of an opportunity to narrow down the review to specific aspects of the game that I found were improvements from our last matchup with Notre Dame, along with one or two things we still need to get better at.

As the crux of this review is addressing the question “why was Clemson so much more dominant in this matchup vs. last time around?” it makes sense that the majority of the focus should be on the defensive side of the ball. I’ll be the first to say that Clemson didn’t play a perfect game on offense in the November contest, but they put up 33 points in regulation on a well-coached Irish defense with several future NFL players, all while playing with a backup true freshman at QB. Therefore, this review will look at how the defense improved (spoiler: Clemson got back three of their best players), along with a look at what they need to do well in the playoff to win out.

Returning starters on defense

Not having James Skalski, Tyler Davis, and Mike Jones Jr. in the initial matchup between Notre Dame and Clemson without a doubt hurt the defense. Though most of the media focus about that loss centered on Trevor Lawrence being out with COVID-19, it was the lack of those three defenders that led me to believe pre-game that Notre Dame had a decent shot at an upset. However, as the attached film below will hopefully show, that was never in the cards for the Irish with a significantly healthier Clemson defense.

Notre Dame is an outside zone team and a good one. Outside zone thrives on lateral blocks that move defenders toward the sideline, which if blocked correctly and effectively, can create multiple holes to to both the playside and backside of the run. To beat an outside zone team this good you need two things:

  1. Defensive linemen who can split their gaps and get penetration or push into the backfield and stop the ball carrier before he can get vertical
  2. Linebackers with good awareness who are able to navigate traffic without being washed out of the play by blockers

Getting Skalski/Davis/MJJ back gave us three guys who are adept at those two things, and being able to shut down their bread-and-butter run play set the stage for the blowout from a defensive standpoint.

James Skalski

Jake Venables played admirably in place of Skalski in the first matchup, but at the moment Skalski’s physical traits, awareness, and experience make him as close to the prototypical Mike in Venables’ defense as you could ask for - confidently checking out of or into the right play, clinical at filling his gap and maintaining gap discipline in the run game, while also having the size and brute force to occupy interior blockers on blitzes. He’s the quarterback of this defense, and my rewatch of the ACCCG confirmed how much we missed him in November.

Here, Skalski is sudden into his gap, hitting the tackle hard and immediately getting his head up and eyes toward the ball. “See ball, get ball” as one of my high school coaches would say.

Out of the wildcat look, Skalski knows exactly where Williams is headed with the zone run. He manages to beat the playside guard to his spot, making for an awkward block attempt that Skalski essentially shrugs off, showcasing his strength at the point of contact.

Tyler Davis

Davis’s return was as essential to stopping the Irish’s attack as getting Skalski back. The former’s presence created constant chaos on the zone runs Notre Dame consistently employed, while also forcing pressure on passing plays so Bresee wasn’t constantly double-teamed (just merely held).

You can see that Davis gets good push immediately on the playside guard, which helps him be in position to tackle Kyren Williams AT the line of scrimmage and therefore prevents a successful run play. The next play is mostly made by Bresee getting instant penetration, but Davis does well backing the playside tackle off the line of scrimmage and combining with Turner for a loss. Play three is pretty much teach-tape of how to slant and get penetration vs. outside zone.

Pressuring Ian Book

Our next priority after limiting Notre Dame’s outside zone running game was to find ways to make life difficult for Ian Book, hopefully forcing him into several poor decisions and scrambles that don’t make it past the LOS. To be honest, even with significant defenders out last time, I was still surprised Book was so good in and out of the pocket that night. My first exposure to Book was during the 2018 Cotton Bowl, and while he obviously had a bad game, it’s perhaps unfair for me to form too much of an impression from that game. He was playing the best college defense of all time, and employing Isaiah Simmons as a Spy is a death sentence for almost any run-happy QB. However, from what film I was able to watch on him from 2019, in addition to this season’s Louisville-ND matchup, I came away unimpressed with his general pocket presence: not only had he developed a habit of bailing too quickly on plays, but he also consistently missed or failed to act on his early reads in a progression, which lead to a bunch of unnecessary scrambles and throwaways. The Ian Book I saw during the 4-week run-up to the ACC title game was a different Book than I had grown accustomed to, and his decision making on when to scramble seemed to be getting better.

Creeper Blitzes

So, what to do about a scramble-prone quarterback who’s been having a good run of games that you need to regress back to their historically awful pocket management?

That’s right.

Creeper Blitzes

And nobody is better at designing creepers & sim pressures than Brent Venables.

Venables dials up a Cat blitz from Turner in the slot, while also sending Skalski in pressure. Henry shows pressure initially from the weak side, but drops back into a hook zone. This creates an overload on the strong side, which means ND’s playside tackle/guard/center are all accounted for, leaving just Williams to block Skalski. However, being the savvy veteran he is, Skalski doesn’t immediately fly into his gap, which would cause the speedy Book to attempt to escape away from him. Instead, he pushes Murphy to collapse the edge and simply waits until Books steps up in the pocket to escape, making for an easy sack.

This is another creeper with a Cat blitz attached, but Venables is less of a madman this time and sends it from the boundary (Kendrick) instead of the field. Kendrick easily sheds a poor block by Williams before Book starts to scramble his way. Unfortunately for Book, DK isn’t your average pass rusher and has the speed in spades to bring him down in pursuit.

It’s encouraging to see Clemson execute creeper blitzes like these so effectively because pulling them off at a high level will be key in our upcoming matchup against Ohio State. So far in his college career, Ohio State QB Justin Fields has shown an inability to manage the pocket against any good defense he’s faced, and I think this was clearly exposed in Ohio State’s Big Ten Championship against Northwestern, and earlier in the year against Indiana.

Struggles with underneath coverage

Even with a great Clemson defensive performance, there are always things to improve on. And the defensive issue I feel is worth singling out from the ACCCG is one that has been a consistent weakness all year: struggling to properly defend plays that are designed to attack underneath coverage (0-15 yards). This has been a consistent issue all season, and it’s been especially frustrating to see Clemson back a team into 3rd & Long only for them to leave a dig route completely wide open. Sure, sometimes an opposing playcaller just schemes up the right call in the right place, but it’s been too much of a feature in my opinion to write it off as such.

I went into rage mode about this in the Pitt film review, but this is a great example of what I’m referring to. I have to assume that there was a coverage bust on this play because there’s just no way Venables wants his three underneath defenders all bunched together in a zone to the boundary side. Against the OSU’s and Miami’s of the world you might be able to get away with this slackness, but Bama will have a field day with our coverage if we don’t get it cleaned up.

On this play Notre Dame starts out with a heavy 13 personnel look with an H-back to the boundary side, but motions the H-back to the field side pre-snap. Clemson is in a Cover 3 shell, with Charleston rolled down to the strong side (Sky). However, when ND motions the H-back (the indicator) to the field side, Clemson stays pat and keeps Charleston to the boundary side. On 1st & 10, Clemson was expecting a run play from a heavy formation, but by not checking out of our coverage when the H-back motions to the field side, Clemson is left with two defenders (Jones and Charleston) covering one eligible receiver when the H-back motions. Kendrick is occupied by the outside receiver to his side, Jones Jr. is covering the flats that the RB’s route occupies, and Skalski is spying Book. This leaves nobody to cover the zone that the H-back eventually runs into and earns Notre Dame a massive 30yd chunk play. Whereas the former example against Pitt was most likely a bust, I think this one is down to either Venables or one of the players needing to check out of the call after the H-back motion.

Fortunately, while I did see some issues early in the ACCCG, I saw enough later in the game to manufacture hope that we’ll get in good shape with it for the playoffs. In the play above, Clemson’s intermediate level defenders in Cover 4 play top down with zone eyes to make sure any late-developing shallow leak route is diagnosed and taken care of, which is exactly what occurs.

EJ Williams

I don’t have much to say about the offense this week, as I mentioned at the start of my article. What can I say? It’s nice to have Trevor Lawrence back this time! However, I do want to take a moment to talk about an encouraging development: the emergence of true freshman EJ Williams. During our recent Golden Era, Clemson has always been able to rely on at least one tall, big-bodied receiver that could make contested catches in difficult situations to keep drives alive and move the chains. For our 2017 playoff run we had Mike Williams to snatch footballs from the sky, and from 2018-2019 we were blessed with TWO of these guys in Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. However, this season we’ve had more of an issue establishing who that guy was from our WR corps. Ross himself has been dealing with a congenital spine issue and the 6’3, 205 lb, Frank Ladson has been banged up for a significant part of the season. Joe Ngata’s presence has hardly been a thing.

As the season is nearing its conclusion, I’m starting to become convinced that Williams can fill that void we’ve been lacking in our passing game arsenal. Though he came in at 190 lbs and still needs to fill out his frame a little more, he is already playing bigger than his listed weight. In the run game, it’s clear that Williams isn’t a liability as a blocker and had a couple of plays in the ND game where he bullied a defender. As far as his route running goes, his footwork is good out of press, not wasting any motion to get to his spot. He has a good understanding of timing with his routes and seems to be comfortable when attacking both zone and man coverage.

On his touchdown, Williams does a nice job finding the MOF soft spot in zone so Trevor can fit it in the window over the middle. After the catch, Williams shows off good speed for his size by beating the safety to the pylon.

Now I don’t want to box him in with this comparison, but it’s hard not to see how much he favors another Clemson receiver from Phenix City, Alabama, on this roster, and after his impossibly acrobatic catch against Notre Dame, I don’t think I’m alone in making it. Dial in your expectations for Williams responsibly for Clemson’s postseason, but you can’t deny there’s a lot to like.