"They have a veteran quarterback now who has played a lot of football and is playing really good. Etienne is one of the best backs in the country. Tee Higgins and some of the wideouts they have are some of the best in the country" - Ryan Day on the Clemson offense
Standing on stage at the Playstation Theater last Saturday night, Chase Young was surrounded by three of the nation's best quarterbacks. Joe Burrow, Jalen Hurts, and Justin Fields have all led their teams to the College Football Playoff while putting up the kinds of gaudy statistics which would have earned them the Heisman in any other year. But absent from this group was the signal-caller of the fourth entrant in the CFP; the one many expected to take home the award at the beginning of the season.
Although he's yet to lose a game in his college career, already has a national championship ring, and is considered by some to be the most talented QB prospect in a generation, Trevor Lawrence has somehow become overlooked this season. After passing for 3,172 yards and 34 touchdowns while in command of the nation's third-most prolific offense, Lawrence and his team will pose the most difficult test Young and the Ohio State defense will have faced since Baker Mayfield came to town early in the 2017 campaign.
While detractors have cited eight early interceptions and a weak schedule, those opponents which have faced Lawrence certainly haven't forgotten about him this fall.
"They're very, very skilled at quarterback at an elite level, very skilled at running back at an elite level, very skilled at at least three of the receiver positions with a very strong offensive front," Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said following his team's 62-17 loss to the Tigers in the ACC championship game. "The challenge that I think teams face when they play Clemson, at least what I learned and saw glimpses of throughout the week on film is just where is it to steal an extra number, and as soon as you do that, the quarterback can run it, the running back can run it, the quarterback can throw it, the wide receivers can catch it short and long and they can break tackles, so lots and lots of weapons and a very good scheme."
That scheme is still the same one implemented by Chad Morris back in 2011, though now under the guidance of co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott, who was recently hired as USF's head coach, but will remain with the Tigers through the CFP. The system relies heavily on 10 (4 WRs) and 11 (3 WRs) personnel, but uses a wide variety of formations and pre-snap motion to keep defenses on their heels.
After the snap, the run game heavily resembles that of Ohio State under Urban Meyer, utilizing both zone and gap-blocking schemes from the shotgun with a QB read to hold an unblocked defender. Though he appears slighter than the 210 lbs at which he is listed, junior running back Travis Etienne runs with a low center of gravity making it nearly impossible to bring him down with an arm tackle, as he showed Mendenhall's team in the conference championship earlier this month.
According to Pro Football Focus:
At no point in the history of PFF's time grading college games have we seen a running back break tackles more frequently than Etienne did in 2019. He forced a missed tackle on 46% of his carries, breaking 84 tackles on his 181 attempts and gaining 969 yards after contact. He was the nation's most elusive back, and it wasn't even close.
Though Etienne has tallied 1,500 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns this season, he averages only 14 carries per game. Part of that is due to the number of blowout wins his team has played in, but his season high in carries is only 17.
One major reason Etienne has so few carries is the option element of the Tiger offense, and the athleticism of its triggerman. While Lawrence was the top-ranked 'pro-style' QB in his recruiting class, the 6'5" QB has shown his wheels on numerous occasions this fall, keeping defense from keying on Etienne.
With an average of 5.29 ypc and seven rushing touchdowns, Lawrence is a vital cog in the Tiger running game. Instead of running the same zone-read over and over, however, Elliott and Scott have found a variety of ways in which they use his athleticism and quick decision-making.
One such way is a run-pass option (RPO) revival of the old school triple option. Instead of bringing the pitch man from the back of an I-formation, though, Lawrence has the option to throw a quick pass outside after reading the alley defender.
RPOs are foundational element of the Clemson offense, spreading defenses the entire width of the field and getting the ball in the hands of talented playmakers like receivers Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. Lawrence has proved a master of quickly identifying his read key and distributing the ball accurately, allowing the Tigers to steal easy yards.
The Tigers are one of the best teams in the nation at staying ahead of schedule, picking up yards on early downs and oftentimes avoiding third down altogether. Out of 130 FBS teams, the Tigers are 108th in third down attempts, tied with much-slower paced Navy.
This is no accident, either, as the Clemson coaches give their tremendous athletes the opportunity to make plays in space. Not only do they ask Lawrence to dictate the direction of the play post-snap, but pre-snap as well.
For instance, the Tigers have a zone-blocked run toward the boundary called in the example below, but the defense has left only two defenders toward the opposite way, matching the Tiger receivers in man-coverage. Lawrence makes a call alerting Etienne to this fact, and the duo executes a quick swing pass leaving the running back in a race with the middle linebacker. When that linebacker takes one false step after reading the run blocking, Etienne has plenty of green grass in front of him.
While Etienne may not receive a ton of carries compared to backs like Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor or Georgia's D'Andre Swift, he is a big part of the Clemson passing game. His 29 receptions on the season rank third on the team, behind only Higgins and Ross but ahead of fellow starting wideout Amari Rodgers.
It's no wonder why he sees the ball in this manner, as called screens take perfect advantage of his talents as a runner, while helping keep an aggressive pass rush at bay.
Lawrence gets plenty of easy throws like that in every game, thanks in part to tweaks in formation and the defense's fear of getting burned over the top. For instance, when facing short yardage situations outside of the goal line, the Tigers rarely line up in heavy personnel and try to slam the ball forward.
Instead, they will spread teams out and scheme ways for Higgins or Ross to get open, using other receivers to set picks while defenders play conservatively out of fear.
That fear of getting beat deep is deserved, but not just because the Tigers run vertical routes straight downfield. Rather, Elliott and Scott do an excellent job of teeing up route combinations that attack an anticipated coverage, getting their star receivers matched up against safeties and linebackers whenever possible.
While Lawrence throws a beautiful deep ball, he also showed an ability to hit intermediate routes as they break open. Even though he's under pressure in the third down example below, he recognized the Quarters coverage and knew he'd have the out route open against a dropping linebacker, delivering an accurate ball before getting hit.
Though Lawrence was erratic at times early in the season, throwing eight interceptions in the first seven games, he's turned it around since. According to PFF, no QB in the nation had a higher passing grade overall or from a clean pocket than Lawrence did over the final six weeks in the season, throwing 20 touchdowns without a single pick in that stretch.
With All-American talent across the skill positions, it's no wonder the Tigers haven't lost a game since 2017. But if there is one area in which the Buckeyes can feel confident, it's along the line of scrimmage.
Though left tackle and one-time Ohio State target Jackson Carman has emerged as the best player along the Clemson offensive line, the rest of the unit lacks his size and technique. While many fans look forward to the matchup between Carman and Young, the Buckeye coaches should instead be looking to get Young lined up all over the field, bringing varied stunts and pressures which have proven capable of confusing the Tiger OL.
In the Tigers' close 21-20 win over North Carolina, the Tar Heels did an excellent job of disguising their pressures, often playing only two down linemen with four linebackers. While the Tar Heels only sacked Lawrence one time that afternoon, they registered seven hurries and had a clear affect on the Tiger passing attack.
Though Etienne is an outstanding runner and receiver, his lack of size is apparent in pass protection, as he's often asked to help seal the middle of the pocket and slow down much larger pass rushers (as seen above). The Buckeyes' 3-3-5 nickel package, along with the updated Rushmen look in which Young is joined by fellow ends Tyreke Smith and Zach Harrison, will have to collapse the pocket in order to slow down Lawrence, as he's too good to simply sit back and hope he can't find holes in the coverage.
While the left side of the Tiger line has been stout with all-conference guard John Simpson next to Carman, the center and right guard spots have been less consistent. One reason Etienne leads the nation in yards after contact is the amount of penetration allowed at these spots, as defenders often seem to win their one-on-one battles with center Sean Pollard (#76) and guard Gage Cervenka (#59).
While Young may still be the most talented player on this field full of stars, he might not be his team's most important one when the Buckeyes and Tigers take the field on December 28th.
Throughout the season, one of the most underrated aspects of the Silver Bullet defense has been the play of senior defensive tackles Davon Hamilton, Jashon Cornell, and Robert Landers, who have a combined 20 tackles-for-loss so far. But all three players must show up and take advantage of this apparent mismatch on the interior, creating penetration and corralling Etienne in the backfield to force clear passing situations in which Young can create the kind of havoc for which he's become known.
Jeff Okudah and the secondary will certainly have their hands full with the best receiving corps they've ever seen, while the linebackers must make sure they wrap up Etienne when they get a hand on him. But for Ohio State to walk out of State Farm Stadium with a win, the entire Buckeye defensive line must dominate the proceedings.