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Film Room With Dean: Complete Breakdown Of Clemson's Win & OU Matchup

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After reviewing almost half of Clemson’s games this season it is abundantly clear that the Tigers are a talented, well-rounded team with no significant weaknesses. They are led by a quarterback who is a respected leader and profoundly better than the rum-dum quarterbacks Oklahoma faced (Incredibly, outstanding starters for OU’s top three Big 12 opponents were all hurt and unable to start -- Seth Russell at Baylor, Trevone Boykin of TCU and Mason Rudolph of OSU). Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs was the best of the QBs OU’s defense saw, but his play does not hold a candle to what sophomore Deshaun Watson will present Mike Stoops & Company. The single biggest key for OU in this national semifinal is very simple: How well will the Sooners defend Watson’s run-pass threat?

Here are some of my notes after reviewing Clemson’s most recent game a couple of times; their 45-37 win over North Carolina in the ACC Championship:

  • The first half was sloppy for both teams. If Clemson starts like this against the Sooners, OU could have them on the run by half and be playing with a lead in the second half. But don’t bet on that.
  • Clemson excelled with a virtually new but athletic and talented defense that is statistically the best third down D in the nation. Fans around the Big 12 know the way Clemson Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables goes about his business. Always strives to disguise and confuse but not afraid to bring pressure regularly and from numerous places. Clemson lost safety T.J. Green for targeting. Green is a great tackler, but was replaced by true freshman Van Smith. Venables made the quarterback unsettled, which was the key to the first half.
  • North Carolina had completed only two passes with 3 1/2 minutes left in the first half. Baker Mayfield will have that by the end of the first possession. Carolina had some opportunities and open receivers but Johnson simply didn't execute. Clemson’s back-end played much better later in the game. I rate them as an outstanding secondary. It’s clear on film to see that corner MacKenzie Alexander (5-11, 195 So.) is special. He was one of just two defenders Venables placed on the first-team All-ACC (Shaq Lawson the other). Safety Jayron Kearse was second-team All-ACC. There’s a chance OU stud Sterling Shepard will be matched up primarily with Alexander, who was very outspoken about his disgust in the Russell Athletic Bowl with Shepard, whom he says talked trash from the moment they met on the field before the game. Some reports claim Shepard was shut down and needs to shut up if he can’t do any better than the one catch for thirteen yards he had against Alexander a year ago. But the facts are that Shepard tried to play after missing most of the second half of the season with a groin-area injury, and he simply was not himself.  Not to mention the fact that QB Trevor Knight was harassed all game long and was unable to deliver catchable balls. So I totally disregard the bowl game when assessing this ultra-important match-up. Shepard had a terrific season, is healthy, has been utilized expertly by new OC Lincoln Riley, has been better coached by Cale Gundy and Dennis Simmons and has a playmaker/QB who regularly seeks him out and is capable of getting the ball into 3’s hands short, medium and long.
  • QB Watson was not especially good in the first two quarters, including not clocking the ball on the next to last play of the half. He has five new offensive lineman who are playing well, but aren’t nearly as dominant as the fivesome OU saw in the bowl game. None is a weak-stick. All five of the lineman made either first second or third team all-conference in the ACC, with 6-5, 315 Sr. guard Eric MacLane the best of the group and the one who was named first team all league. MacLane is also very bright, articulate, a leader, and a guy who OU’s D front will have to relentlessly pound to beat. The fact that OU's front seven is much-improved and Clemson goes with five new starters makes one assume the Sooners could have a nice advantage in this all-important trench matchup. Or at least be in much better shape than they were in the bowl game.  I’d rank center Jay Guillermo as their second best O Lineman. It’s worth noting Clemson utilizes its tight end a lot; Jordan Leggett is a 6-5, 255 pound senior who was one of four Tigers named second-team All-ACC. 

  • Watson struggled when there was pressure in his face but no doubt is dazzling with an uncanny ability to run the ball under control, with terrific speed and patience while being capable of making all the throws. That being said, he did miss several open receivers in the first half. Would the Sooners consider spying on Watson periodically? I would; or at least have it in my defensive toolkit. It’s as impossible to overstate the value of Watson to Clemson as it is to overstate the value of Baker Mayfield to the Sooners. It will be vital that busts be minimized, that sure-tackling be the norm, that the secondary be sound in coverage without relying exclusively on nickel or dime, and that Mike Stoops hit Watson with exotic blitzes that have the smooth sophomore thinking about Striker off the edge, Steven Parker flying from the blind side and Charles Walker getting the killer inside rush. The Sooners realize that tendencies show Watson will have the ball in his hands on important downs with the option to pass or run. Playing fast and being in position will give Oklahoma its best shot of winning some of these battles. 

  • Clemson’s receivers were nothing special in the first half with multiple dropped passes, but they did show to be plenty capable. But they didn’t impress me as an overwhelming position group. And with OU's remarkable turnaround in secondary play, this should be no worse than a wash for the Sooners. WR Artavis Scott is Clemson’s go-to guy; 5-11, 190 pound sophomore, second-team All-ACC.

  • Shaq Lawson gets most of the attention, but Kevin Dodd is a great compliment on the other side and most improved. Love to blitz Ben Boulware. 
  • Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley had a big interception. Teams picked on him early in the year—used to get burned despite his great speed.
  • Sophomore running back Wayne Gallman was slowed in the first half, but is an explosive player.
  • Wide receiver Charone Peake is a tall, fluid and calm. I like him.
  • True freshman defensive tackle Christian Wilkins is agile and looks like a budding star. He gets extension, can react and is already quite physical. 
  • Watson got in a groove early in the third quarter. He backed up the gaudy stats he brings to the Orange Bowl: 69.5%, 3,512 pass yards, 887 rush yards, 30-11 TD pass to interception ratio, 11 rush TDs and a 41-11 total TD to interception ratio. Staggering, right? But Baker Mayfield might be a little better? Especially his 42-5 touchdown to turnover ratio (35 TDs passing and 7 rushing). Back to Watson. I love that he was able to squeeze balls into tight windows while rolling out on a play fake—he was especially potent on third down.
  • This postgame quote from Clemson HC Dabo Swinney about what makes his QB special was strong: ''This guy beats you not just with his legs, but his arm, his mind, his heart, his guts and his toughness. He's a great champion.''
  • North Carolina Marquise Williams was poor throwing for much of the game. Seemed the moment was too big for him at times. Clemson did a great job confusing him and his receivers, which impacted their timing. 
  • It will be imperative that OU receivers gain separation because what Clemson wants to do is sit in coverage and make the QB hold onto the ball, and let the athletes up front ultimately get pressure. They did a great job of this against North Carolina.
  • Thus, a prime subplot will be what the Sooners will get out of Dede Westbrook and the handful of receivers Riley will trot out there who could determine the game by simply making a play here or there. Many times it’s the unlikely player who either steps or can’t make the play that decides games like this. The most important thing for the receivers is to hold onto the football – both when it’s thrown to them and after the catch. Clemson really rallies to the ball and does a great job of yanking the ball out of receivers’ hands. 
  • Clemson linebackers B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware are active, and they trust their reads and got the NC ball carrier quickly.
  • Enables still signals in defenses late, but can’t against OU.
  • The Tar Heels failed on a low percentage fake punt with 5:36 left in the third quarter while trailing by 12 points. Fedora rolled the dice and gave up a touchdown on the second play. All ACC receiver Martavis Scott caught the 35-yard pass.
  • Clemson’s kickoffs aren’t very deep. Ou should get a few returnable balls.
  • NC fortunate to get a tipped ball INT to get back in the game. It was the first turnover of the night, but turnovers have been a problem lately. Obviously, the biggest key to game.
  • NC quarterback had five completions on 21 attempts with three minutes left in the third quarter. He choked, and not as nimble/effective scrambling and running in general. 
  • Watson shaken up briefly, but already had over 100 yards rushing for the fourth time in five games. First six games, Watson averaged only nine carries for 39 yards. In his last six, he’s averaging 13 carries for 87 yards.
  • Watson sprinted out mid-fourth quarter and threw a strike that was dropped by Artavis Scott on third down. But the point is: Watson is always on the move, mostly to the right and very accurate. SAFETY SUPPORTS AND LINEBACKER PLAY WILL BE PARAMOUNT FOR OU.
  • RB Wayne Gallman is known initially as a power runner but made an impressive jump cut and accelerated through a gap for an important explosive play. He’s still considered a little raw -- but fresh and effective. Gallman is strong, and at 6-1, 215 pounds the sophomore earned second-team All-ACC. 
  • In the fourth quarter Clemson had a 42-23 lead while Watson had 21 carries for 129 yards, a career high – although he’ll end up with a few less yards.
  • FANS: It was equidistance to Charlotte from Clemson and Chapel Hill, but 65-70 percent of the fans were in orange. Heck, they had 20,000 in the stands for the playoff announcement show Sunday morning. Many OU fans I know are hoping for a win and budgeting a trip to Arizona for a potential National Championship game. I have no doubt there will be a substantial fan advantage for Clemson – maybe 4 to 1. Or more. Yes, the Sooners have been a good road team. And yes, it shouldn’t matter. But having a 4-1 fan advantage is helpful. OU will have to play through it. The best way to minimize a disadvantage like this is to make plays and limit big ones from Clemson. Not really that complicated.
  • QB run game was big for North Carolina during its fourth quarter rally. Mayfield runs will be critical.
  • Clemson corners don’t bail very much and don’t give up easy outs and short routes.
  • Lawson was unstoppable at times during the stretch run of the season and the ACC title game. He had a forced fumble after beating the tackle’s block with power and NFL ability. Clemson recovered and was up 12 with fewer than seven minutes left. Looked like the play of the game. 

  • Gallman ran downhill very well in second half, and actually every time he touched the ball.
  • Watson is tough on the speed option, making the defense decide to take him or pitch to Gallman for 15 quick yards. Great variety of ways to get ball in Watson’s hands on corner in either/or situation: either or run, pitch or pass. That’s a triple threat. Not just run or pass.
  • Herbstreit: This system doesn’t ask offensive lineman to blow people 5 to 7 yards off the ball, like the old school style that Alabama, Arkansas and Wisconsin use. It’s more get a hat on a hat, cover your guy, and let Gallman find a hole. His vision and quickness make you not have to blow people off the ball.
  • Clemson’s field goal kicker is reliable and was voted second team All-ACC. But Greg Huegel is a freshman and missed an important attempt from 47 yards against Carolina, although he did come back to knock through a chip shot late in the game.
  • An important match-up will be OU’s redshirt freshman left tackle Orlando Brown going against ACC Defensive Player of the Year Shaq Lawson – a 6-3, 270 pound junior who didn’t surprise people by announcing he’s leaving for the NFL after this season but surprised – and disappointed some – by making the announcement this week, as all the focus is on the OU game and team goals. Regardless, Brown will have his work cut out for him against this agile, stout and sound down lineman. I’m sure Lawson will be looking to make a favorable impression on potential bosses in the NFL and Brown must continue to hold his own against the well-established opponents. Lawson struggled with keeping his emotions under control and drew numerous penalties that will kill a team at this stage of the year. But he’s competitive, and while a long, long way from being a refined operator, he’s taken expertise and wisdom from Sooner line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and steadily improved. Brown more than held his own against Baylor’s overrated and over hyped Shawn Oakman and did not lose much to OSU’s Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in Emanuel Ogbah. Bob Stoops tells me the story of when Brown learned he’d not met grade requirements at Alabama he quickly was in touch with Stoops saying he wanted to be a Sooner. Soon after, Stoops was falling in love with the son of the late, great Orlando Brown, Sr, who taught his son well. For what it’s worth, I found him intelligent, affable and a “we-guy” when being around him during one of the Stoops Playback Shows we tape on Sundays. 
  • Missed tackled by safety Jayron Kearse on Switzer allows a touchdown. Another mental error costs Clemson. 45-37 with 1:13 left in the game. Kearse sure looks the part, reminding me of one of my teammates at OU, Randy Hughes. Randy was a rangy, hard-hitting winner out of Tulsa who was an All-American and enjoyed a lengthy and successful career roaming the backend for the Dallas Cowboys. He was 6-5, well over 200, could run fast enough to keep up in coverage but also had great side-to-side movement and a ferocious ability to punish receivers or running backs. Kearse is a second team All-ACC safety, and at 6-5, 220 pounds has the size to deliver the goods. But he missed a couple of tackles in the ACC title game and I’m sure the receivers and most assuredly OU’s tandem of powerful runners won’t back down. Semaje Perine has worked hard to get ‘down’ to 234 pounds while Joe Mixon told me midseason he was “almost 6-2 and 220” pounds. 
  • I found this postgame assessment from former OSU OC and current NC HC Larry Fedora to be spot on: ''They stretch you with their receivers, horizontally, and created seams in the defense, and if you don't fit exactly where you're supposed to or you miss a tackle, they're going to have a big play…”
  • Clemson mishandles two straight onside kicks. But the bad off-sides penalty against Carolina preserves the Clemson win. But Clemson didn’t close the deal. They had game in the bag but made mental and game errors that make you wonder if they’re of championship ilk. 

In sum, OU will face a team with no significant weaknesses and a remarkably talented QB. But Clemson will face an OU team with no significant weaknesses and a remarkably talented QB. I don’t see OU being favored by 3.5 as the linemakers claim. This game should be a toss-up. The Sooners can no doubt come out with a win. But they’ll need to play their most complete game of the season and play with that championship edge Stoops’ teams routinely did in winning all but one of those Big 12 Championship games. 

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