Clemson’s first real test of the season ended in a 51-45 OT thriller, in which the Tigers came out victorious. It salvaged a pathetic defensive performance that featured 120 penalty yards, its most since the 2013 Orange Bowl. Despite being plagued by pass interference penalties and allowing a career-high six touchdowns to Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman, the Tigers were able to extend the nation’s longest active winning streak to 10 on Saturday. From struggles in the outside zone to DJ Uiagalelei’s significant offseason maturity, here’s what I saw from Clemson in Saturday’s shootout victory.
Clemson struggled with outside zone runs
On Clemson’s first offensive play of the game, Wake Forest set their linebackers wide to cover the pair of wideouts on each side. On the read option, Uiagalelei saw the massive hole in the Deacon Demon’s front seven and made the quick decision to hand it to Will Shipley, who burst through the first two levels of the defense untouched. He was wrestled down 53 yards later at the Wake Forest 35-yard line, setting up a touchdown seven plays later. After that, Shipley ran 19 times for only 51 yards, averaging a solemn 2.7 yards per carry. Here’s what changed after that play:
The Wake Forest front seven brought constant pressure from the B and C gaps in order to disrupt Shipley’s rushing lanes and cut back lanes. That presented countless 1-on-1 passing opportunities for Clemson, which is what ultimately led it to victory. Shipley’s opening run and his 1-yard touchdown run, where he spun through heavy contact for a lunging score, were eye-popping moments, but the sophomore running back struggled apart from that.
Wake Forest’s linebacker’s Ryan Smenda and Chase Jones were the game’s leading tacklers, both with nine total. These two were constantly blitzing a Tigers offensive line who have given up just six sacks this season. However, Clemson’s top-ranked line held up against the Deacon Demons in the pass game, allowing just one sack. It was the outside zone rushing game that suffered from this consistent pressure from the second level.
Gang Tackling from WF
Shipley was tripped up by behind the line multiple times due to Wake Forests’ ability to run the field at the second level. Smenda only had two solo tackles because he was constantly in the thick of a mauling attack from the Demon Deacons’ big men, helping the defensive line bring backs to the ground near the line of scrimmage. Defensive tackle Jasheen Davis also had a 6-to-1 tackle-to-solo discrepancy due to the constant gang tackling from its front seven.
Wake Forest’s first-play linebacker debacle was quickly remedied, as the Demon Deacons brought constant pressure from varied looks to shut down one the of the nation’s most electric backs. However, Clemson’s 16-of-23 (0.70) on third downs was a huge improvement from their 19/41 (0.46) season conversion rate entering the matchup. 23 third downs were a direct result of their failure to create rushing lanes, while the 70% conversion rate was thanks to Uiagalelei’s patience and vision.
DJ trusted his team to make plays
Uiagalelei pieced together his fourth career fourth quarter comeback, tying Trevor Lawrence for the second-most by a Clemson QB since 2000. He did this by taking advantage of Wake Forest’s single coverage on their receivers, specifically 6’6” TE Jake Briningstool and 6’3” WR Joseph Ngata.
At the end of the third quarter, the Tigers trailed 35-28 when they faced yet another third-down-and-long situation. With the Demon Deacons rushing four in man coverage with a QB spy, DJ settled himself in the pocket and looked down field with just one deep safety in the middle. He drifted to his left as the edge rusher closed in, before heaving the ball down field to Ngata. The senior receiver went over the top of JJ Roberts, three flags up style, to set up the Tigers in enemy territory to start the fourth.
Guy throws it 53 yards in the air fading sideways.
JJ Roberts is there, Joseph Ngata just makes the play.
Hat = tipped. pic.twitter.com/lKqlLoa92B
— Conor O'Neill (@ConorONeill_DI) September 27, 2022
Seven plays later, Shipley made his second jaw-dropping play of the night, this one a game-tying 1-yard score. The ACC rivals went into overtime knotted at 38. This play was a typical passing situation from Uiagalelei on Saturday, who showed elite patience, trusting his offensive line to give him a surplus of time to find open receivers.
Uiagalelei finished with a 179.7 pass efficiency rating, posting three consecutive games with a passer rating of 145.0 or better for the first time in his career. This commanding offensive stretch has been a result of the QB trusting an improved offensive line and better weapons to make plays. DJ’s third-down heave at the end of the third quarter was a perfect example of the maturation he’s shown from last season. The gunslinger looks much more comfortable moving inside the pocket and has shown a willingness to trust his scheme that wasn’t evident last season.
Defensive penalties kept Wake Forest in it
Hartman torched the Tigers for 337 yards and six touchdowns on 20-of-29 passing. This was a direct result in Clemson’s failures in the secondary. Costly pass interference penalties, 10 for 120 yards including six resulting in first downs, and poor execution in single coverage allowed Hartman exploited the Tigers secondary consistently. Wake Forest used a slow mesh play-action system from the shotgun to draw in the defense, creating 1-on-1 matchups downfield and giving Hartman time to scan for mismatches from the pocket. Similar to Clemson, Wake Forest highlighted their biggest receiver, 6’4” Jahmal Banks, hauling in six catches for 141 yards and two scores.
Banks was set up all over the field, mossing cornerbacks, safeties and linebackers without discrimination. The slow mesh concept drew in the defense, and then Hartman trusted his guys to make plays down field. And if they didn’t, Clemson gave them free yards constantly throughout the matchup. The Tigers’ secondary committed a good chunk of these penalties when they knew they were beat in single coverage, giving up 15 yards rather than a potential deep bomb. Hartman had his way with the Tigers defense.
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