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Film Study: Clemson vs. Louisville

Say it with me: oo-ee-ANH-gah-leh-lay

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

In this week’s film study, I talk about DJ Uiagalelei’s promising two-minute drill and Clemson’s issues against the run. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

Two Minute Drill

I have to admit to some hypocrisy. I was just telling the ShakinTheSouthland Slack channel that the average football fan overvalues QB play, failing to account for the complex situation that develops around the Quarterback based on the overall strengths and weaknesses of the rest of the offense. Yet, I can’t help but yield to the temptation of being a QB reductionist myself and using space to praise DJU’s play during the 2-minute drill to close out the first half. I’ll also focus on receiver play, but I was very impressed with the grit he displayed by flashing the ability to deliver pinpoint rockets all over the field after just sustaining a PCL sprain in his plant leg on the series prior to this one.

2nd Quarter 1:33

The first play of the series incorporated a passing concept with the primary read of an Out route to Ross from the “Field” (far hash) side. This has been a staple of Clemson’s offense recently, especially during the Trevor Lawrence era, because it requires plus arm strength and consistently good placement to pull off routinely. So far this season Uiagalelei has produced mixed results with this concept, but here he starts out his best drive of the year by throwing a strike.

2nd quarter 1:09

Here, Clemson is running an Out and Go route concept. Louisville drops a LB at the line into the hook/curl zone and the slot corner over Collins bails to cover the intermediate area near the sideline. Now, in a vacuum, I think he might have been able to fit a ball to Ross on the sideline, but the decision to throw to Collins running the out has me excited to see how the two former high school teammates will link up in the future. The window for a throw here is super tight between the LB dropping into coverage and the CB rolling to the sideline, and therefore it takes developed chemistry for both:

A) Uiagalelei trusting his receiver enough to begin his throwing motion before the receiver makes his cut and get the ball out with anticipation

B) Collins getting his head around the *instant* he is finished with his cut, so that he can look for the incoming ball

It was a crucial throw to keep the drive going and they both did an exceptional job.

2nd quarter 1:03

A lot of the throws on this drive were quick-game concepts with either half-field reads (like the previous throw) or a locked-in target (Ross on the first play) but this play is a full-field read. Uiagalelei doesn’t like the lack of separation Davis Allen is dealing with underneath, so he works to the boundary where Beaux Collins is running a hitch. I’ve noticed it on a few reps earlier in the season, but it’s very encouraging how much route-running polish Collins already possesses as a freshman receiver. His route on this play breaks short of the sticks but Collins smartly hitches back to gain depth while Uiagalelei scans the field side. This allows him to already be at the 1st down line by the time DJ’s pass hits him, and therefore doesn’t have to fight for 1st down yardage and risk being short.

2nd quarter 0:40

In the last film study, I wrote this to summarize my thoughts on why the coaches have continued to stick with Uiagalelei even through significant struggles:

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.

I think throws like this one lay bare this aforementioned upside.

Last week, I mentioned that I suspected that Phommachanh threw this ball into triple coverage because he didn’t have the velocity to put this ball in the “hole” that was there to the boundary side between the corner covering Ross and the safety over the top

This week, Uiagalelei proved he has the ability to fit these “hole shots” in. Even more impressive, he can do it from the far hash!

2nd quarter 0:22

For the touchdown, Clemson lines up in a 3x1 set and the primary read is Davis Allen running a double move. Allen does a really good job selling the fake hitch, such a good job that the inside linebacker covering him is left off-balance from trying to make contact with Allen, only to find the ground. This makes for an easy TD, and some might say it’s simply a busted coverage. That would be unfair, in my opinion. Though it’s impossible to predict how the play would have turned out if the defender keeps his feet, I think Uiagalelei throws this one with good touch and decent enough placement to give Allen a chance even if the defender stays upright. Remember, all a defender can cover is his frame when his back is completely turned to the QB.

Struggles against the run

Any Tiger fan who’s paid attention will tell you that the defense has been the only saving grace for Clemson this season. Venables’ unit passes the eye test and the data loves them: before the Louisville game, Clemson’s ranked 3rd overall in Defensive SP+ ratings and 4th in Stop Rate. It’s been the only saving grace for a Clemson team riddled with a variety of non-defensive issues and the sole reason Clemson is currently bowl eligible.

I wanted to get the fawning out the way first, because this defense deserves all the credit in the world for dragging the rest of this team along. Yet, while I wouldn’t say the defense took a “step back” last weekend at Louisville, it clearly did struggle with the rush threat that Malik Cunningham and the Cardinals running backs posed. Clemson’s defense gave up 223 rushing yards, the most it’s given up all season and the only time it’s given up 200+ in a game. Below, I’ll mention a few plays that help show why they were so successful and what Clemson might have done differently.

1st quarter 12:14

For Louisville’s opening touchdown, the offense runs a simple inside zone that the running back bends back inside. As DBBM wrote in his excellent Georgia offense preview, the explosive plays from inside zone runs typically come from bending the run to the backside of the play, which is exactly what Louisville does here.

This touchdown isn’t so dissimilar from the opening touchdown run by JK Dobbins in the 2019 Fiesta Bowl. One of the reasons Clemson struggles with “Bend” runs to the backside of Inside Zone is philosophical in nature. Under Venables, as Alex Craft has told y’all countless times, EVERYONE in the run fit from the Front 6/7 is attacking their gap, and they are doing so immediately and violently. Venables runs a 1-gap system and there’s not hybridization there, everyone is expected to attack their gap on the majority of run fits. Notice how every defender in Clemson’s front is at the same level in the above clip, meaning there’s nobody to hit Dobbins in an intermediate zone before he accelerates and gets to full speed. Now, notice how quickly Skalski runs to the playside B-gap in the play from the Louisville game. There’s no time to react to the cutback, you have to get to your gap.

This isn’t how every team approaches stopping the run. Other teams stack their backers, meaning they creep up and play off of the big interior guys on the line, which creates an overlap and affords them a better chance at reacting to where the RB is going so they don’t get burned by committing to a gap prematurely. To be clear, this isn’t me criticizing Venables for choosing his aggressive philosophy over the more reactive one. I actually tend to agree with coach. If you have the elite of elite college athletes then it makes perfect sense to impose your will and get the TFLs that are drive-killers. That being said, you have to occasionally live with the consequences of explosive backside runs (hehe) like these.

Notice how there’s nobody penetrating the gaps on either side of the left guard

Yet, even with this vulnerability to the cutback runs being a feature and not a bug in Clemson’s defensive philosophy, Clemson was DOA from the start of this play. As you can see above, we become badly outgapped on the backside of the play immediately. Clemsons is already down a gap to the backside but it’s made worse because Clemson’s backside DE doesn’t win inside. Trenton Simpson is blitzing the backside C-gap, and therefore the DE needs to be attacking inside to the B-gap, but Louisville’s tackle is able to dig him out toward the sideline, which in turn springs the huge hole for the touchdown.

3rd quarter 11:37

Clemson was burned by the legs of Malik Cunningham several times on Saturday night, and this was the most egregious torching in my opinion, largely because Clemson’s defense had already been burned by the keeper and still had no answer here.

There are of course multiple ways to defend the QB keeper element of the Zone Read. One method is the “surf technique” that Kirby Smart explains above. The backside defensive end extends his arm laterally like a surfer to help maintain his balance so that he’s ready to take an explosive step toward the ballcarrier the moment he is able to clearly identify who actually has the ball.

If you’re not as confident with your backside defensive end, another answer a defense can use is to employ the “squeeze/scrape” concept. Using this concept, the defensive end NEVER tries to read the handoff, he ALWAYS crashes down. The goal is to force the QB to pull only to be met by the “scraping” linebacker overlapping from the second level.

Like I’ve said in previous articles, Brent Venables is a defensive genius and is typically the king of adjustments. Still, I think it was frustrating to see Clemson struggle so badly to find an answer to the QB keeper all night, especially against a dynamic runner as obvious of a threat as Cunningham.