The Chalkboard: FSU 49, Clemson 37

Chris Thompson

Unlike many media outlets that suggested the key matchup in this game was the Clemson offense vs. the FSU defense, our preview had suggested that this game would ultimately boil down to the Seminoles' advantage with their huge offensive line against Clemson's less-than-stellar defensive front in the running game, with FSU scoring in the 40s.

This is precisely how things worked out, as the Seminole running game averaged a healthy 7.8 yards per carry on the way to a 49-point outing that could have easily been over 60 (thanks to two missed field goals and a kneeldown inside the red zone at the end of the game).

In this week's installment of The Chalkboard, we'll look in more detail at two key running plays from the second half that display just how dominant the FSU front was in this game.

Wilder's Rampage

James Wilder, Jr. (who NoleDigest had pegged as our offensive "breakout player" for 2012 back in January—unlike many outlets that doubted his suitability as a RB) has already become a bit of a legend among Seminole fans for his physical run in the early fourth quarter. The run was indeed outstanding, displaying terrific balance and power, but the line's performance on this play was equally outstanding.

This play followed several outside zone run calls with both the tailback and quarterback. By this point, Clemson's front was primed to overflow to the playside and take away the outside run, which should open cutback lanes in FSU's zone blocking scheme. The zone scheme the ‘Noles run is relatively straightforward here, as diagrammed below.

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Each lineman steps to the left (viewer's right), with the linemen "covered" by an opposing defensive lineman responsible for that player, while the "uncovered" linemen (here the guards) will step left and "combo block," starting by helping the "covered" lineman and then moving to the second level to attack the linebackers. Right tackle Menelik Watson, has arguably the most difficult assignment on this play blocking a defensive end lined up over his inside eye. He will have to get inside that player with enough leverage to prevent penetration. Below, you can see how this works out:

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This play displays what an amazing athlete Watson (circled) is, as he has gotten well inside the end and has actually sealed him on the backside—just an incredible example of quickness and power. The two guards have started their combo blocks, with left guard Josue Matias already (red rectangle) already moving to the next level for the linebacker since LT Cam Erving is winning his battle. The backside linebacker (46) is flowing quickly to the playside, which will allow Wilder the backside cutback.

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Thanks to Watson's sheer dominance at RT and the overflowing backside linebacker, Wilder (circled) has a huge cutback lane, which he reads perfectly and hits at full speed. Matias (boxed) has gotten to the linebacker, taking him out of the play.

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Right guard Tre Jackson has combined with Stork to push the nose tackle out of the play and is now moving to the backside linebacker, who is now out of position and can be sealed if Jackson gets there in time.

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Jackson gets his hands on the off-balance linebacker, putting him on his back, while Watson (circled) continues to manhandle the Clemson end and Matias (rounded box) locks up the other linebacker (boxed). Wilder can hit the secondary at full speed—and we all know what happens after that.

Wilder's Final Touchdown

Two plays later, Wilder scored on another dominant performance from the FSU offensive line against a gassed Clemson front. This is a pure inside zone left, with the two guards again uncovered. This time, the guards release immediately off the snap to get to the second level, trusting C Bryan Stork and the two tackles to handle their assignments solo. This is a pure power play, with the OL essentially released to mash their counterparts.

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Stork (who has the toughest assignment blocking the nose) gets pushed into the backfield a little here, but he holds his block long enough for Wilder—who has again perfectly read his blocks to cut back to the right at full speed. Erving has been beaten by the Clemson end who has shot inside as he stepped left, but it doesn't matter as the right side—led by another display of physical dominance by Watson at right tackle—is already collapsing the Clemson front.

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Matias (circled) locks onto the frontside linebacker and actually blocks two players here, while Jackson (immediately to his right) has locked onto the other backer. Once the second-level players are accounted for like this, Wilder simply has to hit the hole with authority while Pryor searches for someone to block.

I could have picked any number of run plays for this game to show how dominant the FSU offensive line was throughout the game, but these two give a good illustration of how the line is beginning to hit its stride. The scariest thing for FSU's opponents is that there is still quite a bit of room for improvement. By the end of the year, provided good health, this should be a top-10 offensive line in the country, if not better. After last year, that should be music to the ears of any Seminole fan.

The Defense Applies Miami's Old Formula

I was a little surprised by how the Seminole staff chose to defend the explosive Clemson offense as I expected them to vary their coverages and play more zone, but in hindsight I shouldn't have been surprised given Mark Stoops' background. Florida State played Cover Two Man Under (2-man) most of the game, with safeties Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks in a two-deep shell and underneath coverage players aggressively attacking the Clemson receivers in man coverage.

This defense allows the underneath coverage players (corners, nickelback, etc.) to play very aggressively in man coverage off the line of scrimmage, because they have no fear of getting beat deep due to the deep safeties responsible for the two deep zones. That aggressiveness limited Clemson's screen game and disrupted their short passing game, as the Clemson receivers were simply not prepared for the physical play of FSU's underneath coverage.

The reason this should not have been surprising is that this is precisely the defense Miami used as its primary look when Stoops coached defensive backs there from 2001–2003. This defense shows incredible confidence in the defensive front (in particular the defensive tackles), as it essentially challenges the offense to run the football. Most defenses try to stop the run first by putting one more defender near the line of scrimmage than the offense can block. Stoops chose to do the opposite against Clemson, choosing to take away the downfield passing game first and force Clemson to run the football, confident his defense could sufficiently limit the Clemson running game without committing that extra player to the run.

In short, FSU applied the old Miami formula in this game, confident in the range of its safeties (there's no way FSU would have been able to do this without two elite—and very fast—safeties) and the run-stopping ability of its front six (since it was in the nickel most of the game), allowing its underneath coverage to play tight and beat up the Clemson receivers.

Aside from Brooks misjudging De'Andre Hopkins' speed and Tajh Boyd's arm on the first drive and gave up a big play, Stoops' plan worked. Joyner and Brooks consistently took away the downfield options—I saw numerous (at least ten) examples where Boyd's primary read downfield was quite simply not open, forcing him to check down or run.

Yes, they gave up more yardage than they might have otherwise and not having that extra player up front gave Boyd additional opportunities to make plays with his legs, but Stoops' choice was the right one as it ultimately took away Clemson's bread-and-butter explosive plays both in the short passing game and downfield. After the one breakdown on the first drive, the only two big plays Clemson had were on a double pass and a pick play to the tight end after the game was out of reach. In short, FSU's defensive staff applied a very simple but ultimately sound approach to beat Clemson. It will be interesting to see how other defenses choose to defend Clemson from here, as I'm not sure anyone else on Clemson's schedule has both the front (especially the DTs) and the safeties to copy FSU's plan.

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