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Film Study: Clemson vs. NC State

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Deja vu

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Welcome back to another Film Study article. Unfortunately for both Clemson football and the Film Study series, the offense continuing to suffer means this article suffers too. I was hoping that the offense would perhaps snap back into at least competent form, if not being outright good. Yet, that turned out to be wishful thinking, as the offense sucked in essentially the exact same way it sucked last week. This means that I’m going to be regurgitating the same critiques about execution, missed assignments, missed reads, etc. that I expounded on in my Georgia Tech review. Hope you like seeing whiffs from offensive linemen for the second week in a row!

Execution woes

DISCLAIMER: I want to be clear that what I’m about to say isn’t meant to be a defense of Tony Elliott, playcalling, or Clemson’s scheme more broadly. I, like many Clemson fans, was frustrated by playcalling.

However, it must be said that if you solely scapegoat Tony Elliott then you’re running the risk of bypassing some fundamental flaws in Clemson’s program that run deeper than just one offensive coordinator. It goes without saying that Elliott could do a much better job (to say the least), but, as we’ve seen against the past 3 FBS opponents, we can’t even block core run plays right now. Our receivers are still missing blocking assignments and are unable to beat coverage. These issues eventually snowball into the worst-case scenario for having a young QB who isn’t particularly mobile. There is no “opening up the playbook” really if your center is getting pushed into the backfield immediately every run down or your tight end looks like he’s in a game of freeze tag every time he takes contact from a defender during a route underneath.

Again, I’m not trying to give Elliott an alibi here. He’s still the offensive coordinator and it’s ultimately on him and Dabo to make sure the offense is executing. However, some of this has to be put on positional coaches too. Hell, the way some of the linemen get pushed around you begin to wonder what’s going on with S&C for that group. I just want to drive the point home that you can’t really “get creative” or “open up the playbook” if you can’t even run your base plays since those creative plays (what I call constraint plays) are usually built on the assumption that the base plays are successful.

Offensive line

As we know, you need your offensive line to be competent if you hope to do much on offense. If they’re not, then you can’t run block to gain the necessary ground on early downs, which lead to long 3rd downs which then likely lead to failed 3rd down conversions due to faulty pass blocking. On Saturday, the line was not up to the task again, per usual.

In the clip above, Clemson is simply running its primary base run play: inside zone. Clemson has 6 blockers against a 5-man box, so they should easily be able to perform an effective double team on each of the 3 down lineman before moving to the second level. However, as has become ritual this season, Bockhorst gets pushed into the backfield by the nose because the guard that’s supposed to be combo blocking with him (this time Tchio) doesn’t provide any push, which means that Shipley can’t bang or bounce the run to the play-side, where Parks and Putnam actually did a nice job of doubling and climbing to create space for a run into the A-gap or a bounce outside. Instead, Shipley has to bend the run backside where Tchio is still stuck motionless, clogging the backside A-gap, and where Galloway is struggling to prevent the Mike from crashing the C-gap.

Now, it should follow logically that if the OL is still trying to block Inside Zone properly, a play that is so simple that it is the staple run play for most HUNH offenses that barely have time to think before they check into the next play, then it’s probably a tall task to expect this line to block anything more complicated. It’s tough to run the Deshaun Watson designed run playbook if you’re still stuck at Zone Blocking 101.

This bit of logic seems to apply to the play above. This play is bewildering to me - so bewildering that I had to consult STS scheme genius and international man of mystery DBBM to supply his take on what the hell it even is. We both came to the conclusion that it’s likely a miscommunication between various OL and DJ/Pace. On one hand, Tchio is pulling to the field side while the right side of the line is downblocking, which would seem to indicate a power run to the field side. On the other hand, DJ fakes the dropback and runs to the left side of the field (which is traditionally how Clemson has run QB counter) while Pace kicks out the Will backer. Now, in theory, this play could be some kind of trap counter play that employs misdirection to fool the defense. However, that doesn’t make much sense because Clemson has not run QB Counter successfully AT ALL this season, thus begging the question: why would you call a constraint play off of a base play that hasn’t worked? Therefore, I think it’s likely a miscommunication, which in turn supports my argument that you can’t really open up the playbook in the running game with line play this poor. Opening up the playbook with this line is opening up Pandora’s box.

The end result of us not being able to run effectively on early downs was that NC State was able to sit in Cover 2 Invert (the infamous Clemson Killer coverage from last week) on 3rd and long. As you can see in the clip above, this took away any deep shot while only allowing pockets of space in front of the safeties for an intermediate curl route that was short of the sticks.

Wide receivers

I am still seeing too many mental mistakes from the receivers. For a receiver position group from WRU that was touted as the strongest offensive unit Clemson had preseason, it’s frustrating to see these mistakes still happening in Week 4.

Here, Clemson is in trips to the boundary. NC State is defending this with the safety and nickel playing close to the line with the boundary corner clearly dropping into deeper zone coverage pre-snap. Therefore, on a screen play, you’d expect two of the three WRs to block the defenders closer to the line of scrimmage and let Ladson try to beat the boundary corner with a move in space. However, Ross decides to move toward the dropped boundary corner, which allows the nickel who is playing shallower to the line to immediately force Ladson back outside into the safety, where he is tackled. Now, I could be wrong and Ross could be rigidly assigned to the boundary corner no matter what. I’d like to believe that it was just a mental mistake, because if it is the latter explanation then we have a much deeper problem...

Quarterback

I honestly think DJ Uigalelei had a better game than last week. There’s still a ton of room for improvement obviously, but I think he made some really impressive throws and looked more comfortable with reads than last week. I’m also not one to blame a QB for a tip drill interception in most circumstances, and this one qualifies. Yet, even with the good from this game, there was plenty of bad, as you’ll see below.

The early touchdown pass in the 1st quarter likely gave many Clemson fans false hope, and it’s easy to see why. The line holds up reasonably well in pass blocking and when DJ eventually sees a flash of red jersey from the edge on the strong side, he calmly resets to a pocket of space to the boundary and throws a heatseeker to Ross running a post.

Yet, later in the 2nd quarter DJ takes an unnecessary sack to put us further in the hole on 2nd & 12. NC State only rushes 3, which means he should have a decent amount of time to work through his read if he doesn’t like his primary read. However, DJ sees red flashing from the field side, and instead of hitching or moving away from it, he tries to run past the defender getting pressure, only to be sacked by him. Uigalelei is not the mobile QB we’ve had at Clemson during the majority of the Dabo era, so he will have to continue to get better at navigating the pocket late in dropbacks so that he’s able to give plays a better shot of being successful.

Another thing Uigalelei is continuing to develop is his timing and anticipation. With big-armed QBs like him, there’s the ability to sacrifice some anticipation on throws so that you can see a route better develop, due to increased throw velocity getting the ball to the target quicker than what would be the case with a weaker armed guy. There is obviously a limit to this though. Here, DJ telegraphs this throw because he is waiting to see Ngata get past the corner covering him, which nearly leads to an interception. If he is set on throwing to Ngata there, he has to let it go while the CB is still in contact with Ngata and hope the receiver gets by. If Ngata doesn’t manage to push through the contact then it’s at worst an incompletion, though I’d be more willing to say it would be PI if an ACC crew wasn’t officiating.

Criticism aside, I do want to make myself clear that I think the calls for Uigalelei to be benched are ridiculous. Only a handful of college QBs can pull off the throw above, and those QBs sure as hell aren’t on our depth chart. Plays like this show me that DJU is getting more comfortable at throwing on the run, and hopefully, that allows Elliot and Co to call more PA rollouts and nakeds, where his launch point is away from a thus-far disappointing offensive line.

Parting words

I know that I’ve failed to include much about the defense so far in my reviews, but the state of this offense is honestly too depressing to even touch on our defensive play. This offense is wasting the first-round NFL talent of guys like Booth, Murphy, and Bresee and it’s not outlandish to conclude that the offense injured the latter player by the load they put on the defense all Saturday. At this point, all we can do is hope that DJ Uigalelei continues to develop and that the receivers cut down on mental mistakes, because the interior OL is likely going to remain a work in progress for most of the season.


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