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Palmetto Bowl Schemes: What to Make of South Carolina?

I just hope both teams have fun.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The Palmetto Bowl hasn’t been in question for eight years. Well, seven years plus ten games. Since Clemson threw the proverbial rooster off their back in 2014 behind a veteran defense and a young playmaking core on another late November noon game in Death Valley, a fault line between Clemson and Columbia became an impassable fissure; the Tigers surged into a title-winning powerhouse with this core while the Gamecocks floundered in Steve Spurrier’s wake.

In the seven years since plus the first ten games this season, no one’s expectations were truly (read: rationally) any different. Clemson rebounded modestly yet effectively enough from a modest down year in 2021, while the Gamecocks were still at least a year away from competing with the elite team or two on their schedule. South Carolina won cathartic games against Kentucky and Texas A&M — two teams who offer a real litmus test — but were largely not as good as their record indicated at the time. Sure enough, Missouri and Florida overran them, and the results realigned with expectations.

Then came the eleventh game.

What on earth happened in Columbia last weekend? An offense which was shut out against Florida two weeks ago — who then promptly lost to VANDERBILT — exploded for 9 touchdowns on #5 out of nowhere.

Many have rightly questioned Tennessee’s defense this season, but Saturday’s result was more than bad defense. The Gamecock offense performed at a level not seen in years, so stunningly dominant that one game may be enough to save coordinator Marcus Satterfield’s job.

Before the Tennessee game, I expected to focus on the Gamecock defense and how to attack it so Clemson could quickly get to the roughly 20 points needed to wrap up this game. I didn’t want to even discuss their offense because frankly, I felt it would’ve been petty and patronizing, and I’d like to think I’ve outgrown most of the obnoxious traits I developed while enduring middle and high school in northeast Columbia (I will of course revert to my childish form the day Clemson loses a Palmetto Bowl).

Post-Tennessee though? It’s impossible to ignore what Spencer Rattler, Jaheim Bell, and Atwane Wells just did to Tennessee seemingly without breaking a sweat. We’ll go over what worked, what will (and especially won’t) translate against a finally-dominant Clemson defense, and most importantly, if last weekend’s performance revealed a real chance for South Carolina to pull an upset.

It’s difficult to dive right into the Gamecocks’ offensive explosion against Tennessee without first trying to outline their identity and establish just how great an outlier their Tennessee performance truly was.

But there really hasn’t been an identity. In Rattler, they field an elite 7-on-7 camp QB with a great arm and quick release, but little of what I call pocket bravery or patience to attack progressions in anything but a clean pocket and two easy reads. He can be unbelievably good when there’s no pressure but get to him once and he remembers it; his eyes drop and from thereon he either checks down or throws ill-advised prayer balls.

Their best player in my view has long been Marshawn Lloyd, but he’s been injured more often than not and Satterfield has relied more on wildcat Dak Joyner and moved tight end Bell into the backfield to try and churn out anything he could behind an offensive line which hasn’t moved anybody.

So Satterfield has been all over the map, bouncing between air raid, power run, RPO, wildcat, vertical passing, and zone-read concepts and formations, at seemingly random yet entirely predictable times. Yet what seemed desperation — Bell is 230+ pounds and perceived to be the only hope to churn out yards without Lloyd behind an objectively awful (2.38 line yards, 108th in the nation) run-blocking line — appeared overnight genius only a week ago while Bell was an absolute menace on the ground and in the flats. With zero Tennessee pass rush to speak of, Rattler, at last, looked every bit the 5-star they hoped.

The turnaround between Florida and Tennessee defies belief even now. But looking back at the Florida game reminded me very quickly just why so many of their fans want Satterfield out. They’re very much handicapped by offensive line push, Lloyd’s injuries, and Rattler’s slow development, but the first hint of disaster at Florida had nothing to do with those:

Satterfield called a PA counter with a deep post, probably my favorite deep shot against man coverage. Given you have a hitherto tight end at running back, there’s nothing wrong with early deep shots and designed pocket movement in the game plan.

But the blocking scheme was off from the start, with a tight end responsible for the defensive end. The pulling guard has to get outside and help but was caught inside expecting an irrelevant green dog blitz. This isn’t on play-calling; it’s on scheming and Rattler panicking.

And yet, the same concept which would blister Tennessee a week later was already Satterfield’s go-to: a levels dagger concept, with the outside receiver running a dig and the inside receiver getting up the seam or squeezing a deep post:

A dig is the ideal cover 4 and cover 2 beater if the QB has enough time to hit it, and with the seam (or post against a single high safety) inside it to draw the safeties back, an anticipated throw can easily fit behind the linebackers. With Florida not bringing or getting any pressure above, Rattler can anticipate the simple read without dropping his eyes to the rush.

This is when Rattler has been successful and why pressure has been so brutal against SC this season; get to him once and his game unravels. Florida got to him enough, Tennessee did not at all.

With all night in the pocket, Satterfield’s man coverage beaters were hilariously easy for Rattler. Mesh, daggers, and hi-lo’s were all working with Rattler building confidence, Tennessee unable to reach him, and defensive backs unable to keep up in man; or pulled out of position when they switched to soft cover 3 and cover 4 to try and stop the bleeding.

Above is another dagger concept with a man-beating mesh underneath, against Tennessee in cover 3. A dig is a slow-developing route, needing about three seconds for the outside receiver to get in behind a hook zone defender, and Rattler had it. This was the entire night boiled down into one play: Satterfield had man and zone beaters within the same play, and Rattler soared with confidence due to a lack of any pressure and duly snowballing success. Tennessee let him play his game and he ripped them to shreds.

3rd & 20, a mere three plays later, Satterfield went back to the well. Dagger concept against cover 4. Light pressure, good pocket awareness, easy read on the dig route:

So what was the difference between Florida and Tennessee? An oversimplification perhaps, but pressure rattling Rattler. Needless to say, this bodes well for Clemson, but no longer is it the certain cakewalk we presumed for the first ten games this year.

Though neither do I think Rattler’s Tennessee performance is entirely replicable. Rattler is better against man coverage, and I certainly like SC’s receivers better than Clemson’s, but Clemson attacks the line of scrimmage and plays primarily zone. Get to Rattler early and force him to revert to his hero ball antics.

Bell, Joyner, and especially Lloyd give SC a real threat on the ground despite the poor line play, but it’s fair to say Clemson has cleaned up the run fit issues now that Barrett Carter and Trenton Simpson have swapped at WILL and SAM. Carter has been elite no matter his position and Simpson is now back in space where he does the most damage. Jeremiah Trotter Jr. plays MIKE at a level we haven’t seen in ages. With the disparity in line play between the Clemson DL and SC OL, this side of the ball is heavily in Clemson’s favor unless lightning strikes twice in Rattler or Lloyd racks up yards after contact.

The Gamecock defense trends in the opposite direction relative to their offense, and a similarly awful line-yardage statistic haunts their line of scrimmage on this side of the ball (2.98 line yards given up, 121st in the nation). It’s long a broken record over here by now, but run the ball and win.

There are talented pieces on this Gamecock defense, of course. Zach Pickens and Jordan Burch were 5-stars Clemson wanted. Yet both have mostly underachieved relative to their ranking and the best matchup for their defense is (surprise surprise!) found at cornerback against the Clemson receivers.

Clemson has been very poor against man coverage this year and the Gamecocks have three solid corners whom we can expect will win out wide more often than not. Nickel Cam Smith stands out the most to me, and it’s crucial Clemson commits to the run with Smith and their vulnerable freshmen safeties on the field. Not only because it’s where Clemson is at its best, but second-level run defense has been a real weakness.

Irrationally speaking, I worry South Carolina is on fire and Rattler will pick up where he left off against Tennessee. I worry Clemson will have two or more turnovers for the fifth straight game. I worry Brandon Streeter will remain in pigheaded love with 50+% RPO calls, letting the defense dictate to DJ that should pull a handoff from Clemson’s best weapons and instead throw an unblocked bubble screen. Whenever Clemson struggles, Streeter laments not running the ball enough. Too many RPOs are why.

But the point of this column is to always focus on the rational gleanings from my own eyes, ignoring the anxiety and “what-ifs” borne from the outlying Gamecock explosion last week. The talent, schemes, and almost all matchups favor Clemson despite this newfound threat. There’s no rational reason to expect an upset.

The formula for a Clemson victory hasn’t changed, and it’s disarmingly simple. Get after Rattler early and stress the Gamecock gap integrity with Shipley and Mafah. Clemson is more than equipped to do so. When and by how much Clemson pulls away is very much in question (when is it not?!), but the ultimate outcome remains relatively assured.

Clemson 37, South Carolina 20