Clemson vs. Florida State Football: What Went Wrong for the Tigers
For the seconds after Clemson's Chandler Catanzaro banged home a 50-yard field goal, the Tigers and their fans allowed themselves to believe they were in control of a game that had them leading a powerhouse Florida State team by 10 points.
Throughout most of the first three quarters of Saturday's top ten matchup, the Clemson offense was rolling. The well-oiled machine was putting up points so consistently that it was easy to brush off the fact that their defense was basically nonexistent.
It seemed like as soon as Catanzaro finished celebrating that kick, Florida State was down at Clemson's side of the field. Three Florida State possessions and three Florida State touchdowns later, the game had a markedly different feel to it.
Clemson never really had the game "in the bag" so to speak, but had they done things differently, they would have been in a position to put Florida State away. There were at least five things that went wrong for the Tigers during this game that will hopefully be fixed before they travel to Boston College for next week's tilt.
Defensive Game Plan Flawed from the Start
Coming into this game, even the most intermediate fan of either team knew that the personnel comprising Florida State's offense was far superior physically to that of Clemson's defense. After all, the Seminole offensive line has five 300 lb. players on it.
Brent Venables chose to deal with this by not even trying to force pressure from the inside, often lining up only three defenders on the line. I guess in theory, this was supposed to entice E.J. Manuel to throw, but instead what it did was allow Chris Thompson to run at will.
FSU's five beasts on the offensive line were easily able to set blocks on Clemson's defensive front. Once Thompson ran through this layer of "defense", you would assume Tig Willard or Stephone Anthony would be there to stop him.
The problem was, they seemed to be playing a soft zone every play, dropping back two to three steps after the snap, leaving the area from four to seven yards after the line of scrimmage wide open. On the off chance they did happen to be there, Thompson was able to shed their tackle attempts.
What Happened to "Force E.J. Manuel to Throw Deep?"
We knew before the game that E.J. Manuel wasn't particularly skilled at throwing the ball more than 10 yards. We knew that for Clemson to have success, they needed to get FSU into 3rd-and-longs, and/or cut off the intermediate passing lanes that Manuel showed an affinity for. I thought that would be Clemson's game plan, but maybe it was just mine.
What ended up happening was that Clemson's strategy for bringing pressure was bad, and their passing coverage was curious.
Brent Venables knew his guys on the line weren't going to muscle through the Florida State front and get to Manuel. Credit goes to him for not trying that much. When Clemson did get its first and only sack by having Bashaud Breeland come off the edge, excitement built through Clemson Nation. Sadly, that strategy was not used again.
Now to the pass coverage. It seemed that whenever Manuel needed, there would be a receiver in isolation about six yards out that he could sling one to. At first, this may have seemed like standard blown coverage.
After the fifth of six times, it was clear that Clemson was leaving the intermediate routes open and dropping their linebackers into deeper coverage.
Clemson should have been pressing up on the receivers and daring Manuel to beat them deep. Instead, Manuel was able to throw for eight-yard completions whenever he wanted, leading to a career performance out of the now-serious Heisman candidate.
Lack of Defensive Identity
This will be the last slide about defense, but obviously it is a serious issue for Clemson.
Throughout much of the first half, watching the Clemson defense was like watching a Big East squad. The players seem smaller, the hits quieter and the presence just soft. Maybe it's because FSU's players are so imposing, but maybe it's because the recruiting focus of Dabo has been on the other side of the ball.
In years past, Clemson has always had at least one guy on the defensive side of the ball that could scare the living daylights out of the opposition. Whether it was Gaines Adams threatening to break through two or three guys en route to the quarterback, or DeAndre McDaniels waiting to swipe anything thrown more than 10 yards, they had some identity.
There is hope for this squad as they have talent, but lack leadership. Somebody next week needs to light up a Boston College player, maybe talk a little smack after it. Somebody needs to get the defense to take some pride in their play, ownership even. Venables needs to spend the whole week screaming and hoping his message soaks in.
Some of that patented swagger the Tiger offense has needs to rub off on the D in a big way. Hopefully this happens sooner rather than later.
Andre Ellington's Second-Half Disappearance
Clemson couldn't allow itself to become one-dimensional against a potent Florida State defense. Only giving Andre Ellington five carries in the second half of Saturday's game shows they became exactly that.
Clemson played about as well offensively as you can imagine through most of the first three quarters. The ball was being spread to all of the playmakers, Dabo and Chad were crafting up some exciting trick plays and Tajh was getting rid of the ball quickly and accurately.
At the first sign of trouble, Ellington was resigned to blocking, meaning the FSU defenders could focus on attacking and spying Boyd. Even when runs go for one, two or three yards, attempting the rush keeps the defense honest and helps wear down the opposing players.
Going forward, the Tigers are going to have to stick with their power back through the ups and the downs of the game.
The Clemson "Snowballing Effect"
Clemson fans are well aware of this "snowballing affect". It can be described as the moment something adverse happens, you get the feeling more and more bad things are soon to follow.
This attitude has been more so attributed to the Tommy Bowden era than during Swinney's campaign, but it was back in full effect last night as soon as Florida State took the lead for the first time in the third quarter.
The Tajh Boyd that was throwing quick passes and tucking and running when he saw open lanes was now taking forever in the pocket and trying to force things that weren't there. After the Seminoles went ahead, Boyd led the Tiger offense to three straight three-and-outs before forcing a throw that led to an interception.
After that pick, the look on Boyd's face was telling. It was of the "How much do I have to do to win a game?" variety. The guy played a heck of a game for three quarters, but when you have a struggling defense like the Tigers, you need to play a ferocious full four quarters if you are to have a chance against a quality opponent like Florida State.
Though Clemson will be rattled for a bit after this loss, the season is nowhere near over. With plenty of winnable games left, and a regular season-ending showcase against a quality South Carolina squad, there is still a chance for the Tigers to sneak into a BCS bowl. To do that, they will need to apply what they learned against Florida State.