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Option Strategy Report: Clemson

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We’ve renamed ourselves to “From the Fumble Seat”

NCAA Football: Clemson at Georgia Tech Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Georgia Tech’s 49-21 loss to Clemson shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone. As stated in the “What Did We Learn” article following the game, nobody expected the Jackets to upset the Tigers, who have national championship aspirations and nearly a 44% chance of being undefeated entering the conference championship game. While Clemson is fulfilling everyone’s preseason expectations, Georgia Tech has been a major disappointment, now sitting at 1-3 with only a 15.5% chance of even making a bowl game. Clemson was undoubtedly the better team on Saturday, but the biggest takeaway for Tech fans was that once again, the Jackets did nearly everything in their power to beat themselves.

Early Flashes of Hope

When Tech’s offense came out firing on all cylinders, for a brief moment it looked like this game could be a shootout. In their first eight plays, the Jackets gained 55 yards on the ground to reach the Clemson 17-yard line. Tech’s success was somewhat aided by some missed defensive assignments, but the Jackets were executing well and taking advantage of Clemson’s mistakes. After the first play of the game went for a 20-yard gain by A-back Qua Searcy, Coach Paul Johnson followed up with a simple yet effective modification of the Inside Veer (aka the Triple Option).

On a typical Inside Veer, the quarterback decides whether to hand the ball off to the B-back based on the movement of the unblocked “dive key”, typically the playside defensive end. On this play, however, there was no dive key as quarterback TaQuon Marshall was instructed to keep the ball and only focus on the pitch key (the playside outside linebacker) while B-back Jerry Howard served as a lead blocker. Removing the option to hand off to the B-back serves two purposes:

  1. It simplifies the decision tree for TaQuon in hopes of building some early-game confidence.
  2. It gives Paul Johnson a chance to evaluate how the offensive line is holding up against Clemson’s elite defensive front.

Marshall does a great job attacking the pitch key, and once the linebacker commits to defending the A-back, he cuts inside behind Howard’s block to pick up a solid 6-yard gain. This modification of the Inside Veer was dialed up multiple times on the first drive and always picked up positive yards.

Mental Mistakes

The Jackets’ momentum came to a screeching halt when the offense started going in the wrong direction due to self-inflicted mental mistakes. It began with a Qua Searcy false start on 1st & 10 from the Clemson 17-yard line, although on the next play B-back Jerry Howard gained those yards back with a 6-yard run up the middle. The moment the wheels truly started to fall off for Tech was on the following play when backup quarterback Tobias Oliver came in to run a B-back Toss.

The ESPN Skycam shows a unique camera angle that gives us some insight into what exactly went wrong on this play. There is a brief moment when the ball has been snapped and the play is developing that we see four Georgia Tech players on the right side of the formation standing flat-footed as if they didn’t know the play had started yet. A-back Nathan Cottrell seemed particularly surprised after the snap, and his late effort to block the playside cornerback was unsuccessful:

There are two possible reasons why the right side of the formation was so out of sync with the rest of the offensive unit:

  1. The players on the right were simply slow to react on the snap. This would be unfortunate considering the offensive players should all burst off the snap simultaneously, but it’s possible they were all just late coming out of their stances.
  2. A miscommunication occurred with the snap count. There’s really two ways this could have happened, but both are related to the fact that this was Tobias Oliver’s first snap of the game. Either the players on the right side misunderstood the snap count in the huddle, or they simply couldn’t hear the snap count from where they were in the formation.

Regardless, we can say with certainty that at some point, a critical mental error occurred. The 5-yard loss left the Jackets in a 3rd & 14 situation, which led to a 10-yard sack, which was followed up by another false start penalty. In just three plays Tech went 20 yards backwards and eliminated any chance of putting points on the board. Strings of mental errors like this show a fundamental lack of discipline, and Paul Johnson took ownership of these mistakes after the game, stating “I can promise you, we will get better.”

More Missed Reads

This is the third week in a row that TaQuon Marshall has struggled to consistently make correct reads on pitch-option plays. I know it’s starting to sound repetitive, but these missed reads are holding back the Jackets’ offense and have made it Tech’s third least efficient offense of the Paul Johnson era. We saw these issues yet again when Paul Johnson dialed up a Counter Option with 3:03 remaining in the 1st Quarter.

The moment Marshall fakes the pitch to A-back Nathan Cottrell is when the ball should have actually been pitched. Cottrell has elite speed and is ready to receive the pitch and kick it into top gear. The only defender with a shot at bringing him down before a big gain is the outside linebacker, who is side-shuffling at the moment TaQuon decided to keep it himself. Had he pitched the ball, there’s no doubt in my mind that Cottrell would have easily won the race to the outside and at least picked up the first down. Instead, the play results in a 3-yard loss and puts the Tech in a 3rd & 11 situation. Negative plays seem to be happening more and more frequently, and it’s beginning to look like a quarterback change may be the best way to get the offense going in the right direction.

Fumbles, Fumbles, Fumbles

There isn’t much to analyze here, but it has to be addressed: Georgia Tech fumbled the ball eight times on Saturday, bringing their total for the season to 15. While flexbone offenses naturally fumble more often traditional offenses, putting the ball on the ground 15 times through four games is a sign that something is fundamentally wrong this team.

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Quarter Clock Down To Go Yard Line Description
Quarter Clock Down To Go Yard Line Description
1 8:25 2nd 9 CLEM 16 Jerry Howard run for a loss of 5 yards to the Clem 21 Jerry Howard fumbled, forced by A.J. Terrell, recovered by GTech Qua Searcy
1 7:50 3rd 14 CLEM 21 TaQuon Marshall sacked by Christian Wilkins for a loss of 10 yards to the Clem 31 TaQuon Marshall fumbled, forced by Christian Wilkins, recovered by Gtech
1 4:53 1st 10 GT 29 TaQuon Marshall run for no gain to the GTech 29 TaQuon Marshall fumbled, recovered by GTech Clinton Lynch
1 3:42 3rd 20 GT 19 Qua Searcy fumbled, Clelin Ferrell 0 Yd Fumble Return for Touchdown
2 9:03 1st 10 GT 25 TaQuon Marshall run for a loss of 6 yards to the GTech 19 TaQuon Marshall fumbled, recovered by GTech Jerry Howard
3 11:00 3rd 1 GT 34 TaQuon Marshall run for a loss of 2 yards to the GTech 35 TaQuon Marshall fumbled, recovered by GTech Jordan Mason for a 1ST down Jordan Mason run for 3 yds to the GTech 35 for a 1ST down
4 14:00 2nd 6 GT 18 Tobias Oliver run for a loss of 6 yards to the GTech 12 Tobias Oliver fumbled, recovered by GTech
4 13:00 3rd 12 GT 12 Tobias Oliver run for a loss of 4 yards to the GTech 8 Tobias Oliver fumbled, recovered by GTech

In case you need a refresher, above are all eight of Tech’s fumbles against Clemson on Saturday. Four of the fumbles occurred on quarterback-center exchanges alone. In Paul Johnson’s own words at the postgame press conference, “You gotta care enough to get the snap and the guy’s gotta care enough to snap it. That’s not hard. Junior high teams can do that.” There’s no doubt in my mind that ball security will be a primary focus at practice this week. I firmly believe that the fumbling situation will improve, but that’s mostly because it can’t really get much worse.

Clemson’s Athleticism

It wouldn’t be fair to Clemson to not acknowledge the sheer talent advantage they had on Saturday. Some plays that appeared to have been poorly blocked turned out to simply be great athletic plays by the Clemson defenders. A perfect example is this B-back Speed Option with 8:40 remaining in the 2nd Quarter:

Clemson defensive end Logan Rudolph straight up outmuscles right tackle Brad Morgan to bring down TaQuon Marshall for just a two yard gain. Against most teams, Morgan likely holds his block and Marshall scampers for a 10-yard gain. Clemson may have the best defensive line in college football, and their defenders are so athletic that it sometimes doesn’t even matter if the offense executes their assignments perfectly. If there’s any good news to take away from this game, it’s that the Jackets won’t have to face another defense this talented until Georgia at the end of the season.

Up Next: Bowling Green

Georgia Tech has a great opportunity this weekend to rebound against a Group of Five opponent as they take on the Bowling Green Falcons. The Jackets are favored by 28 points and will hopefully come out victorious to claim their first win against an FBS opponent. Bowling Green defensive coordinator Carl Pelini is having a rough first season, with his unit giving up 333.5 rushing yards per game, good enough for dead last in the FBS. This game will hopefully provide a much-needed confidence boost for the Jackets as they head into a stretch of six straight conference games. The ACC Coastal still seems very much up for grabs, and this week can serve as a springboard for Georgia Tech to get back on track.