As Ohio State prepared to play Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl, co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jeff Hafley didn’t think the Buckeyes would have to worry too much about Trevor Lawrence running the ball.
During an appearance on ESPN2’s Film Room special on Monday evening previewing the national championship game between Clemson and LSU, Hafley said Ohio State’s coaches had found in their film study that Clemson rarely ran designed quarterback run plays, so it wasn’t a big area of emphasis in the Buckeyes’ defensive game planning.
“I literally was sitting in my office when I was at Ohio State, I called down one of the quality control guys and said, ‘Hey, how much designed quarterback run game do they have from Trevor Lawrence?’ I mean just true quarterback run game, true zone read, quarterback power, quarterback counter. And he came back with like 15 snaps,” said Hafley, who is now the head coach at Boston College. “So at that point, you’re like, ‘All right, good. You don’t spend too much time on it. That’s the course of the whole season, right?’ Now we knew he could scramble, we knew we’d have to take care of that. And all of a sudden we get into our game and it turns into a big quarterback run game.”
Lawrence ended up running the ball 16 times for 107 yards – both career-highs for his two seasons at Clemson – including a 67-yard touchdown run that ultimately propelled Clemson to a 29-23 victory over Ohio State that ended the Buckeyes’ season.
Hafley admitted he was surprised that Lawrence had the speed to run by Ohio State’s linebackers and defensive backs.
“I think everybody knew he was fast and could scramble, but I don’t think anybody saw how fast he was,” Hafley said. “(On the 67-yard touchdown run), this is when I said, ‘Oh boy, this guy can go.’ Because those are fast players he’s outrunning right there.”
On the touchdown run in particular, Hafley said he was mad at himself because Ohio State set the defensive front wrong, allowing Lawrence to get an open running lane up the middle. He also said, though, that his safeties Josh Proctor and Jordan Fuller ultimately should have been able to make the play, which they did not as Lawrence made both of them miss.
“We called a pressure here, just tendency, trying to give them different looks, trying to get some pressure, we thought they were going to throw the football, we set the front wrong – we should be looping right into this,” Hafley said. “Now all that being said, if you let it go right here, the safety’s gotta show up. (Fuller)’s gotta leverage the football and keep this inside and funnel it to him. Because we still should have made the tackle. That’s right there, between (Proctor) and (Fuller), they gotta cup this thing and contain it. They gotta send it to each other and trap it to each other.”
Going into the game, Hafley said Ohio State’s game plan was to stop the run and take away Clemson’s outside receivers, and he thinks the Buckeyes did a good job with that. They held Clemson running back Travis Etienne to just 36 rushing yards on 10 carries, wide receiver Tee Higgins to 33 yards on four catches and wide receiver Justyn Ross to 47 yards on six catches.
Clemson adjusted, though, by using the quarterback run game more than it had all season, which forced the Buckeyes to change their defense and ultimately helped open up the big plays the Tigers hit down the stretch, like Lawrence’s 38-yard pass to Amari Rodgers and subsequent jump pass to Etienne that went for the 34-yard game-winning touchdown.
“We were going to stop the run, and we were going to force him to throw the ball outside. That guy right there, we were gonna say, ‘You are not throwing the ball in between those hashes, numbers to numbers, with that middle safety where you have him,’” Hafley said. “Because we felt good about those two outside corners (Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette). Now when the quarterback run game starts to show up, if you want to play an eight-man front, you better get that middle safety down. Because now he’s the extra guy to stop the quarterback. You start doing that too much, now you’re opening up those posts and the deep balls, so now it’s which one do you want to defend?”
Stopping the quarterback run had quietly been an issue for Ohio State’s defense against less athletic quarterbacks previously in the season, so that will be an area the Buckeyes need to shore up for 2020. Hafley’s replacement at Ohio State, and the rest of the Buckeyes’ defensive coaches, will be the ones tasked with making sure that happens. But even though Hafley is now coaching for the Buckeyes himself, he said it still hurt to watch the plays that got away from his former Ohio State defense on Monday.
“You’re bringing up a really bad memory,” Hafley said as ESPN host Tom Luginbill showed a clip of one of Lawrence’s runs. “I thought I was over this. You’re throwing salt on an open wound right now.”