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Clemson vs. Pitt Film Study: Evaluating QB play from the loss

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Investigating what Clemson’s decisions might tell us about the QB position going forward

Syndication: Palm Beach Post Ken Ruinard / USA TODAY Network / USA TODAY NETWORK

Welcome back to Film Study. Initially, my plan was to address the bad TD the defense gave up before the half, as I think it was the first true example of an all-around poor play from the defense this season, and then proceed to break down missed opportunities from the offense in the broad way that I’ve done in the past. Yet, on reflection, I’ve grown tired of regurgitating the same lines about wide receiver technique, O-Line assignments, and missed blocks that I have every other week, so for this article I figured we’d have some fun and discuss the hottest talking point from an otherwise forgettable loss: Taisun Phommachanh’s two drives.

Decision to bench DJ Uiagalelei

Here’s what Dabo had to say postgame about the decision to bench Uiagalelei:

You know, it was ju–I thought he had a couple bad plays in a row. Right before the half the ball probably should have been picked. The ball...you know, it’s not the right coverage to throw the ball over there, we gotta force the ball...and to come back and get the pick six and I just felt like I needed to give Taisun a chance.

First, and before I talk about anything else regarding this decision, I want to make clear what actually happened on the Pitch 6, the backbreaking turnover that got Uiagalelei benched.

The trickiest part with regard to my task of writing a film breakdown every week is that nobody outside of that building, outside of a select amount of lucky high school coaches, have access to the offense’s playbook. This means that I can never be TRULY certain of how any given play is called by Clemson. This is due to the fact that with any broad play concept in football, coaches are paid to tinker and update each concept with a variety of different tags/reads/keys that best fits with their specific philosophy, personnel, etc. So, outside of the base runs (inside zone, power, counter), which I understand to still be taught the same way they are in the Chad Morris install, it’s hard to always know what the assignment actually is for each player.

This is especially true for constraint plays in Clemson’s offense. “Constraint” essentially just notifies that it’s a play Clemson has built into the offense to break a tendency from a more established base play, and thus confuse the defense.

Here’s an example of us running the pitch play earlier in the season. For this play, the base play is QB Power. The play is run like a 2-back speed option, but in reverse. DJ is the running back in this case, and when he forces the unblocked playside edge defender to widen, he simply pitches it inside to the back.

So, back to the play on Saturday. Judging by my twitter feed, many fans felt that the play was DJ’s fault because he should have seen the blitzing LB coming as he was about to pitch the ball and kept it. I don’t really buy that reasoning. As evidenced by the video below of the same play being run by a different Clemson QB, the QB really doesn’t get a chance to scan the defensive line before pitching it. As you can see, Trevor Lawrence is looking one way to sell the fake, before turning his whole upper body around and immediately pitching the football. You’re not really supposed to react to what’s going on at the line, you’re just supposed to pitch it. Therefore, I don’t really blame Uiagalelei for failing to see the run blitz before pitching, because I don’t really think his job is to scan the line there.

However, if that is the case, which I think it is, then I wonder why that was the play that Dabo decided to pull him for. This in turn makes me wonder whether the pitch play is actually a read play for the quarterback. If it did have a read element to it, it would mean that DJ should have been reading the unblocked defensive end to the playside. Thus, when he sees the playside edge defender drop into coverage, he should really be keeping it IF it’s a QB read. If it’s not, then I don’t really put the blame on Uiagalelei there and instead just consider it to be an unfortunately well-timed run blitz.

Taisun Phommachanh

Regardless, Dabo and Co. clearly thought it was time to make a QB change. My take on the decision to make the change is that the coaching staff felt that the Pitch 6 was a back-breaking turnover for Clemson’s offense to overcome, now down 14 and needing to score more points than Clemson’s offense had all season in regulation. Since a Uiagalelei-led offense hadn’t been able to reach 21 without overtime, might as well see what Phommachanh could offer.

Puma’s positive plays

To me, the clear advantage of Phommachanh is that he’s able to supply more of the mobility needed to run the Clemson RPO and QB read game that we’ve relied on for the past decade. He doesn’t look as dynamic of a runner as Lawrence/Watson/Bryant, but it’s clear that he adds a mobile element to the offense that Uiagalelei doesn’t possess, outside of QB draw and counter.

This difference in mobility was evident on 1st & 10 during the next drive. This isn’t a true unblocked Zone Read play, because McFadden downblocks the backside edge, so I assume this was a called QB run. Either way, Phommachanh does gets downhill fast and provides a good juke on a defender to grab a nice 15 yard gain.

Another reason why I think the coaches could have been influenced to insert Phommachanh into the game is his comfort in Clemson’s RPO game. While I agree that Uiagalelei has struggled with reads in the offense, I haven’t seen enough to buy that Phommachanh is significantly better at decision-making within the structure of the RPO game, but he has been at Clemson for an additional season.

However, I will commend him for making a good read on the play above. Pre-snap he acknowledges that is shaded over the near-hash, which should provide ample space for the backside bubble route from Shipley to turn upfield into if Ross can hold his block. Post-snap he sees Ross get push his man back, confirming that the backside bubble is open, and immediately throws to Shipley. To be honest, the main reason I wanted to included this one was the block from Ross. He nearly gets a 2-for-1 there! Best block I’ve seen from a wide receiver at Clemson since Powell and Amari Rodgers were on the roster.

Puma’s negative plays

Where I think Phommachanh struggles the most, and also the area that made Clemson re-bench him after two drives, is throwing balls over the middle and balls that need to go further than 10 yards down the field.

Phommachanh has protection here but leads Ross out of bounds. While Ross has not exactly been consistently winning 50-50 balls this season (no receiver has), this throw leaves him with no chance to rise up over man coverage and bring the pass down inbounds.

Here, he makes the right read to throw to Beaux Collins, as Collins is running into the space that the blitzing linebacker is vacating. Where it all goes wrong is with the placement on the pass. I don’t blame Phommachanh for not seeing the linebacker dropping into the hook/curl zone here, it’s a clever call from Narduzzi. Yet, I think he leaves the ball high and wide for Collins, who makes a business decision to drop in an effort to protect himself (which I totally understand). If he puts this more on Collins’s frame then I think it’s likely a catch and Collins is in a better position to take contact.

This throw shows the main area where Phommachanh is really limited in the passing game compared to Uiagalelei. The defense is playing Cover 4 man-match and has the play well covered. You can’t really tell from the broadcast copy, but I think the only throw that’s really open and would convert is a “hole shot” to Ross, which is the soft spot in 2-hi shells between the corner and the safety. Unfortunately, the issue is I don’t think Phommachanh has the arm to make that throw, so he decides to throw a prayer into double coverage that nearly gets picked.

Final thoughts

It seems like the Clemson staff’s view of the QB situation going forward is this: DJ hasn’t lived up to expectations but his upside is clearly better than Puma’s, so it makes sense to give him more experience in a lost year to further develop in the hopes that he can meet that upside next season when we’ll be bringing along another 5-star with similar potential. Because unless we bring in a transfer portal QB (lol), that will be the situation next season unless DJU transfers in the offseason (more likely than us bringing a transfer QB in, but still pretty unlikely). DJ didn’t play well of course, but the confluence of all the offense’s flaws meant really no QB outside of maybe Trevor Lawrence could have salvaged that game. Pitt is a good team and we didn’t stand a chance if our whole offense wasn’t executing.

However, the dilemma I think the staff will be faced with going forward is what happens when we’re suddenly down a touchdown early to a team that isn’t ranked, one that shouldn’t have a prayer of beating us. Some may point to NC State as an example that they’ll continue to ride with DJ, but that was early in the season when we were still in “win out” mode and State didn’t take the lead until the end of the 3rd quarter anyway. Elliott clarified Monday that they will continue to drill the packages created for Phommachanh in practice and will make the decision how to use them in-game “depending upon how it all shakes out by the end of the week.” My question is what happens when we’re down a touchdown in the first half to FSU or Louisville or– hell, even South Carolina at this point. I think one of those scenarios will likely happen and I think the staff is well aware of the added heat being applied on Dabo to make changes with each loss.