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Film Study: Clemson vs. Syracuse

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“It is what it is.”

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / USA TODAY Network / USA TODAY NETWORK

“It is what it is.”

This has been a common refrain from Dabo Swinney when addressing a variety of complex topics: NIL (something he addressed this week), culture change, etc. That particular saying has been stuck in my mind all season, because I think it’s the most succinct way to capture the feeling emanating from Clemson, SC.

Individual fans might lay the blame heavily on their own personal bugaboo: playcalling, transfer portal, culture, etc. However, in reality, it’s all of these things. The fact is it’s a perfect confluence of Clemson’s flaws/issues that have led to a season that’s this mediocre relative to recent standards. It’s clear to me that Dabo is well aware of this. That’s why we’ve seen a more sarcastic/ironic Dabo than in past years, one who is more willing to deflect or jump around from subject to subject. He knows that he has failed Clemson football this season and that this offense is beyond repair.

Whether or not you believe Coach Swinney’s act this season and are willing to give him a mulligan is up to each fan. I personally am willing to accept a season divergent from the “Best is the Standard” credo, on the condition that we get back to the Best in the very near future. After all, there are recent championship contenders who are in a worse situation...

Offense

There’s really not a new development to discuss in great depth that emerged from the Syracuse game. Our running game looked slightly better I suppose, but I don’t know how much credit to dole out considering Florida State earned 250 rushing yards against the Cuse front 7 a week prior. In my opinion, the drive immediately following halftime is a microcosm of how the Clemson offense performed overall last Friday night: some bright spots that were swiftly blotted out by terrible individual mistakes, bad playcalling, inexperience at Center, and poor execution.

Clemson started this drive positively with a well-executed (see we have the capability!) RPO to Ross that gained us an immediate 1st down. We then followed this by two well-blocked inside zone runs, where our line actually got PUSH on the opposing defensive line. Unfortunately, this promising start was tragically quashed during the next set of downs, for reasons all too familiar to the Clemson fanbase.

Clemson decides to go pass early here (more on that later...) and Mason Trotter sails this way over DJ’s head. Looking back to pre-game murmurs, I was fearful of something like this happening when I heard Clemson would be without Hunter Rayburn. I didn’t do a write-up for the BC game, but I still rewatched it and I came away with the impression that Rayburn turned in a solid performance in Death Valley, one that I expected him to continue against Syracuse after two weeks of 1st team reps. Yet it seemed like the news of Rayburn missing out was a real shock to the staff and plays like this from Trotter are the result.

Now, I don’t blame the staff so much for Trotter’s mistake here in and of itself. It does seem like they were forced into a late decision to roll with a guy who has a cast on his snapping hand because of Rayburn’s absence, and you simply cannot roll with Bockhorst at center. My issue is instead with playcalling. I understand that it can be unfair to retroactively criticize a playcall that was marred by something bizarre like a bad snap, but I think there’s a broader point to make here. We were running the ball well and getting a better push on the Syracuse line than we had any FBS opponent all season coming out of the half, we had the lead, and yet we decide to call a dropback pass out of shotgun on 1st & 10? It all goes back to Elliott’s frustrating obsession with balance, instead of just taking account of what’s working and adjusting if and when the defense adjusts. This isn’t just me cherry-picking either, there were numerous examples of abandoning the run in the second half that I thought were confounding. If you’re having to play a center with a broken snapping hand in his first start AND the running game is cooking, why not just spam the run? What’s even more frustrating is that there are ways to pass without getting a shotgun snap off and relying on a bad pass pro unit for protection. One of those plays is the PA “naked” rollout from under center that Clemson has already used numerous times this season. I’m not a huge fan of it personally, but that’s largely because we’ve primarily called it when our running game was floundering, and therefore outside LBs/DEs were more comfortable with reading the play. However, It would seem like an ideal time to call one when your run game is gashing the defense and the line has looked terrible in pass pro.

After clawing back to 3rd & 16 with a quick pass to Davis Allen, we were in a situation where we needed a big play. Ross runs a fade and DJ throws a ball that is right on Ross’s frame, while also being high enough that Ross can use his length to frame the pass away from the shorter CB covering him. Yet, Ross is unable to come down with it. At first, I was yelling for PI, but if you rewatch closely it’s clearly not. Even the sideline isn’t calling for it, and the Clemson coaches ALWAYS jump at the ref if there’s even a hint of PI.

This brings up an issue about the WR corps that I think is less frequently discussed than other clear issues such as health and the lack of complementary pieces. Throughout the majority of the Dabo Swinney era, Clemson has relied upon at least one big-bodied, physical threat like Nuk Hopkins, Mike Williams, or Tee Higgins to win these 50-50 balls consistently on money downs. Ross, of course, looked to fill this criterion after his stellar freshman season, but so far this season Clemson doesn’t have a receiver that has reliably brought these balls in.

Defense

As per usual, I won’t be spending too much time on the defense because, outside of a few big plays, they were solid. I do want to include the following play because on the surface level it looks like a bad bust by the defense. However, after my rewatching it my opinion has shifted and I think it’s actually just a really good play call against the defense Venables called.

Clemson starts in a 2-high shell before rolling Nolan Turner down the strong side. The coverage here is Cover 3. This means Clemson is relying on Phillips to cover anyone threatening the deep middle of the field and Goodrich has the responsibility to cover a deep third zone essentially from the sideline to about 5 yards from the hash.

Judging from my Twitter timeline, many thought Turner was supposed to carry the slot receiver upfield, but that’s not the case. Turner’s job on this play is to cover the curl/flats area, which would be responsible for the RB leaking into the flats or a receiver running a shallow/intermediate route in Turner’s area. He is NOT responsible for deeper routes.

The actual issue here is that because Phillips has to rotate from one hash to the other, he’s too late to affect the pass. It’s not his fault, that’s just the risk you run with rolling coverages with 99% of safeties; he’s not Earl Thomas after all. To make matters worse, Goodrich can’t offer help because the outside receiver is running a go as well, and a corner is always going to key on the outside receiver running into his zone.

All in all, it’s ultimately Phillips’ decision to shoulder tackle that allows the touchdown. It might look like Goodrich overruns the Syracuse receiver, but I actually think he has the right angle but Phillips bumps him out of Goodrich’s trajectory before contact is made. As I said, it’s on Phillips for letting a big play snowball into a touchdown, but at the same time, it’s a hard ask to cover that much ground. We as fans often immediately search for a scapegoat to rationalize why a big play from an opposing team is successful, but sometimes a team just calls the right play and executes. Those guys on the other sideline get paid a lot of money too (not as much as Tony Elliot) and they get it right occasionally.

Reader Question

I’ve been meaning to answer this great question from earletiger for the past few weeks but I keep forgetting to include it. It is true that RPO teams can get into murky territory with linemen getting downfield on pass reads. This is why the RPO pass concepts that Clemson typically builds into our base inside zone run feature quick passes, which ensure that the line can’t really get 5 yards downfield before the ball is out on a pass read.

The most common RPO pass concept I’ve seen Clemson use so far this season has been a bubble screen to the field side and a tunnel screen to the boundary side. This is a practical way to call it because the receiver on the boundary side is pinched for space by the sideline, and thus the tunnel screen forces him to go back inside away from the sideline.

In the above clip, we attach a bubble to the field side, which allows for a quick throw if the defense is stacking the box. We also feature over-the-middle glance routes and slants, but those are still either catch-and-throw or 3-step drops and therefore we’re able to get the ball out quickly.

So, to answer your question: yes, our linemen (read: interior OL) are just struggling...