And despite giving up 50 points in this game, it was a much better performance by the Tar Heels, who did not get blown off the field the way they did against ECU last week. Even more encouraging was the way the Heels refused to fold, fighting to the end and nearly pulling within one score before Marquise Williams’s final interception in the end zone with 2:25 remaining. Clemson publisher Roy Philpott put it well at that point:
Apparently UNC is the only entity in the state that realizes this game isn't over.— Roy Philpott (@RoyPhilpott) September 28, 2014
Carolina fought to a respectable draw in the second half, with each team scoring 28 after the break. A few observations before looking at specific plays:
First of all, Williams and Trubisky could be more accurate when they have opportunities, but the receivers aren’t doing the quarterbacks any favors right now, either. There’s just not a whole lot of separation on the outside at this point. Quinshad Davis and Bug Howard have outstanding size, but they’re not creating enough space with their big bodies, and Clemson’s smaller corners were able to get in their chests and push them around, which should never happen.
As strange as it is to say after giving up 50 points, I think the staff will be mostly pleased with the defensive effort in this game once they look at the tape, particularly on the defensive line. The powerful Clemson offense was limited to 92 rushing yards on 44 carries (2.1 YPC) and averaged a modest 6.36 yards per play on the day (by comparison, UNC averaged 6.05 YPP).
But it’s not enough to be “mostly pleased” when the breakdowns consistently involve big plays, and that has sure been a theme this year. Carolina won its share of battles with the Clemson offense, but when Clemson did have success, they did it big, with explosive passing plays of 74 (TD), 50 (TD), 31, 24 (TD), 33 (TD), and 27 yards with those six plays accounting for 45.2% of Clemson’s total yardage.
The bright spot in the secondary is that Brian Walker covered well all game, competing well with Clemson’s terrific athletes on the outside. Des Lawrence and M.J. Stewart got picked on a little bit, but neither should be embarrassed about his performance in one-on-one matchups.
The truly frustrating thing is that most of Clemson’s big plays were not the result of a Clemson receiver beating tight coverage but were rather coverage busts while Carolina was in zone—exactly what is not supposed to happen. (Another was the result of a bad matchup, with backup ram Donnie Miles in single coverage against blazing fast Germone Hopper in the 2nd quarter.) We’ll look at the first of those below.
The first touchdown was as bad a blown coverage as I’ve ever seen. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson had his pick of two receivers on the same side, each of whom would have scored. In looking at the play, Clemson sets up in a Wildcat-style formation, going unbalanced right with quads to the field and jet motion coming to the strong side.
As you can see below, the tight end is “covered” by the second receiver (always count from outside in), who is lined up on the line of scrimmage (LOS), making the tight end ineligible on the play. By rule, only the players on the ends of the LOS are eligible, one on each side of the center. All other eligible receivers must be lined up off the ball. Any player on the LOS between two other players on the LOS is “covered up” by the outside player and is thereby ineligible.
This means the defense can treat the tight end as an extra offensive lineman here, committing an extra player to the running game. A typical adjustment to this look (and the reason the Wildcat formation died in the NFL) is for defenses to bring a corner blitz from the nickel position in the slot to take away the jet sweep, while the playside linebacker takes the curl zone responsibility since he doesn’t have to worry about the tight end, as you can see in the picture below:
The two deep safeties are free to rotate to the field, with no deep threat to the boundary side. (Alternately, safety Tim Scott can rotate down into man coverage with the backside safety taking the deep zone behind him.)
In postgame interviews, Carolina linebacker Jeff Schoettmer explained what happened, “They had quads to the field, the number two receiver was on the line. He was covered up, so he should have been ineligible.”
And there is the problem: The Carolina defenders had it backwards, thinking the No. 2 receiver was ineligible rather than the tight end, which led to the confusion on the back end. I blame this on the coaching staff, as the back seven simply should not be making that kind of rule mistake. And the fact that they all made it together suggests it was not communicated well during the week.
The result was ugly. Scott abandoned his deep zone as both outside corners blitzed (only one of them should have gone) and the backside safety didn’t rotate over. The result: a total disaster on the second play from scrimmage, exactly what a defense already struggling with its confidence did not need.
I thought the offensive line actually played rather well against one of the top few defensive fronts in the country. The Heels didn’t have a high per-carry average, but they were able to run well enough to keep the Tigers honest, and I thought they did a decent job protecting the quarterback.
Here I want to look at a play that might easily be blamed on the offensive line but a closer look reveals to be on the quarterback: the safety at the end of the first half.
Before we start, I want to return to something Larry Fedora regularly says in his coaches’ conference presentations: “When the quarterback gets sacked in our offense, it’s the quarterback’s fault.” That obviously isn’t true 100 percent of the time, but it’s a good rule of thumb and certainly applies to this play.
Williams is heavily pressured on this play from the outside, but take note of space directly in front of him. The offensive interior has held its ground, giving him a clean pocket to step into, with the tackles running the ends behind him. With better footwork and pocket sense, he should have had plenty of time either to make a quality throw or take off running.
This is one of the hidden elements of quality quarterback play—the ability to feel the pocket and slide forward and away from pressure. It goes against the natural tendency everyone has to run right or left when feeling pressure from the outside, but it’s the way blocking schemes are designed to give the best possible platform to throw the football.
It’s also a hidden secret of many successful offensive lines that they have quarterbacks who do this so well that plays like this wind up looking like a routinely blocked pass play rather than a safety.
I thought Marquise Williams played one of his best games in a Carolina uniform on Saturday, but he still needs to clean up his footwork if this offense is to continue improving. And next time you see a sack and go to blame the protection, make sure you check whether the QB was in the right spot first.