July 22, 2018

The Myth of the Big Play Clemson Offense

From the moment Chad Morris called his first play back in 2011 Clemson has been known as a dynamic, big play offense. That first game against Troy included plays of 54, 75 and 54 yards and the next game against Wofford included a 74 yard scamper by Andre Ellington.

There were bombs seemingly every week as Tajh Boyd found Sammy Watkins (65,62,62, 51 and 53 yards), Nuk Hopkins (50) and even Cole Stoudt found Brandon Ford (50) for pass plays of at least half the length of the gridiron, while Andre Ellington glided down the field for gains of 74, 55, and 68 yards in the ground game.

By the time the season was over the Clemson offense had amassed 13 plays of 50 or more yards, or 1.2% – 1 out of every 81.2 plays. Subsequent Morris led offenses of 2012 (12; 1.1%), 2013 (8; 0.8%) and 2014 (8; 0.8%) had smaller, but similar results and Tony Elliott’s first offense was in the same ballpark, 11 plays and 0.9% over 50 yards, as Elliott implemented his version of the “Smash Mouth Spread”.

Heading into the 2016 season there was much talk about the “Big Play Clemson offense” featuring Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, Deon Cain and Ray Ray McCloud.

But a funny thing happened along the way – the Smash Mouth Spread morphed into more of a Patriotish dink and dunk. Sure, Watson took his shots downfield and Deshaun’s struggles when throwing deep likely played into this change.

The 2015 season saw Watson sling 15.4% of his passes 21 or more yards downfield, while that decreased to 13.6% in 2016. Watson threw 88 more passes in 2016, but had only 3 more attempts over 20 yards (79 vs. 76).

Watson’s deep ball was a constant question during the season and his completion rate at this distance plummeted from 43.4% to 31.3% from 2015 to 2016.

Whatever the cause, the number of 50 yard plays decreased significantly over the 2016 season, dropping to 4. F-O-U-R. As in 1 more than they had in the FIRST GAME of the Morris era. As in one of every 302 plays or 0.3%. Not only that, but all 4 came in blowouts – 3 vs. Boston College and 1 against Syracuse. Nary a 50 yarder against any other team, good or bad, major or minor, FBS or FCS. Not one. No 50+ yarders against Auburn, Florida State, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, Ohio State, Alabama or anyone else not named Boston College or Syracuse.

At this point you’re probably saying, “Yeah, but I bet the 2011 team had more opportunities for big plays than the 2016 group”. You’d be wrong. Ironically, both teams had 591 snaps with the potential to gain 50 or more yards.

THE drive started with a 5 yard pass to Jordan Leggett. There was 2:01 left in the National Championship game and Clemson had a first and 10 at their own 32, trailing by 3.

On 2nd and 5 Watson lofted a high floater along the sideline towards Mike Williams, who made the catch of his career when he high pointed the ball for a 24 yard gain to the Tide 39, the longest play and pass of the drive.

Next, Watson found Artavis Scott behind the line of scrimmage when he caught the ball, retreated a step and lateraled to Wayne Gallman for a 6 yard net.

After a Watson scramble gained a yard and left the Tigers with a 3rd and 3, Hunter Renfrow scooped a 6 yard pass off the turf for a first down.

A spike was followed by Jordan Leggett making a circus catch 17 yards downfield, contorting his body enough for an ESPN Sports Science piece to be devoted to the sequence and just like that the Tigers were on their way to the National Championship.

In years past the Tigers would have likely panicked down by 3 with 121 seconds left 68 yards away from pay dirt. An unsuccessful low percentage play on first down would have likely left the Tigers scrambling on 2nd and maybe 3rd and 4th. Not this time.

This time Clemson did what they had done all season – moved methodically down the field with high percentage plays, while occasionally keeping coverage guessing with a deeper ball.

So much goes into the decision of which type of plays are ultimately run making it impossible to pinpoint a single reason for the decrease, but looking at the season as a whole this much is clear – the Clemson offense wasn’t a big play offense

Who knows why this has changed – personnel (skill set), game situation, down and distance, score, play calling – the list is endless. But, the point is it has changed.

Does it matter? Not with the National Championship Trophy sitting in Clemson. One could argue that the 2011 group was “desperate” at times and bombed away when under pressure or trailing, while the 2016 unit was “built for moments like this” (h/t Deshaun Watson) and that shows the evolution and maturation of the program, the coaches and most importantly the players.

Dabo Swinney alluded to this post game when discussing the urgency on the final drive, saying something to the effect of “I know at home it seemed like we didn’t know what we were doing, but we do this every day in practice”.

It was an offense that took what was given all season and on that final drive with the season and their legacy on the line Tony Elliott, Deshaun Watson and the Clemson Tigers took the National Championship.

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