Just when the defense had some positives to build on after a strong second-half at Pitt, the Jackets returned home to face perhaps the most athletic offense they’ll see all year.
So much for progress.
The defense did fine against Clemson senior quarterback Kelly Bryant on the first two series, but as soon as true freshman Trevor Lawrence took over and opened up the downfield passing attack, Tech’s slim hopes fizzled out. The Jackets allowed a fumble return for a touchdown to open the scoring in the game, but the remainder of Clemson’s 49 points came courtesy of their offense.
There were a few promising things that Tech can build on in the weeks ahead. But it should come as little surprise that they’re few and far between after a game like that.
Week 4 vs. Clemson: Defense by the Numbers
|Points per Possession||3.5|
|Total Yards Allowed||480|
|Rush Yards Allowed||248|
|Opp. Yards per Carry||6.9|
|Pass Yards Allowed||232|
|Opp. Yards per Attempt||7.7|
|Opp. Yards per Play||7.3|
|Third Down Conversions||5/9|
|Fourth Down Conversions||0/0|
Shockingly, the numbers are unpleasant.
Just about the only positive is that Tech somehow held Clemson under 500 yards for the day, but that’s little consolation given that the Tigers averaged over seven yards per play.
Tech’s havoc rate was below 10 percent for the game, which is abysmally low. It was particularly bad when Trevor Lawrence was in the game: the defense managed exactly two havoc plays against the true freshman quarterback, who led all but one of Clemson’s touchdown drives. The stuff rate was even worse, and for much of the third quarter, Clemson was running the ball almost with impunity as they sought to put the game away.
It wasn’t a spectacular day for the line, but they had their moments. One of the few bright spots came on Clemson’s first possession, when the Jackets got their first (and ultimately only) sack of the game to force the Tigers to punt:
This play was both drawn up well and executed well. Lined up in their dime package, the Jackets sent five rushers and used a combination of a stunt and a slight delay to try to get linebacker David Curry free. The MVP of this play was nose tackle Kyle Cerge-Henderson, who managed to occupy three blockers to buy enough time for Curry to get to the quarterback—and then Cerge-Henderson ultimately helped to bring down Bryant, earning half a sack for his trouble.
The line also had the most entertaining play of the day, a rare interception by a defensive lineman—in this case, senior Desmond Branch:
Lawrence attempted a screen pass to his running back, only to have the ball bounce off an offensive lineman’s head and right to Branch. The rare miscue by the Clemson quarterback gave the Jackets excellent field position and led to their first score of the game.
Fun plays aside, the line had a few very successful sequences—particularly Cerge-Henderson in the middle—but mostly got pushed around by Clemson’s offensive line as the Tigers racked up some seven yards per carry.
The bad news about the Curry sack is that it was the only havoc play by any of the linebackers in the game. They’re just as culpable as the defensive line for Clemson running the ball with ease. Once again, the linebackers simply could not get themselves in position to make impact plays. It was true regardless of which specific players were in the game, and by now it’s clear that Tech cannot be a truly disruptive unit unless the linebacker play improves in a big way.
As is the case with the line, it’s worth noting that Tech was up against NFL-caliber athletes at virtually every position, and that combination of size and speed posed matchup problems across the entire front seven. But the problems in this unit were present against both USF and Pitt.
It didn’t help matters that Tech was without both starting corners on Saturday. Tre Swilling was suspended for no clearly stated reason (beyond the generic “violation of team rules”) and Jaytlin Askew was out with an upper body injury. It’s not yet clear if either will be missing additional time. In their stead, veteran reserves Ajani Kerr and Lamont Simmons got the nod, and true freshman Zamari Walton spelled them early and often.
The only way to beat a team like Clemson would be to play a mistake-free game, and Tech had a couple costly misplays. One was a simple coverage bust, in which Simmons bit on a play-action fake and left his deep zone uncovered on a play where Clemson ran a go route on that side of the field. Near the end of the first half, on a third-and-15 play, safety Kaleb Oliver stepped away from his zone to double up dangerous receiver Hunter Renfrow; while this wasn’t a terrible idea in principle, it left a man open in Oliver’s area and enabled Clemson to convert and later pick up a touchdown.
In each case, the player in question simply made an uncharacteristic mistake. They’ll both be fine and will continue to be key members of the secondary rotation going forward—just as they have been to date.
On the flip side, Walton was a bright spot for the secondary. The 6-foot-3 freshman had two pass breakups, and while he’s a third-stringer for now, he’s making a serious push for more playing time in the weeks ahead.
Some of the personnel chaos that sprouted in earlier games—particularly the bizarre line combinations that Nate Woody deployed in the loss to USF—has resolved itself by now.
Up front, Anree Saint-Amour and Desmond Branch have locked down the end spots with Antwan Owens spelling both of them. Kyle Cerge-Henderson has emerged as the most well-rounded nose tackle, with Brandon Adams subbing in to add muscle in short-yardage situations. When Tech goes to its dime package, though, Woody continues to get creative; on several occasions on Saturday, he used true freshman Justice Dingle and junior Brentavious Glanton in dime packages, in which he also now uses Saint-Amour as a pass-rushing linebacker.
The rotations elsewhere seem to have shaken out. While linebacker production remains limited, the only position where the rotation has yet to clear up is at Jack linebacker, where Victor Alexander and Jaquan Henderson split playing time just when it seemed that freshman Jordan Domineck was hitting his stride. At corner, Swilling and Askew should remain the starters when they’re active, but their absence could leave room for Walton to carve out a bigger role.
Saturday’s game didn’t introduce anything too ground-breaking. The Jackets continued to mix up blitzes, and unfortunately for them, nothing was too successful against a Clemson offense that was nearly unstoppable with Lawrence at the helm.
The one odd development is that Woody seems to be leaning on the Stinger linebacker as the fourth rusher much more frequently than expected. It’s unclear if that will continue, but Tech hasn’t been able to get much pressure from either position to date. The more successful rushes have involved sending one of the inside linebackers or having Saint-Amour rush from a linebacker position, as he typically does in Tech’s dime package.