The fewest points scored in Notre Dame bowl game history. That’s the one line summary of the defensive performance. Even without Dexter Lawrence, the Clemson defense was able to limit the Notre Dame offense the way it has all year, by creating havoc. The Tiger D had 6 sacks, 8 TFLs, 5 PBUs, 5 QBHs, 2 FF, and 1 INT in 69 plays.
We heard a lot of reasons why Notre Dame would keep this “closer than people think.” We heard about almost losing to Syracuse and Texas A&M as well as SC throwing for 500 yards. ND averaged 3.69 yards per play which was well below what Syracuse, Texas A&M, and South Carolina were able to do against the defense and more on the level of what Duke did. Basically, they got the motivated “Genius Kid” version of a Clemson team with already better developed talent.
The most important move Brent Venables made in this game was to not make one. He stuck to the identity that he has created here over the past 7 years. He didn’t line them up in any exotic alignments where they would be limited rushing the passer. He just did what we do. I did think he blitzed too much early on and ND hurt us because of it, but he adjusted in the 2Q and we mostly rushed 4 from there on out. Book was able to scramble for good yardage on the first drive of the 3Q and Venables put a spy on him which cleaned that up.
One way they hurt our blitz came on the very first play. ND started the game in a 4 wide formation and ran the stretch play to the wide side. We blitzed and they got 10 yards on the cutback when Tre overran the play and Huggins got blocked. Had we not blitzed, we would’ve had a backside fill from the LB as opposed to him being caught in the wash of the OL.
Our coverage scheme and execution was as good in this game as it has been all year. In base personnel, we started the game playing a lot of C1 with the safety in the middle of the field and blitzing the LBs. Loved the C1, but didn’t like the blitzing of the LBs. Book has been comfortable all year quickly throwing to the underneath middle, so blitzing the LBs so much made it easier for him to do that. Having the LBs take their drops made it more difficult for him.
Yes, they ran all of the plays that have given us trouble in the past: Stretch, Slot Post, Screen and Go, and RB flat/wheel. If you didn’t notice that, it’s because we shut it down. I think we were all concerned about a bust on the slot post play and, yes, they went for it twice in their first 6 plays. It wasn’t there either time. Muse had the first one covered well and Book fumbled trying to escape the pocket on the 2nd attempt.
As expected, we did use the Dime package more than we have been this year. This is where we go with 3 down linemen, Muse and Turner as the deep safeties, K’Von Wallace bumping down to the slot on the wide side. That was the simplest way to mask being down a DT. Kudos to Venables for not over-thinking. The Dime was back to being the Dime of Doom in this game. In the Dime, we usually went with a version of C3 that forced Book to throw into tight windows. As a QB who doesn’t like to sit in the pocket and go through his progressions or throw downfield very much, this worked well. ND averaged a season low 4.9 yards per attempt passing and converted 29.4% of their 3rd downs, a season low with Book as the starter.
To cover the post/slant/switch routes to the middle, we just had the safeties stay put around 10 yards and left the CBs on an island outside. When we blitzed a safety, which we did more of in this game at first, Simmons would also drop to the middle with the slot. This gave a read to Ian Book that he should challenge the CBs in 1-on-1s on the outside. With our CBs having better coverage and ball skills than the safeties, as well as getting physical on their switches, they were able to defend ND’s WRs well.
We gave up two PIs on fades but no completions.
Here’s a look at how we tightened up those windows in the Redzone. We have a safety blitz from Muse and they have a Switch Slant/Fade on the boundary and Hi/Lo Crossers wide. KJ is the LB, not KW by the way.
As you can see here, Book is looking for the slant by the outside WR. JD is right there though. The WR sees it and is going to pivot his route into an out. Mullen sees it and is ready to come up and jump on that. KW will take the slot fade. On the other side, notice IS dropping to the middle well over the top of the crosser. So when Finke clears KJ, IS will be right there to pick it up. Just very well prepared and a great job by the staff.
The tradeoff to this strategy is that it makes us vulnerable on a deep post from the outside WR. That was a gamble we were clearly willing to take. It takes a lot of time in the pocket to throw one and there’s always a chance the CB covers it well. ND was only able to throw one in the game. It was underthrown and AJT got a PBU on the play.
Special shout out to Isaiah Simmons who had an excellent game covering the slot WR in base, whether it was Finke or Boykin. ND went at him in man to man and he won. Simmons did not have one of his usual “what was he thinking” busts in the game either. In the Dime package, he was given the spy role and he was also excellent and did not allow Book to get yards with his legs on 3rd down. He received strong consideration for defensive game ball.
- Notre Dame ran the stretch play a good bit in the game and I was worried about that one. We did very well stopping it. I also mentioned ND trying to run the ball on 3rd and long, which they did. They ran the stretch play on 3rd and long in the 2Q and we got a TFL to end the drive. They elected not to run on 3rd and long after that.
- They ran a reverse pass on 1st down after the missed FG in the 2Q. Turner and Simmons were not fooled. On the play, Book threw it away and their should’ve been an intentional grounding call because he received the ball from a pitch and not the snap. Can’t remember who brought that up in the gamethread, but that was exactly right.
- Even after watching it several times, I still don’t understand how Trayvon Mullen didn’t make a play on that lollipop fade that Book threw in the 2nd quarter. He appeared to have his head back looking at the underthrown ball slowly floating towards him. Then, he just never reacted. That was a great opportunity at a pick he missed.
- Austin Bryant beat the Notre Dame RT often, as was expected in the preview, and was a difference maker in the game. They took away a QBH from him on an offsides penalty where I thought he just got a good jump. Justin Foster came in and beat the RT several times as well. They really could’ve used Alex Bars in this game.
- Meaningful snaps were given to Nolan Turner in the Dime package over Denzel Johnson and man, did he deliver. He had the nice 3rd down interception of Book reading his eyes and coming off the crosser to get underneath the Dig. He also had a sweet PBU on a corner route late in the game where he dislodged the ball from the TE. Wilkins and K’Von mauled him in celebration afterwards. He was great in run support as well. We just need to get him a little more weight and a little more speed.
- Also, I love how the sideline is louder than the crowd at the end of games. They really get excited for the backups to do well. #WeTooDeep
Defensive Game Ball
Austin Bryant – With all due respect to Isaiah Simmons, Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Nolan Turner, it’s time to give the Senior DE some love around here. AB had 6 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 TFLs, 1 QBH and 1 Crane-Style.