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October 4, 2012

Final game-week nuggets

  • TICKETS AVAILABLE for Georgia Tech at #15 Clemson

  • -- One of the inevitable story lines for this Georgia Tech game is revisiting the backdrop from last year's game with the Yellow Jackets.

    Tigers were riding high, of course, with the 8-0 record and their names in BCS lights.

    As the players and staff looked back on a four-loss season last winter, one of the most common conclusions was that this team didn't handle the elevated profile very well. They were a major part of the national conversation thanks to Sammy, Tajh and The Chad, and it seems as if they lost their edge through all that fame and good fortune.

    To me, one of the most poignant sequences came after Clemson put up 59 against North Carolina to get to 8-0. Chad Morris was getting weepy after that one as he reflected on how much his guys had bought in to his philosophy in his first season.

    That was about the time Morris decided his guys were ready for more pages to be added to the playbook. He has told me on more than one occasion that it was a mistake in hindsight, that maybe he got a little too excited as well. It can happen to anyone, and Morris was in just his second season of this college football thing. So he got a bit swept up by everything, too.

    What, specifically, did Morris decide to add to the playbook? I asked him that this week in a one-on-one conversation, and he told me it was mostly stuff that used Tajh Boyd as a runner. He put more responsibility on Boyd's shoulders to read the defense and react off of that, and as we know now it didn't work out too well.

    Boyd was starry-eyed, watching the Heisman Trophy forecasts that included him. He saw people comparing his first-year success to Cam Newton's almost superhuman 2010 season, and it was harder for him to stay driven. He lost a lot of the purpose and drive he took through the summer of 2011, when he was determined to dispel the doubts that came after his struggles in the spring game.

    Boyd also was gaining weight, and that played against Morris' hope to involve him more as a runner.

    Fast forward to this past offseason, and Morris was determined to add pages to the playbook only after his guys mastered the basic stuff. And the fact that Boyd has been effective as a runner thus far -- off scrambles, off the zone-read, and even off some triple-option -- tells you just how much this kid has grown into this offense, not to mention how much more comfortable Morris feels with him.

    Dabo Swinney said the other day that one of Boyd's biggest improvements from last year to this year has been reading, knowing when to hand it and when to keep it. He said Boyd was "not fully committed" to that part of the game over the second half of last season, suffering from sloppy footwork and decision-making.

    Boyd rushed for 60 yards against Boston College, and his net total was 42 after sacks. Morris said the most impressive thing about that statistic is there weren't a lot of called runs in the package for that particular game; Boyd picked up a lot of those yards off of making the right reads.

    Five games in, Boyd has 161 yards rushing and Morris said before the season he wanted 700. So he has a ways to go to reach that standard. But you really get the feeling Morris is getting comfortable enough with Boyd that he'll introduce more stuff as the season progresses. And this time, you don't get the feeling Boyd is going to be ill-equipped to handle it.

    Here's what Morris said about last year's critical point between 8-0 and the unraveling that produced four losses in the last six games:

    "We were 8-0, and we were playing good ball. I think you saw a group of guys that appeared to be ready for more. But we were giving them more, putting more on them. And so was everybody in the country. They were telling them how great they were. So they were listening more to that than us. I might have overloaded Tajh a little bit. He wasn't running as effectively as he was earlier in the year. Couple that with the fact that Sammy played just OK against Georgia Tech, we turned the ball over five times. We had two young backs, and they fumbled the ball twice in critical situations."

    -- Clemson was prolific against Boston College, putting up 576 yards and rushing for 209 yards. But Morris told me he didn't feel completely comfortable as a play-caller in that game, for whatever reason.

    He went in with the plan to pound the Eagles with the running game early, and that didn't happen.

    "I guess I expected more push up front at times," he said. "At times you can't get into that rhythm. You can find it, but then you lose it. For example, you've got the right play called on third-and-4 and they bat a ball down."

    Morris was referring to the first possession, which ended in a three-and-out after a pass from Boyd to Adam Humphries was tipped. A big message this season has been to pick up just one first down, because when the offense does that it scores touchdowns more than 60 percent of the time. So you can understand why it left a sour taste in Morris' mouth to go three-and-out that quickly.

    Morris had told Boyd all week about the Eagles' big defensive ends, so seeing that pass batted down was disappointing.

    "You just couldn't get in a rhythm," he said. "Creating that first down is so critical."

    -- The illegal-man-downfield penalty that nullified a touchdown pass to Nuk Hopkins against Boston College showed the occasional drawback to Boyd checking out of a run before the snap.

    The line, oblivious to the change, blocked downfield as if it was a run and the ref through a flag. Watching the replay, they weren't downfield by much. Wouldn't be a surprise if Boston College alerted the officiating crew to this beforehand.

    I asked Boyd about it and he said this:

    "The thing is, it hasn't happened before. So I was kind of shocked. ... It's supposed to come out so quick that you wouldn't think they'd have time to get down there. But I guess it happened."

    -- I asked Boyd about Morris' calming influence during stressful in-game situations. One such moment came after a 17-7 lead turned into a 21-17 deficit. Morris' demeanor was the picture of cool and confidence. Clemson marched right back down the field and scored a touchdown to make it 24-21.

    "If you came out to practice, it's weird because you should see how intense he is out there," Boyd said. "If it's a crucial situation and we're down or we're losing to the defense or something, he's out there snapping and throwing his glasses or whatever. But you get into a game, and it's the complete opposite. He's just relaxed and calm: 'OK, we're good here.' I still don't know what that's all about.

    "I think for him, it's just all about playing with poise and being confident in what you do. And the way he approaches the game, the way he coaches, it instills confidence in all of us."

    -- Boyd, by the way, considered Clemson, Oregon and West Virginia coming out of high school. Talk about three offenses that have risen to stratospheric levels the last few years.

    Boyd was enamored enough with West Virginia to commit, but that changed with Rich Rodriguez's departure.

    "The reason I de-committed from West Virginia is because I didn't like the way the offense was going at the time. It was kind of ugly. They were losing games they weren't supposed to lose. I just couldn't see myself playing in that situation.

    "Oregon, I knew what they were capable of. And I wanted to go there pretty badly. But it was just so far away."

    Boyd said Morris' arrival at Clemson in January of 2011 was "heaven-sent" for a sophomore quarterback who was embarking on his first season as the guy running the show.

    "Today's quarterback wants to play in this type of offense. You can put up ridiculous numbers and still be a somewhat pro-style quarterback, because it converts over to the NFL. So you're looking at all that, and taking account of it. I don't think I could've been in a better situation than here."

    -- I asked Boyd if Hopkins has eyes in his feet. How else to explain his amazing ability to get them exactly where he needs them when he's lunging for sideline passes?

    "I really couldn't tell you how he does it. I've never seen anything like that, just the recognition of where he is on the field at all times.

    "He's just one of those players that gets overlooked so much. And the thing is, he's fast. He just doesn't look like he's burning. But he's a fast guy. Route-running, haven't seen too many better. He's perfecting his craft. We're just trying to take advantage of it as much as possible."

    -- Earlier this week we mentioned some of the problems defending Georgia Tech last year, when the Jackets amassed 383 rushing yards

    -- 176 by quarterback Tevin Washington on 27 carries. Quandon Christian had some big busts of his duty to get the quarterback, as shown on a 46-yard run by Washington early in the second quarter.

    In the first frame, you can see Christian lined up on the right side over the A-back (No. 20):

    In the second frame, Washington runs option right and Christian is in good position:

    In the third frame, Christian looks like he's not sure which way to go as Washington preserves the threat of the pitch to the last instant:

    And then, Christian stays with a pitch guy who's already covered:

    Guessing this is one of the plays Brent Venables went over with Christian this week.

    "If you've got the quarterback, don't play the pitch," Venables said this week. "If you try to play both, it goes for 50. It's bad football."

    Here's the play in real time.

    -- Next is a play that highlights the dangers of busts in the secondary. Georgia Tech doesn't throw the ball much, but they're capable of exploiting some of the mistakes we've seen Clemson's defensive backs make with disturbing regularity so far this season.

    This is from late in the game, with Georgia Tech trying to hold on to a big lead.

    The first frame shows Coty Sensabaugh covering Stephen Hill on the bottom, with Xavier Brewer creeping up from his safety spot presumably to get the pitch man if the Jackets run option to his side:

    In the second frame, it's apparent Washington is dropping back to pass. Though you never know, because Tech likes to run that little mid-line quarterback follow or just a plain-old quarterback draw, which we'll see in a moment. But notice the helmets of Tech's offensive linemen. They're looking up, which is usually a great tell for a pass.

    In the next frame we see Brewer retreating to cover the vertical being run by the A back. Sensabaugh is staying home for whatever reason, leaving Hill to run free:

    Washington sees the A-back and throws to him. He doesn't see Hill, who is not pictured in this frame. Rashard Hall (top right of the frame) gets a good break on the ball:

    In this frame we see Hall intercepting the pass. We also see Hill in the right bottom corner of the frame, as open as can be:


    Really not sure what happened, but it looked like Sensabaugh and Brewer had some serious miscommunication on this play.

    This kind of stuff will get you beat if it happens on a regular basis. Next we'll see how Georgia Tech gets one-on-one opportunities in the downfield passing game, well, just about all the time.

    In the first frame, notice Brewer creeping toward the line to fulfill his responsibility in defending the option:

    In the next frame, we see Tech running option action to the left. This appears to freeze Brewer just long enough:

    Washington then quickly drops back, and Brewer gives chase:

    And Hill is in one-on-one coverage with Darius Robinson. He makes a great catch for a big gain:

    This is an example of how well-disguised Tech's stuff is.

    Next we'll look at a basic quarterback draw. No frills. Just offensive linemen doing an excellent job of getting to the second level and reaching linebackers.

    Christian and Stephone Anthony look kind of flat-footed here:

    Anthony and Christian are disposed of, but Hall has a great chance to make the tackle (far left side of the frame):

    Hall takes a bad angle and ... see ya:

    -- Last week's offensive showing against Boston College is more impressive when you consider how good the Eagles were coming in at limiting big plays.

    The Eagles had allowed six plays of 20-plus yards in their first three games, ranking second nationally. They gave up five to Clemson on a 58-yard pass, a 46-yard run, a 35-yard pass, a 30-yard pass and a 20-yard pass.

    Boston College plays a soft zone with two deep safeties, theoretically preventing the vertical stuff that makes Clemson so lethal. Looked to me like the Tigers ran it well enough to force the Eagles' safeties up just enough on good play-action fakes by Boyd.

    Asked Morris about this a few days ago and he said this is why he went into the game trying to pound the run early -- to set up later shots through the air. He also said the Eagles' linebackers were "extremely aggressive," which set up the assortment of passes the Tigers hit on in the 15-20 yard range.

    "We ran a lot of stuff early to set up later," he said. "It's a chess match."

    -- Was able to sit down with Anthony for a few minutes earlier this week.

    Here's an excerpt from the conversation:

    There's a lot on your shoulders this week going against Georgia Tech. How would you describe your duties against this kind of offense?

    "Oh, man. The biggest thing is, you have to stay on your feet. In this game, the MIKE linebacker's got to be sideline to sideline. He's got to be able to get to the football, and he's got to be able to play downhill, stop the dive, the pitch, get sideline to sideline."

    Stuff that keeps you awake at night?

    "Yes sir. But I feel like I have a great opportunity to have a good game. Just get the plan down and do what I can."

    Looked like against Boston College you were playing faster, more comfortable. Was that a product of the defensive line playing better and keeping guys off of you, or was it a product of your growth? Or both?

    "I think it's both. The biggest part of it is my D-line. If they can keep the guys off of me, I've got a chance to move around and run fast. Hats off to those guys. I'm growing as this thing goes. This defense is having some growing pains, but when all is said and done I think we're going to be pretty good."

    This defense has been simplified from last year, with fewer pre-snap checks. What are your pre-snap responsibilities as the quarterback of the defense?

    "You've got to get your calls and know your keys. Just got to pay attention to what the keys are that week, what he tells us the keys are. And that's what we go by. Could be the center, the guard, the tight end, or alignments or splits -- some of the little things that you need to play this game. Details."

    Some of the mistakes the linebackers made against Boston College, such as the bootleg on the first play, was that a result of getting your eyes caught in the backfield and biting on the run fake?

    "At the linebacker level, you've got to be able to read hats of the offensive linemen. If they pop up, it's pass. If they're down, then it's run game. I didn't think, as far as me and Tig (Willard), that we did a good job of just reading hats. It was a tough game to read the hats, because they kind of gave us one look. But it's something we can get better at and learn from."

    So their linemen were giving the head-down look for run, but passing off that?


    On the touchdown pass they had inside the 5, it looked like their tight end just sort of sneaked behind the linebackers on that little crossing route. What happened there?

    "I'm not sure. We had a lot of things going on that play. We didn't communicate well. We've got to communicate better down on that end and get things figured out."

    So what should have happened on that play, in hindsight?

    "You've got to get the front slid, and just make sure everybody else around you knows what they're doing, get everybody on the same page. We might not have been on the same page. But that's fine. It's in the past."

    Did you play against much triple option in high school?

    "Yes sir, we played against it a good bit. Probably four times a season."

    *** To chat with other Clemson fans about this article please visit The West Zone message board.

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