Fulton Analysis: Looking at the Clemson offense

Like its defense, the Clemson offense has maintained continuity in its offensive system that began with Chad Morris since the Tigers’ rise to national prominence. Although both Clemson and Ohio State would be considered “spread” offenses, there are significant differences. 

Ryan Day effectively utilizes a pro-style offense from the shotgun; principally based around the wide zone run game and downfield passing schemes. Clemson, by contrast, is a more typical college spread offense. 

The Tigers feature a read and run-pass option heavy run game, combined with designed quarterback runs, screens, quick game, and quick vertical shots. The strength of Clemson’s offensive scheme is that each play works together and builds off the others—forcing every defender to play sound and not overplay the initial action. For instance on the Tigers’ game winning touchdown in the Fiesta Bowl last season, Clemson faked Trevor Lawrence on a quarterback counter before hitting Travis Etienne on a slip route.

The base of the Tigers’ system is inside zone read.

But Clemson is most dangerous in space. In particular, they like to use quick screens or read plays that get Lawrence and Etienne outside and stress the defense across multiple gaps. One successful combination Clemson repeatedly features is a toss sweep combined with a quarterback counter trey with the guard and tight end pulling.

This constraint combination puts Etienne in space.

And it places Lawrence running downhill, where his stride and decisiveness can quickly result in chunk yards.

As noted, Clemson will then combine that run game with a large number of quick out, hitch, and slant RPOs.

In last season’s Fiesta Bowl, despite the above completion, Ohio State’s single high defensive structure was largely successful at limiting Clemson’s RPOs by covering up each eligible receiver and playing ample amounts of cover 1 man. Where the Tigers hurt the Buckeyes was with Lawrence and Etienne in space while Ohio State’s defensive backs were turned in coverage. 

For instance, Clemson repeatedly ran pause speed option (which fakes inside zone before running speed option to the halfback side). When the Buckeyes were in cover 1, they did not have force support to the slot corner’s side (the defender responsible for funneling the football back inside towards the rest of the defense or spilling it into the sideline).

The Tigers similarly exploited Ohio State’s penchant for playing cover 1 on third down with quarterback draw, leading both to Lawrence’s second quarter touchdown run and another explosive play in the fourth quarter.

By contrast, when the Buckeyes utilized their cover 3 scheme, they were able to provide force support.

Ohio State also sporadically mixed in some cover 4 looks to provide backside force support to account for Lawrence on read plays.

Expect the Buckeyes to play a much heavier amount of cover 3 this year against Clemson, mixed with some cover 4 looks to add a backside defender to account for Lawrence on read plays. Part of this is out of necessity. Ohio State’s increased use of cover 3 reflects personnel limitations and the coaching staff’s choice following Indiana to simplify and execute their base cover 3 scheme to limit coverage breakdowns from trying to adjust to shifts and motions.  

And an increased use of cover 3 does leave some coverage holes. It makes utilizing RPOs such as the backside slant over the Will linebacker playing run easier. It also opens up a Clemson staple—dig routes to the outside wide receiver.

For instance, Clemson’s second touchdown in the ACC Championship came off such a route behind a vertical release.

As such, it will likely result in Ohio State allowing more completions. But playing fundamentally sound cover 3 could be a better answer against Clemson in terms of keeping eyes in the backfield and forcing the Tigers to sustain drives. 

As noted, Clemson has not traditionally relied upon a drop back, mid-range, NFL style passing game with full field progressions. Instead, Clemson’s generally looks to hit throws off defenses overplaying run action. 

The key for Ohio State is limiting the explosive plays that hurt the Buckeyes last year. Ohio State needs to control the inside zone run game with their interior and then tackle in the flats in space from their cover 3 looks, forcing the Tigers to drive the length of the field.

 The other critical component for Ohio State is executing in their nickel defense. Last year, the Buckeyes were rarely forced to use nickel for much of the season until the Fiesta Bowl. This left the nickel personnel grouping relatively unfamiliar playing those roles—and the Ohio State defense mostly playing cover 1 man from that look—allowing Clemson to exploit that scheme.

This season, although the Buckeyes only played six games, one of them was against Indiana’s pass-first scheme. This has forced Ohio State to subsequently hone their nickel package. For example, Ohio State has become adept at using cover 3 buzz to limit the aforementioned middle of the field throws.

Ohio State needs to both mix variety in nickel—cover 3 zone blitzes with cover 3 buzz and split safety cover 2—while maintaining rush lanes and keeping eyes in the backfield to limit Lawrence’s running and Etienne in the pass game.  Again, the goal for Ohio State should be to force Clemson to drive the length of the field with the mid-range pass game—while not allowing those completions to turn into runs after the catch.