The Chalkboard: Tigers 35, 'Noles 30

It wasn't what everyone now calls the Wildcat, but Florida State threw a wrinkle at Clemson to try and jumpstart the running game. ... A failed blitz led to the 'Noles surrendering a long TD pass.

Seminoles on Offense: Direct Snap

Injured Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel is an outstanding runner -- probably the best on the team at this point -- and his absence leaves a significant void in the running game. Early against Clemson, the ‘Noles tried to manufacture a ground attack by using a set originally installed for Manuel's athletic ability, with tailback Chris Thompson at the QB spot.

Despite the ABC announcers consistently referring to this set as the "Wildcat," this was simply the same two-tight end, empty-backfield look successfully used by the 'Noles against Oklahoma with Manuel running from the quarterback position, as you can see in the image below:

In contrast, the Wildcat involves an unbalanced line -- the two tackles line up next to each other, and a tight end lines up next to the guard on the other side -- and jet-sweep action from a player coming in motion before the snap. FSU's play involved neither of these elements, making it simply a direct snap to a back in an empty set.

So why run this play without a passing threat like Manuel in the backfield? What's the point of trying to establish the run if the defense doesn't expect a pass? Although it's true that this set will be more successful with a passing threat in the backfield, even without this threat it still gives the offense a numerical advantage in the running game, essentially providing an extra blocker at the point of attack. It also has the advantage of doing this without changing personnel, meaning the defensive call will be the same as it would have been against a passing set using that grouping of players.

This means even if the defense doesn't respect the passing ability of the "quarterback," it still generally is going to be a player short against the running game, compared to a set including a quarterback and a tailback in the backfield. Simply do the math in the image below:

In this set, there are enough blockers at the point of attack to account for every player in the box, or the area within five yards of the line of scrimmage between the tight ends, meaning the back should be able to get into the secondary unchallenged. With a quarterback in the backfield, the safety covering the slot receiver will come into the box, crowding the line of scrimmage.

On this particular snap, the first of the game, FSU runs a simple inside-zone play, in which the offensive linemen all step to the right and take the first defensive player in their zone with the goal of creating a vertical seam somewhere along the line. Unlike man blocking, zone blocking rarely assigns a specific location for the hole.

Despite some defensive penetration, the O-line manages to get every player blocked, including the three linebackers that are circled in the image below, giving Thompson a chance to break into the secondary. However, a good play by a Clemson defensive lineman prevents him from doing so with a full head of steam.

This play went for 12 yards and a first down, with a few other carries from this set helping to set the tone and establish an early running game. Unfortunately, the Seminole defense gave up two early scores and struggled to stop Clemson's offense, with FSU ending up largely abandoning the run in an effort to come from behind.

The Tigers were determined to make the ‘Noles beat them with Clint Trickett's arm, committing their resources to stopping the run throughout the game. The ‘Noles simply couldn't afford to waste drives going three-and-out and putting the Clemson offense right back on the field.

Seminoles on Defense: Failed Blitz

After Florida State narrowed the score to 28–23 and gained some momentum, this critical third-and-4 play from the Clemson 38 ultimately put the game away for the Tigers. Clemson lined up trips right and motioned the tight end across the formation. In response to the motion, safety Terrance Parks moved closer to the line of scrimmage while Lamarcus Joyner retreated to center field, indicating to Clemson QB Tajh Boyd that the ‘Noles were in man coverage with a single deep safety, or man-free coverage. Given the look, a blitz was likely.

Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris had dialed up a slant-and-go, or "sluggo" route, to freshman phenom Sammy Watkins, as can be seen in the image below:

Florida State was indeed bringing the blitz, with linebackers Christian Jones and Vince Williams coming off the left side. Jones would take the blocker in the backfield while left end Bjoern Werner would crash inside, trying to bring the right tackle with him and make space for Williams to have a free shot at the QB after looping outside.

Unfortunately, as you can see in the image below, Williams missed his gap, getting caught inside and falling down, which gave Boyd plenty of time to pump fake on the slant route and cause Joyner to bite. The pump fake is actually for the safety, not the corner, since a corner in man coverage isn't looking at the QB.

The pump fake was successful, drawing Joyner up just enough that his angle to provide deep help was too shallow, giving Watkins the ability to get over top and score the decisive touchdown.

Below, the red circle shows where Joyner should have been, with the white circle showing where the pump fake drew him. With a bit more pressure, the pump is less likely to have been successful, and the throw certainly less accurate, with Joyner able to come across the field and break up the play.

When you blitz, you had better get pressure. This play is a good example of what can happen when you don't. It's also an example of how not having Greg Reid available really hurt the ‘Noles on third down. With Reid healthy, FSU is probably in a nickel package for this play, with the middle linebacker (Williams) off the field. This blitz likely gets pressure out of that look with speedier players.

The ‘Noles struggled on third down all game long, and not having one of their starting cornerbacks is a major reason why.

Jason Staples was a walk-on wide receiver at Florida State in the early 2000s and is now a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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