The New Year is fast approaching, so it might be about time to stop procrastinating and get back into football mode again (no, none of the games thus far fall under the umbrella of "football mode," no matter how entertaining these games may have been). Also, it's time to start removing the layers of macabre abstraction that basically make up our perception of the South Carolina defense (let alone this USC defense going up against this Michigan offense).
Anyway, I started rewatching the USC-Clemson game with an eye for the USC defense; I feel fairly okay about the matchup of Michigan's defense against their offense, but you can't win if you don't score. Not that you have, but let's not forget the Notre Dame game, where Michigan gave up 13 to an eventual undefeated team/national title game participant...and lost.
In any case, this will focus on the first quarter, where Clemson scored 14 points against the staunch USC defense (the Tigers scored just 3 points the rest of the way in a 27-17 loss). In case you missed it, Anthony wrote about the USC defense on Tuesday. So, here we go.
CLOWNEYS FROM HELL (just kidding there's only one Clowney phew)
Clemson's second drive was a 16-play, 84-yard, 6:14 spirit quest, yielding the Tigers their first score of the game to put them up 7-0 in the first quarter. Clemson had to convert on third down on three separate occasions and also punched it on from the 3-yard line on 3rd and goal. Somewhere, Lloyd Carr was just golf clapping as vehemently as one can golf clap.
Anywho, Clemson had some success on this drive, obviously. It was a run-heavy venture; the Tigers passed four times, ran 11 times and Tajh Boyd was sacked once.
Clemson started the game with a zone read. Obviously, who knows if this will be a part of the gameplan at all. Denard's struggles with the read part have been well-documented and I'm having a hard time recalling many zone reads with Devin Gardner.
This will come back again in a second, but here's the presnap look:
On the snap, H-back on the right side makes his way left to block, you guessed it:
Boyd "reads" Clowney while the blocker comes to neutralize him; it's a success, as Boyd gives to Andre Ellington, who takes it through that whole between the right tackle and that mass of bodies in the middle. Those linebackers in the middle angling right should be able to fill that hole and make a play, but they continue right toward Clowney as if they are on roller skates. Ellington even hesitates in the whole for a second like Mike Shaw, as if he's running and thinking "is this real?"
It was real. First down. Reginald Bowens, #47, the backer on the left, eventually recovers and makes the play ten yards downfield.
On the next play, Clemson goes to a standard Wildcat with Andre Ellington and a guy jet sweeping across:
Clemson ran the Wildcat with Ellington again later on in the drive, picking up four. There's nothing exceptional or notable about this other than the fact that Michigan will need to do something of this sort to get a running game going; Denard as the Wildcat guy (obviously) with Gallon as the sweeper should hopefully yield a few easy 4 or 5 yard gains throughout the game.
Also, I have to include this play. Why? Oh no reason, definitely not because it's 3rd and 1 and hint hint wink wink *throws remote*:
Do we understand each other, Mr. Borges? I'm not saying an I-form run on 3rd and short will cause me to somehow yell profanities in languages I don't even know, but I'm also not saying that that won't happen.
The following is true of any opponent, but against a team with ends like Clowney and Devin Taylor, Michigan cannot afford to put itself in many 3rd and long situations...otherwise, I have a feeling this will happen instead of the magical shenanigans Gardner was able to pull against Minnesota:
This is a first down pass, but the point still stands. Even on downs when a pass is not expected, Gardner can't hold the ball or one of those defensive ends will get to him.
The next two plays show that Clowney is not just going to get after the passer no matter what. On 2nd and 15, he stunts inside, where the left guard picks him up. On the next play, 3rd and 15, instead of rushing Boyd, Clowney drops back into a little middle zone a yard or two past the LOS, where he just hangs out and spies Boyd:
So, that didn't work out too well for USC. I know that you have to mix up your defensive looks, but it seems to me that any way in which Clowney is just standing there (albeit "spying") as opposing to actively rushing the quarterback is like Michigan not running Denard at all.
After another wildcat run from Ellington, Clemson goes back to the zone read on play No. 9 of the drive. Clowney defends this like a bat out of hell (this is where it comes back to the earlier play):
This is the same play as earlier, only this time the H-back fails to get over and block Clowney. This is simply Clowney being Clowney. I can't make out the blocker's number, but if Michigan was to run this play, I wonder if a guy like Joe Kerridge or Mike Kwiatkowski has the athleticism and strength to make that block? That sort of play could have been right in Stephen Hopkins' wheelhouse, but, alas.
In any case, note how Clowney basically tackles Boyd a split second after he gives to Ellington...this is not an option pitch.
RUN IT'S JADEVEON CLOWNEY AHHHHHH
I have to think that the logic is: a) with Clowney selling out on the play like that, what quarterback is going to keep the ball in that situation and b) even if the QB does keep and Clowney has to gather himself, he has the athleticism to corral most quarterbacks. Denard is probably not one of those guys that gets caught, but what about Gardner? If we can get some zone read with Gardner and Denard as the back going, Michigan could get a little something going on the ground. Ha, a "ground game"! What a strange concept.
On 3rd and 5, Clowney attempts to beat the left tackle on the outside, but the LT manages to just ride him upfield. During the offseason, Borges talked about Denard learning to "fight the rush." Well, this is a perfect example of that, whether it's Denard or Devin at the helm:
With SC's aggressive ends, these sorts of step-up opportunities will be there; of course, saying "hey just do that" is a lot easier in theory than practice. How Gardner (or Denard, if he plays at quarterback and actually throws it) responds in these situations will partially determine whether Michigan's offense will be a 3-and-out parade or not. No, this is not Minnesota, but both quarterbacks have the athleticism to pick up yardage if they're decisive (which, sadly, is a bigger issue for Denard).
Clemson went back to the well a couple plays later, only this time with Roderick McDowell instead of Ellington:
The blocker succeeds this time around, although Clowney seems to give a half-hearted effort on this one. In any case, this, to my untrained eye, is just a basic running play with a pulling blocker only it is disguised as a zone read.
Clowney sits the next play, No. 13, out (his first breather of the game, I think). McDowell spins past a Quin Smith tackle at the LOS for a gain of 7 and a first and goal situation. On 3rd & goal, Clemson runs the option to the short side, with Sammy Watkins backtracking to serve as the pitch man:
Again, Clowney is not on the field, so it seems that the best way to neutralize him is to run off long, grinding drives. Also, if I were 6'10'' I could maybe possibly play in the NBA.
Scripted or not, Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris was creative early on in this one (after a three and out on Clemson's opening drive). The Tigers utilized the zone read, the Wildcat, the option and standard downhill running from the pistol. Clemson did not put itself in uncomfortable positions save the one 3rd and 15, when USC rushed only three, with Clowney spying.
This is far from comprehensive, but it does show show that USC is not invincible. Of course, Clemson only scored one more touchdown the rest of the game (the second drive consisted of 32- and 43-yard plays), and it should be noted that Michigan does not have a back like Andre Ellington, unless Denard plays as a full-time tailback with occasional Wildcat/actual quarterbacking responsibilities.
Also on the negative side, Tajh Boyd is more experienced and polished than Gardner is, and Boyd had easily his weakest game of the season against the Gamecocks.
I just wanted to get this up before the weekend, but I'll be making my way through the rest of this game (and will try to take a look at Florida's 44-11 victory against USC) to see if there is anything else particularly worthy of singling out.
For now, I'll say that Borges needs to call a game like the one Mike DeBord called against Florida in the 2008 Capital One Bowl. We will find out once and for all if Borges is being stubborn for the sake of being stubborn (re: 3rd and 1 Vincent Smith), which we saw as late in the season as The Game, or if he's truly capable of abandoning whatever it is that constitutes his comfort zone (by the way, I'm saying all this as, for the most part, a Borges fan).
With an over 5-week stretch separating Michigan from its last game, there's no doubt that the coaches are putting some new things in the playbook: wrinkles, entirely new plays (e.g. for the 2-QB formation) and trick plays. Assuming the defense does its job against a Lattimore-less offense reasonably well, it's not unreasonable to imagine winning this game like it did the MSU game.
Michigan had an entire offseason to prepare for Alabama and didn't fare so well. I don't think the offensive output (or lack thereof) falls on Borges' shoulders for that one, as Alabama was simply better on the lines as well as the outside with the skill player matchups.
South Carolina's defense is also very good, but they're not Alabama. Alabama is No. 1 in the country in first down rate given up to its opponents (i.e. number of opponent drives that end with at least one first down); South Carolina is 30th in that respect. Clowney is a better individual talent than anyone Alabama has, but, overall, they will give a little more than the Tide did.
As always, other than the question of how Denard will be used, the overarching question that will determine whether Michigan has a shot at winning this game: Can Al Borges put it together for 60 minutes? If Borges is still running third and short plays that have never worked and still can't seem to figure out the Devin-Denard dynamic, well...that would be worrisome indeed.