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Syracuse Offers Clemson Yet Another Test Against Odd Fronts

Will the 3-3-5 continue to keep Clemson’s offense off the rails?

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Who else rediscovered a crippling, Clemson football-induced anxiety? Or worse, who else buries such existential dread under a disinterested façade in order to cope? Surely a Friday night contest in Syracuse won’t trigger any sort of relapse for the afflicted.

The bye week was perfectly timed for coaches, players, and fans alike. I dare say we each caught our collective breath for reasons which span the entire human emotional gamut, but hopefully it was only we fans who reset or lowered our expectations.

I’m not even going to bother trying to guess how the rest of Clemson’s season will unfold, but I will say it is stlli far too early — not to mention pigheaded — for any of us to write the season off just because the Playoff is off the table (don’t humor yourselves with callbacks to 2007, it’s not happening for Clemson given the resume and eye test alike, no matter how few undefeated or one-loss teams remain in December).

This team is growing. We should see some of that growth after a week to self-scout and heal. The growth will be in baby steps, but incremental progress is where we have to find our joy this season; not in ruthless execution or fine-tuning from soon-to-be draft picks.

Preserve the home winning streak, beat UofSC by enough to squash any misplaced optimism down there, and enjoy the wild national landscape without stressing over rankings or bowl projections. Who knows, Clemson may still find a way to Charlotte, because I am actually quite confident NC State will lose a few more games. Don’t tell me y’all haven’t fantasized a 10-0, 3rd ranked Wake Forest coming to Death Valley with Charlotte on the line. Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy irony.

On to Syracuse and the 3-3-5 stack defense brought by defensive coordinator Tony White in 2020. Clemson gets another shot at a 3-3-5 with a bit more health and encouragement borne from the offensive line than in Raleigh. Hunter Rayburn allowed Matt Bockhorst to slide back over to guard which in turn allowed the rest of us to stop peeking at the offense through our fingers a bit. This isn’t to say all ails are cured though, since Boston College didn’t throw a true nose tech at Rayburn like UGA, GT, and State did to poor Bockhorst.

Look at me diving straight into the crucial matchup before talking scheme, a cardinal sin I never thought I’d commit. Most of this won’t be new to any of you, since I wrote about this defensive alignment before the State game, so I’ll keep it high level and get back to the matchup faster.

Cuse runs a true 3-3-5 stack, meaning the 3 linebackers align almost directly behind the 3 linemen, yet they employ 1-gap line technique instead of the 2-gap traditionally seen from 30 fronts. The linemen duly shoot gaps like 40 front lines and cover the linebackers like 30 front lines do. It also allows the defense to send bodies at the line of scrimmage with enough speed and coverage integrity on the back end, in theory. Perhaps most importantly against an inside zone-inclined, but simultaneously inside zone-challenged offense, it puts a nose right over the offensive center.

Syracuse’s base alignment, though we won’t see any DBs remotely that close to the line of scrimmage unless Clemson has trips bunched or reveals a clear screen tendency.

Looking back at the last foray into the spread-busting 3-3-5, it was foolish for anyone to expect a shuffled offensive line to have much success against a relatively-not-that-untalented defense in NC State without Clemson just going wild through the air; UGA and GT each showed a light box could more than handle the Clemson running game because the center was overmatched and the guards were lost. I won’t talk myself into optimism this time just because Rayburn is back (more so Bockhorst can move back to guard), but the Syracuse defense is a fair bit less imposing than State’s, so again, there’s a decent chance to see some baby steps.

Now that you have the Syracuse structure back in mind, we’ll look at how they attack offenses and where they have to compensate.

Much like a year ago, watching Syracuse get gashed up the middle on the ground is counterintuitive given what I alluded to above about a nose guard and protected linebackers. This is because off-ball pressure most often comes from either edge, creating a hybrid front with one and sometimes two standup OLBs on the edge, and a simple climb to one linebacker left across the interior gaps is all it takes to hit the second level. Why couldn’t Clemson do that against any of the other odd front defenses to date? Because the center and guards were consistently beaten or stoned the nose guard, and there was always a linebacker or three filling the lane with ease.

So something has to give here: Clemson’s inability to consistently to execute a combo block and climb to a filling linebacker (though it improved against BC!), or Syracuse’s inability to fight off the combo block and fill the gap for a minimal gain.

Foolish it may sound, but Clemson should be able to run the ball here against somewhat underwhelming options at nose. Yeah, that’s been the case against other opponents too. But if Bockhorst is at guard, the double teams can work effectively.

In the back, Syracuse is obscenely young with every member of the starting secondary a true sophomore or younger. Given the inexperience and the honest truth that a 5 or 6 man box has been enough to stuff Clemson’s running game, White will do what he can to play as much soft 2 man under and deep cover 4 — often with 8 in coverage — with a deep, off coverage shell whenever possible. There are line stunts and blitzes up front, but White will play this a lot safer in the back this his philosophical preferences would otherwise indicate; his aggression will come off the edges.

If the inside zone runs and quick screens don’t work against this sort of alignment, burn the game film.

The Clemson passing game will remain blanketed by 8 in coverage because Clemson hasn’t run well against even the lightest boxes. Syracuse is inclined to see if that’s still the case, and the offense will remain under lock until it changes. They couldn’t do so against Georgia Tech or NC State in similar structures. The defense will allow it and play safe with its young secondary — no matter Clemson receivers’ collective performance to date.

Remember when I said I’d given up on prognosticating the rest of the year? Well I can’t resist trying to will these baby steps and manifest this energy into existence. The offensive line should continue to look a bit more cohesive against the least talented FBS opponent to date, and everything else can slowly begin to fall into place.

DJ will have less pressure on him, both mentally and physically, with the line creating a bit of space and forcing secondaries to account for a run threat. He is nowhere near the top of my list of what has gone wrong this year, but give his position he can do the most to correct many of the issues and cover some of the warts like his predecessor did. Miss fewer throws, get rid of the ball sooner, hit the easy openings afforded by a bit more efficiency around him. Then the deep ball will present itself and we’ll see what we expected all offseason.

There will be another visible step Friday. Not enough for us all to lean back toward contentment, but enough to step away from the ledge a bit. For the defense, just avoid further injury and there’s a good chance to escape Central NY with a comfortable (that’s comfortable in 2021 terms!) win.

Clemson 26, Syracuse 13