Orange Bowl Prep: The Clemson Base Offense

By Ross Fulton on December 24, 2013 at 12:45p
Ross Fulton breaks down the Clemson offense

With the Orange Bowl two weeks away, it is time to analyze the Clemson Tigers' offensive and defensive schemes.

We will first turn to the Clemson base offense. The Tigers' offense, led by offensive coordinator Chad Morris, shares many similarities with Urban Meyer and Tom Herman's Ohio State attack.

Not only are the Tigers a spread-read offense, they utilize the same foundational run concepts and formulaic approach as Ohio State. While some of the formations and motioning is different, the Ohio State defense will face an overall approach they see all year in practice.

Below I examine the Clemson base run game, attacking the edges, and throwing deep.

Strength in Numbers

All spread-to-run offenses begin with the premise of altering modern football arithmetic. Defenses have one unblocked defender at all times – the ball carrier’s counterpart. The passing game generally forces defenses to play that unblocked defender as a safety.

But once a quarterback hands off the football a defense has two unblocked defenders – the ball carrier and quarterback's counterpart. And this second defender is generally closer to the line of scrimmage, often a backside defensive end away from the run play. 

The spread offense seeks to reverse this dynamic by making an unblocked defender account for the quarterback with a read. The read forces a defense to play the front side run more honestly, but if the opponent does not account for the quarterback the offense has the ball in the hands of a dynamic play making quarterback.

This Goes one of Two Ways

Although all spread-to-run offenses utilize this premise, they diverge in methods. The biggest distinction is between offenses whose base play is outside zone and those who begin with inside zone and power. Clemson, like Ohio State, fits the latter category. The Tigers often run inside zone from some pistol variation, often with an H-Back slice blocking across the formation.   

The Tigers use power blocking in various forms. One favorite is inverted veer, particularly near the goal line. Against South Carolina, Morris used both the backside guard and H-back to pull into the hole. 

The Tigers utilize inverted veer and other quarterback runs in short yardage, as it fits well with the Tigers' personnel. Quarterback Tajh Boyd may be the Tigers' best short yardage runner, while tailback Roderick McDowell is the shiftier of the two. To protect the run game, Morris utilizes extensive amounts of shifts and motions to slow linebacker reads and pull defenders outside the box.

Stressing the Edge

The next major component of the Tigers' offense is attacking horizontally through jet sweeps and wide receiver screens. Morris utilizes all manner of quick screens, but the Tigers most frequently throws flash or tunnel screens to outside receiver Sammy Watkins.

And Going over the top

Once a defense over commits to stop the run and screen game, the Tigers throw vertically off play-action. And they have no better target than Watkins, perhaps the most dynamic receiver in college football. 

Clemson emphasizes four vertical routes, as well as three-level floods patterns with Watkins taking the top off the defense, as above. Morris also has Boyd fake inside zone then hit Watkins with a seam pop pass over aggressive linebackers or against middle of the field safety play.

And Clemson has an experienced, battle-tested quarterback in Boyd. As previously discussed, Boyd does not have ideal measurables but is adept at changing his launch point and arm angle to deliver the football. But this can result in sloppy mechanics, leading to bouts of inaccuracy and occasional interceptions. 

The Tigers' goal is to stay ahead of schedule and throw off play-action, rather than rely on the drop back passing game. In other words, the Tigers utilize a spread inside run game, horizontal stretch plays, and vertical throws off play-action. Sound familiar? 


Comments Show All Comments

tussey's picture

Great stuff, thanks Ross.  What a great early Christmas present.

OfficerRabbit's picture

I wish I was more of a glass half full kind of person, but alas I am not. Clemson (Watkins in particular) scares the hell out of me. I'm guessing we'll either come out Silver Bullet style and largely take Watkins out of the game, or we wont and we'll all be in for a long evening of booze and hair-pulling. I don't see Watkins having just an "ok" game.



ScarletGray43157's picture

Based on the body of work so far this matchup provides challenges to Ohio State.  Maybe OSU can come up with a scheme to neutralize Watkins.  Pressure on Boyd is the wild card in that equation.  

In old Ohio there's a team that's known throughout the land...

Wesleyburgess1's picture

What a beautiful day to wake up and be a Buckeye fan. No matter what happens we still have Urban Meyer and Osu. Were destined for greatness and we will achieve it. MERRY CHRISTMAS GUYS...Go Bucks

Seattle Linga's picture

Well said WB - Couldn't have said it any better myself!

fanfarris's picture

Tis the season and Ross doesn't disappoint.Having wrote that,i like for this site to be about more than just Football n Basketball.I like to hear about culture and Art and other topics  here too.Why not ?? lets kick it up a notch.Buckeye nation is bigger than you think ..Hell its the biggest nation on this planet.Happy holidays to Buckeye nation.


Wesleyburgess1's picture

I think were gonna come out similar to the Penn State game. Get an interception and never turn back...At least this is what I've been praying for.

BeijingBucks's picture

Ugh. I read the two most dreaded words 'tunnel screen'... Is it possible to just run the ball for short yardage and control the clock? Our D has not shown the discipline to stop this attack. 
I'm definitely taking the over on this game. Any chance of Fick channeling his inner narduzzi in this game?  That D seemed to work well against our attack

None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license. ~ John Milton

Jones's picture

MSU was fairly successful implementing their base Cover 4 look against OSU, allowing their safeties to get in the box and make plays in the run game. If you recall, this was the defense Meyer has tried to install since taking over, and was actually fairly successful last year as the season went on, having Bryant back there with Barnett. Unfortunately, as Ross has pointed out, that trend has gone away this year, partially due to Bryant's injury, but also because the best DB on the team in run support is Roby., not one of the safeties. This year, we have seen a fair amount on cover 3 when the ball is in the middle of the field, but have played a ton of cover 6 when the ball is on the hash, keeping Roby in the flat as an additionally run defender to the boundary.
my expectation is that OSU probably won't change this scheme very much, as the safeties are what they are at this point, and aren't suddenly going to master the nuance of Cover 4 in their senior year bowl practices. We may see a fair amount of cover 4 in middle of the field situations, to prevent Clemson from exploiting the coverage with 4 verticals, but I'd guess we'll be seeing lots of cover 6' with Roby playing a big part in stopping the run and screen games. 
As for stopping Watkins and the PA pass? The front 7 HAS to step up in the run game, allowing the safeties to stay back and worry about the pass. Noah Spence needs to become a presence again, not only rushing the passer, and hopefully Bennett and Bosa continue to play at all around high levels. Allowing Barnett and Brown to not have to cheat up against the inside running game will make a big difference. The goal for OSU should be for the safeties to NOT have to be a big part of this game, either by being the ones to have to make a big play, or by getting beat. 

InvertMyVeer's picture

Their offense seems pretty similar to ours, hopefully this will help the defense some as they've seen a lot of these offensive theories in practice all year. Not too worried about their run game but Watkins scares the crap out of me. Hopefully Roby has his head in the game instead of dreaming about Sundays, we're going to need him to be on his A-game.
As usual outstanding work Mr. Fulton, I (of course) especially love the inverted veer graphic!

Football is complicated...

The Butler's picture

I could only make it about 1:45 of the Sammy Watkins v Georgia video before I got sick to my stomach. The horizontal passing game has been Ohio State's Achilles heel all year long. 

I've trained Canaries in the sport of falconry.