Syracuse was dominated on many fronts against Clemson on Saturday in the Tigers' 45-14 win over the Orange in the Carrier Dome, highlighted by four long touchdown passes form senior quarterback Tajh Boyd. En route to his record passing performance, the Heisman hopeful threw for a quartet of scores of at least 40 yards each against an SU secondary that is one of the most experienced groups on the roster.
CuseNation.com breaks each big play down with the help of pictures from ESPN's national broadcast of the game.
The play: Boyd completes 60-yard touchdown pass to Adam Humphries on the third play of the game.
SU's left side of the field was fooled.
Foundation of mistake: Mental
How it went wrong: Anderson and Wilkes, no matter the coverage they were in or appeared to be in, bit on Boyd's play-action and subsequent option look with decoy Sammy Watkins before he dropped back to pass. Humphries did a good job selling that he was blocking initially, as neither Anderson or Wilkes looked to get hands on the wideout early in his route. Each had his eyes on Boyd and not their keys, which in zone coverage is the offensive lineman to distinguish a run or pass play (if OL fires out, it's a run and if they hold ground or kick-step, it's a pass), and the easy TD resulted.
Had the coverage been man, it would have been even more of a blown assignment by Anderson to let the WR get by without any contact or even proper backpedal technique, which is why we'll say the coverage was zone (seemingly cover-2) and Anderson and Wilkes' eyes got the best of them on the third play of the game in what was the beginning of a trend. The Clemson offensive line, for those wondering, got into their pass-sets immediately after the snap, so had one of the two Syracuse players in question had their eyes on their keys instead of in the backfield, the big play could have been avoided. Humphries blew by the two by splitting them in his route, untouched, and the rout was on.
The play: Boyd completes 42-yard touchdown pass to Humphries near the end of the first quarter.
Foundation of mistake: Mental
Eskridge had the angle, but missed the tackle.
How it went wrong: Clemson's play-design to fool Syracuse defensive backs worked for a second time in the first quarter, again attempting to use Humphries as a blocker before releasing him on a deep route. This time, Clemson set the play up as if a bubble screen was to be run, with Humphries coming out of his stance slower than normal as if he was to set up as a blocker for said screen, before he accelerated on a wheel route from the inside slot position en route to another score.
Julian Whigham was locked up with Sammy Watkins on the outside and played him tough at the line of scrimmage while Josh Kirkland, a linebacker, was lined up over Humphries. He understandably went for the bubble screen as it appeared every other underneath defensive back was in man coverage with both Eskridge and Wilkes over the top. Appearing to be two-man, where each underneath guy covers the man he lines up in front of and each safety is "free" to his side of the field, Humphries was a free runner and Eskridge was late in recognizing the play most likely because of the play-side action which was the makings of the bubble screen. While he figured out he needed to take a 45-degree angle to the sidelines to cut off Humphries, it was too late as Boyd had already released a great ball to him in stride. Humphries then made Eskridge miss at the 7-yard line before literally strolling into the end zone. Eskridge was tardy and missed a routine tackle and the blowout was taking form early on here.
The play: Boyd completes 40-yard touchdown pass to Martavis Bryant to push the lead to 35-7 in the second quarter.
SU players involved: Keon Lyn, Durell Eskridge
Foundation of mistake: Communication
Lyn and Eskdirge weren't on the same page.
How it went wrong: On the back-side of the play (where the ball wasn't thrown), it looked as if Anderson was in Cover-3, where three defensive backs are responsible for 1/3 of the field each. But on the front side (or play side), Lyn and Eskridge were stuck in between two coverage calls it seems. Lyn reached out to Eskridge for clarification before the snap, but the safety's eyes never were towards his cornerback and whatever Lyn requested, noticeably confused with his body language, was not answered by Eskridge.
The result was Lyn appearing to play underneath, almost like a cover-2 scheme in which the cornerback is responsible for the flats, and Eskridge again hesitated because of play-action and by the time each defensive back realized what was happening, Bryant was behind both of them for yet another 7-on-7, easy-looking score. It is the safety's responsibility in most cases to make sure every player in the secondary, or back-seven for that matter, is on board with the coverage to his side. It wasn't the Miami-native's best day at the office.
The play: Boyd completes 91-yard touchdown pass to Sammy Watkins late in the third quarter to put the game firmly out of reach.
SU players involved: Ri'Shard Anderson
Foundation of mistake: Physical
Lyn was no match for Watkins 1-on-1.
How it went wrong: The first three big plays of the afternoon all had elements of a coverage breakdown whether purely mental, communication-based, or a combination of both, but the longest score of the day was just talent beating weaker talent. Anderson was in a bail technique, which is often used against faster receivers in order to not have to back-pedal and give up considerable ground early in the receiver's route. So he was turned and running from the time the ball was snapped, but Boyd laid out a perfect pass despite Syracuse's blitz (which was why there was no safety help), and then Watkins hit two gears of increased speed that Anderson simply could not in what again looked like easy pitch and catch.
Anderson was aware of Watkins the entire play, but he never tried to get hands on the speedster before the ball was in the air and he couldn't stay in front of him, which is the foundation of bail coverage and why it is used in the first place, to get a head start in keeping the wideout in front of you. It didn't matter and Boyd set a career high against SU's spotty coverage on this day.
Scott Shafer and company have plenty of work to do during the ACC schedule, as the talent level of skill-position players is among the best in the country throughout the conference. Expect simpler defenses, an emphasis on coverage discipline and fundamentals of each look, as well as a more physical approach from the cornerbacks in getting hands on the targets early in their routes.
The impending return of one of the team's fastest and most talented defensive backs Brandon Reddish, who dressed but didn't play on Saturday, should help. The continued emergence of Whigham, who excels with his length and range, should also be something that contributes to more playing time for the sophomore.
Either way, playing time will be increased for young cornerbacks with the news Monday afternoon released by SU Athletics, stating that Lyn is out for the season with a lower-body injury requiring surgery. The senior was arguably the team's best cover corner.