A remarkable first half
I don’t know that I’ve seen a first half like that one. The Jackets had 21 plays for 22 yards, and 14 of them were gained on the last play of the half when Tech was just running out the clock. The Jackets had three first downs and quarterback Justin Thomas was 1-for-3 for -3 yards. They held the ball for 11:06. Clemson ran 56 plays and picked up 347 yards and was 9-for-12 on third downs.
One thing stuck out – how Tech’s linemen and backs were consistently unable to get bodies on Clemson’s linemen and linebackers. The triple-option is a consistent yardage producer when it gets blocked up right, but when the play-side A-back doesn’t get the cornerback out of the play, it typically doesn’t go far because it goes from being a 2-on-1 play to 2-on-2.
That was usually the case Thursday. A screen cap of a second-quarter play fairly demonstrates it.
Tech had finally gotten a first down not via penalty, early in the second quarter. On first-and-10 from the Clemson 40-yard line, coach Paul Johnson called a triple-option play. If run as designed, and if the read was for Thomas to keep (which it was), Thomas would have had been in space with A-back Qua Searcy against linebacker Dorian O'Daniel (the player bearing down on Searcy), the 2-on-1 situation that makes the option work.
However, the first misfire was that right tackle Trey Klock (on the ground on the 35-yard line) couldn’t get linebacker Kendall Joseph to the ground, giving him a free run at Thomas and forcing him to pitch to Searcy. The play might still have worked with Searcy in space against Joseph. However, lead A-back Isiah Wills wasn’t able to block cornerback Ryan Carter to the ground, either, leaving Searcy in a 1-on-3 trap. Carter made the tackle for a four-yard loss and three plays later Tech punted.
It’s moot, but consider the space beyond the 40-yard line. Had Klock and Willis been able to successfully execute their blocks, it appears Searcy or Thomas could have picked up a first down and possibly much more.
This isn’t to pin the loss on Klock and Willis, but it’s typical of what happened throughout the game. It’s hard to determine where to draw the line separating blame to Tech/credit to Clemson for the Tigers staying on their feet more often than the Jackets needed for their run game to work. But Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables and his players get some of the credit. Tech gained 71 rushing yards last year against the Tigers. Being stocked with NFL-grade players helps a lot, but that’s not all of it. Clemson's preparation has likely had a large hand in two of the poorest offensive performances in Johnson's tenure.
“I was cut a lot more last year,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware told ESPN. “I think I got cut once tonight and I was just being lazy. The whole game (Clemson's defensive line) just contained everything. Really, just whupped the offensive line. I don't mean to disrespect them or anything.”
The very strange safety
The game didn’t hinge on cornerback Lance Austin’s interception/safety later in the quarter. Clearly, it was a big play at a point in the game when the outcome was still in doubt. Also, it wasn’t a smart play, although that isn’t necessarily what caused the safety, which was the freak 1-in-1,000 circumstance when safety Corey Griffin bumped Austin and forced the fumble that resulted in Austin having to fall on the ball in his own end zone.
I don’t know if it’s much more than that or endemic of anything. Austin isn’t the first player to make an ill-advised decision, and it probably doesn’t make this season’s top 10 of most ill-advised college football plays this season.
It was a strange play, though. A rather odd capper is that Austin was the principal figure in a singular play in last year’s white-out against Florida State, a play made in part because Austin was smart enough to know he was supposed to pick up a blocked field goal on the last play of regulation and run it.
Also, in a strange coincidence, Thursday was the four-year anniversary (to the day) of, without question, the strangest safety I have ever seen. Orwin Smith caught a kickoff in the end zone against Miami (the same end zone where Austin’s safety occurred) and took steps toward the goal line before deciding against it and taking a knee. However, his momentum carried him forward and he put his hand down on the field of play to keep from falling at the 1-yard line (which, ultimately, would have been a better result). But, because he put his hand down, Tech incurred a safety when he took a knee in the end zone, a key play in the Jackets’ 42-36 overtime loss to the Hurricanes.
(Tangent alert) That, by the way, was just one part of a supremely bizarre reason. Two overtime losses in the first four games, Al Groh getting whacked after six games, the Jackets setting the Johnson-era record for highest time of possession (43:45 against Boston College) and lowest time of possession (21:01 against BYU) in back-to-back games, the supersonic 68-50 win over North Carolina, Tech making the ACC title game only after Miami backed out, then nearly beating FSU in the title game, then needing a waiver to play in a bowl game at 6-7, going to the Sun Bowl for the second year in a row and then ending the seven-game bowl losing streak against USC, the preseason No. 1.
That doesn’t even include Dan Radakovich leaving for Clemson in the middle of the season and two fans falling from a stairwell and the stands at Bobby Dodd Stadium in successive weeks. There was a lot of weird stuff going on.
Among other things (and this isn't entirely relevant to the tangent, but kind of funny) , I remember talking to Quayshawn Nealy after the Maryland game (speaking of bizarre - that was the game where Maryland played its fifth-string quarterback, a true freshman linebacker). He was telling me about a motivational message that interim coordinator Charles Kelly had given the defense comparing a late-season three-game stretch to Amen Corner at Augusta National (the diabolical three-hole segment of the course that often factors heavily in the outcome of the Masters). I think Nealy (and likely others) got the gist of the message, but had no idea what Amen Corner was.
I bet that season would make for a good book.
The defense holds its own
Clemson seems off its game offensively, but the defense’s play was nonetheless actually pretty good. The Jackets gave up 442 yards of offense, but, as Johnson likes to note, tempo-free statistics are more meaningful. Clemson averaged 5.4 yards per play and 2.2 points per possession (2.0 if you toss out the safety and not including the final game-ending drive). Last year, Clemson averaged 6.4 yards per play, and, at least according to this site, 2.8 points per game. Notably, the Jackets gave up 7.3 yards per play last season to Clemson.
Only two defenses last year did better against Clemson than 5.4 and only three defenses did better than the 4.05 yards per rush that the Jackets gave up. In particular, the performance against Vanderbilt (holding preseason All-SEC pick Ralph Webb to 69 yards on 18 carries) followed by the effort against Clemson (particularly given how much the Jackets were on the field in the first half) gives increasing indication of the improvement of Tech's run defense.
Two more numbers that I wouldn’t have expected for a defense that lost its best run stopper (Adam Gotsis) to graduation and the draft. After four games and 180 rushing attempts, Tech has given up one run of 20 yards or more (that being the 73-yard touchdown run against Boston College). Last year, the Jackets gave up one rush of 20 or more yards for every 26 carries.
The second number: As noted above, Tech gave up 5.4 yards per play and 2.2 points per possession. Against Alabama in the national championship game, Clemson averaged 6.5 yards per play and 2.7 points per possession.