This season’s film previews will look a bit different than the past few years when Matt and I respectively dove into the opponent’s offense and defense. My counterpart has given up footbaw school in favor of law school, so more often than not I’ll shift my focus to the predominant concepts or schemes we can expect to see from the opponent at large, irrespective of offense or defense. I’m certain I won’t do as good a job explaining blocking schemes or modern spread concepts, but each week offers a different theme for me to wax poetic at least.
With Georgia Tech and its increasingly worrisome, deteriorating dearth of talent under what I think we can safely call a lame duck staff, this week’s exercise could prove similarly futile to the upcoming Furman and Louisiana Tech games (which given my own day job constraints I probably won’t even touch).
But we thought that last year going into this contest and barely escaped with our lives against a defensive game plan which left Clemson incredulously handcuffed. Tech most often dropped eight into short zones and made Clemson run-block and throw efficiently to win. As we know, Clemson did not, and needed a couple late goal-line stands to hold on.
Since there’s not any recent film and last year’s contest offers a relevant case study, we’re going to look back at what Tech did, how Clemson failed to force them to adjust, and what might apply to Monday’s game.
You may recall in previewing last year’s contest, I wrote:
(Defensive Coordinator Andrew) Thacker’s defenses align in the now-standard 4-2-5 with a third cover corner and typically aim to employ more press man coverage techniques. Tech has all but scrapped the Sam position and will throw another Will or Mike in when situations call for more than two linebackers, and the base defense employs a true corner in place of the Sam, versus the linebacker/safety hybrid Clemson usually throws into the same spot in its base defense.
Conventional wisdom calls for the heavy underdogs to try and shorten the game and play conservatively, but that isn’t really Collins modus operandi on either side of the ball. Unless Collins reins it in to just get back down I-85 quickly, we’ll see mostly the same cover 1 and 2 man under which Georgia ran with great success against a Clemson offense which has severely disappointed through the air.
You’ll then certainly recall Georgia Tech threw those paragraphs in my face and played with 3 down linemen from the start and kept the wide receivers in front of them in a 3-3-5. This indeed invited Clemson to run the ball, which only really happened with effect when Shipley made things happen with his vision. Clemson didn’t do well enough here to force Tech to adapt, and any scoring drive was always going to be long and plodding.
And the longer the drive carried on, the more likely Clemson was to make mistakes; fumbles, missed blocks, drops, and next to no intermediate or deep connections. Tech just had not to not get mauled up front or let any receivers past them, and wait for Clemson to implode.
From here on, Clemson’s weaknesses were known and we never really saw Clemson overcome them consistently throughout the season. Given Clemson’s running back stable and expected improvement along the offensive line this year, it’s difficult to guess if Tech will approach this game with a similar gameplan or if they’ll revert to form. They still don’t even release a depth chart so there’s little use in prognosticating. We can learn which signs of improvement to look for though in comparing last year’s approach to whatever they throw out on Monday.
This light box is about the most run-friendly front you could face on standard downs, and Clemson didn’t block well enough to churn out consistent yards. There was modest success which cranked out some long drives, but no explosive plays and little forceful run blocking when the field was constricted as Clemson approached scoring position.
This simple RPO power handoff shows the cat and mouse game Tech threw at Clemson: despite a light, run-friendly box, the shallow safeties and every defenders’ eyes in the backfield mean that even though no one missed a block, there are two free defenders to keep Pace from getting to the second level before he’s even cleared the hole. You could argue DJ should’ve pulled the handoff and hit Ross in the flat, but pre-snap this is a handoff all the way.
There are two clear remedies to this approach, neither of which Clemson was ideally-suited to handle last season and why Tech had great success holding Clemson down: hit the deep openings between zones, or maul the light box with a dominant ground game. DJ’s struggles and the wide receiver injuries/growing pains made the former a tall task, but Clemson found modest success in spots with the latter:
Here Tech called a clever cover 6 (the field side is cover 2, the boundary side is cover 4 so it ends up looking like cover 3) and DJ misses the deep square in/dig route. In fairness, Ngata may have been running a skinny post, but DJ threw to the spot where Ngata would’ve been on a dig. Whoever is to blame, the result was the same. To the overall point, Tech went against their norm — a 4 down, nickel-based man coverage team — and bet on keeping Clemson contained enough on the ground while they tried to overwhelm Clemson mentally on passing downs with disguised zones and blended coverages.
Putnam got away with a hold here, but I still want to highlight how well the rest of the line blew Tech off the ball, particularly a beautiful play-side double team from Parks and Allen. This was far too few and far between a year ago, but it’s the expectation this year with more experience and talent across the board up front.
Georgia Tech was one of the worst defenses in the country last year by most statistics — dead last in defensive passing efficiency — and it’s alarming Clemson struggled with such a seemingly simple tactic and poor secondary whether the staff prepared the offense for it or not. Coordinator Andrew Thacker survived to coach another year but shook up his positional staff, and with many new faces (presumably!) stepping into starting roles, more mystery and surprise await the Clemson offense Monday.
Any similar struggles this weekend would be equally — perhaps even more — alarming given the talent gap is not any smaller and Clemson’s expected growth offensively. It’s fair to say Georgia Tech exposed Clemson’s offense last year, so a poetic revival would be welcome catharsis. How well Clemson run blocks, how DJ responds to multiple looks, and where Clemson finds its explosivity will tell us much about the improvement to date, and give us a glimpse of Clemson’s ceiling this fall.