Execution. It’s more than just a subject of an awkward Brian Kelly joke. And on Saturday night, the inability to execute on offense likely cost Clemson the game as much as the pick 6 did. If you didn’t watch the game, you could probably still have come to this conclusion by looking at the stats: 2 rushing yards. 31% 3rd down conversion rate. 180 yards total offense. Today, we’ll look at both the key turnover and the lack of execution from the offense and attempt to determine what exactly happened.
The Pick 6
This is the play that essentially lost Clemson the game. That’s not to say that I would have been optimistic about our chances if it didn’t occur – there were several other things that would have kept me from that position – but if the pick 6 doesn’t happen then at worst we’re in FG range with a decent opportunity to put the first points of the game on the board and get some momentum on our side.
Now, below I have included the official explanation for what went wrong on the play, per Dabo:
Dabo Swinney says the pick 6 was on Justyn Ross. "It’s an option route and he has an option there. He chose to run a slant. If you’re going to run the slant, you have to run it off the defender and you have to be flat."— Grace Raynor (@gmraynor) September 5, 2021
What Dabo means by “option route” is that Ross had the “option” of running two different routes at the break (i.e. the part of his route where he sticks his foot in the ground to change direction): in this case a route that breaks inside (the slant Ross ran) or one that breaks outside (probably a quick out in this case).
As far as I know, the route a player chooses is ALWAYS determined by the leverage of the nearest defender OVER the top of the player running the option route. Once the receiver has determined the leverage of the defender pre-snap and subsequently confirmed that they are maintaining their leverage post-snap, the receiver is supposed to run the route AWAY from the leverage of the defender. So if the defender is showing inside leverage (meaning the defender’s positioning is closer to the ball than the receiver, and thus leveraging the receiver outside toward the sideline) then the receiver should bend his route outside toward the sideline at the breakpoint. If the defender is positioned with outside leverage, then the receiver will run inside toward the middle of the field. Hopefully, this sounds simple on paper, because…well it should.
However, the game of football is a dynamic contest and even things that seem as binary as option routes aren’t always that simple. In this case, it was the nickel corner who was over Ross. Not only is the nickel corner clearly positioned with inside leverage pre-snap over Ross, but he also shuffles further inside to maintain his inside leverage immediately post-snap. Therefore, it should have been clear to Ross that he needs to break to the outside, right? Well, yes but also no. If we are to believe Dabo’s explanation that it was Ross choosing the wrong “option” to run – and I see no reason to doubt Dabo –then it can be important to wonder *why* he might have run the “wrong” route in the first place. I think the explanation is that Ross saw the depth of the nickel – nearly 10 yards off him at the snap – and determined he had enough space to work the slant inside without the pass being disrupted by the nickel. To be clear, that’s not me defending Ross’s decision. I’d just like to attempt to rationalize to the highest degree possible how this backbreaking mistake happened.
Struggles on early downs
As Clemson never was able to establish any efficiency on early downs, specifically with their run game, the Tigers often were caught in 3rd & longs that forced them to lean on the passing game much more than someone as obsessed with balance as Tony Elliott would have preferred. This is borne out in the stats: if you remove the 3 pass interference penalties Georgia committed, Clemson averaged roughly 2 yards per 1st down attempt on 21 snaps. Not only was Clemson unable to move the ball on the ground, but the offense was also plagued with bad snaps, miscommunications, and other examples of poor execution that put them in a bad situation on 2nd & 3rd down. In turn, this caused a variety of issues.
We saw a prime consequence of this issue on the very first drive of the game. After a linebacker was able to slip through the A-gap on 1st down to stop Pace for a 2 yard gain, a batted ball by behemoth Jordan Davis stopped a potential big play on 2nd down. This put Clemson in the bad spot of needing to convert on 3rd & 8.
On this play, Georgia elects to drop 8 into a Cover 3 shell, with the field safety rotating down to an underneath zone. As you can see, the coverage blankets every receiver except Ross, who is only running a shallow hitch route and is 4 yards short of the sticks anyway. Because Clemson was only able to earn 2 yards early in the set of downs, this means that Uigalelei had to focus on the routes that took longer to develop and couldn’t rely on any short routes more likely to be open against zone coverage, like Ross’s route.
I have read some criticism of McFadden for this play, but upon review, I see little to blame him for. Sure, ultimately he gets beat. But every tackle who’s on an island is going to get beat eventually if the ball doesn’t come out, not to mention McFadden was going up against the 247 composite’s #1 ranked recruit in the 2019 recruiting class. In fact, I’d argue that McFadden actually does a pretty good job maintaining his anchor and preventing the bull rush from completely collapsing the pocket before turning Nolan Smith outside and away from the B gap. If you really twisted my arm and force me to be nitpick, I suppose I would have liked Uigalelei to step up into the pocket there instead of shuffling to his left and into Smith. At the same time, it’s clear to me that DJ sees Smith’s helmet on the inside shoulder of McFadden and resets outside accordingly, which is totally understandable. Regardless of whether you want to play the blame game or not, the central issue was that we couldn’t make up the yards on 1st & 2nd down to give us a good shot on 3rd.
Having to live out of pass sets on 3rd & long clearly put way too much pressure on Clemson’s inexperienced, yet supremely talented, quarterback DJ Uigalelei. To be clear, it’s totally understandable that a young QB in his 3rd start wouldn’t meet the moment perfectly against a defense as talented and well-coached as Georgia’s. Through the lens of a football viewership that seems to grow more QB-centric with every passing year, it’s important to remember that ultimately he’s just 1 of 11 guys. That being said, there were some things Uigalelei definitely needs to progress at if he wants to take the next step as a QB, and more importantly for Clemson, if the Tigers are to evolve into Championship Phase by the postseason.
On this throw, Uigalelei simply allows his nerves to take over. Ross and Ngata’s routes combine for a “scissors concept” which frees up Ngata to fly up the seam unmarked. All the quarterback has to do here is wait for Ngata to enter the window between the safety and the nickel. However, Uigalelei inexplicably speeds up the throw even though there’s no pass rush threat in his immediate vicinity when the ball is released.
After my rewatch, my initial reaction is that carrying an outlook of doom away from this game being a bit hysterical. Sure, there are valid criticisms of the coaches and players preparedness, or lack thereof, for such a huge Week 1 opener, and there are even deeper philosophic questions about the program’s direction this game presented that QT outlined in his great article on Monday. However, as far as this season goes, I’m still optimistic. I don’t want to be reductive, because the whole point of this segment is supposed to be explaining complex parts of each Clemson game in greater detail. But let’s face it: if Ross runs a quick out instead of a slant then we’re in the red zone and it’s likely an entirely different game. And that’s not putting the loss solely on Ross. His mistake was one of several on offense. Yet, other than a few reps of linemen getting manhandled by Jordan Davis, I didn’t see a single mistake I’d conclude that a whole season of practice + in-game reps couldn’t fix. Fortunately for the Tigers, we’ve got a top 5 defense that will allow our offense several mulligans over the course of a schedule against lesser opposition while they work to iron out the wrinkles.