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What Clemson’s worst games mean for Ohio State

The Buckeyes haven’t been the only great team to play up and down this season.

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Clemson vs Virginia Tech Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson, like Ohio State, has looked dominant in some games and vulnerable in others. The Tigers had seven one-score games this season, with especially narrow wins over Louisville, NC State, and Virginia Tech, as well as the loss to Pitt. On the other side, they also have four wins over S&P+ top-25 opponents and four wins by more than 40 points.

But not every one of Clemson’s close games was the result of a poor performance. Sometimes, like in the Louisville game, for instance, Clemson performed well but just played a difficult opponent who also performed well. Other times the score may not be close, but it’s easy to tell watching the game that the team underperformed. You could argue Clemson vs. Wake Forest is an example of that. The adjusted scoring margin and S&P+ percentile performance help to quantify instances where the final score doesn’t necessarily match the two teams’ performances.

Clemson has had 3 games with an S&P+ performance under 50% — against Pitt, Wake Forest, and Virginia Tech — and another — against Florida State — with a negative adjusted scoring margin. So what did Clemson’s opponents do in those three games to make Clemson look bad, and what lessons can Ohio State take away?

Clemson’s worst games of 2016

Opponent Score Margin Adj Scoring Margin % Performance % Off Performance % Def Peformance Opp. Off. S&P+ Opp. Off. Rushing S&P+ Opp. Off. Passing S&P+ Opp. Def. S&P+ Opp. Def. Rushing S&P+ Opp. Def. Passing S&P+
Opponent Score Margin Adj Scoring Margin % Performance % Off Performance % Def Peformance Opp. Off. S&P+ Opp. Off. Rushing S&P+ Opp. Off. Passing S&P+ Opp. Def. S&P+ Opp. Def. Rushing S&P+ Opp. Def. Passing S&P+
FSU 3 -0.7 79% 0.77 0.48 6th 6th 21st 18th 31st 25th
Pitt -1 6 18% 0.82 0.45 4th 38th 19th 66th 39th 50th
Wake Forest 22 24.8 37% 0.91 0.71 112th 94th 124th 28th 70th 79th
Virginia Tech 7 12.2 43% 0.89 0.61 50th 93rd 45th 20th 45th 11th

A couple of general notes about Clemson’s four worst performances:

  • The S&P+ percentile performances don’t list these among Clemson’s worst, but I think many would put the games against Troy and NC State in there as well.
  • In all four games the main problem was the Tigers’ defense. Overall, the Tigers are 6th in defensive S&P+, so they’re clearly an elite unit, but Clemson’s worst S&P+ games were all primarily due to defensive breakdowns. In three of the four poor games the Tigers allowed 34 or more points, averaging 37.3 points to Pitt, Florida State, and Virginia Tech — in their ten other games the Tigers allowed an average of just 12.7 points.
  • The 71% defensive performance against Wake Forest doesn’t look too bad relative to the other teams on this list, but the Deacons were astoundingly poor on offense, ranking 112th in S&P+, with the 124th ranked passing S&P+ offense. But Wake Forest still managed 13 points and 4.3 points per scoring opportunity against Clemson.
  • Two opposing teams had top-25 passing S&P+ offenses — Pitt and Florida State. Only FSU had a top-25 rushing S&P+ offense. Wake’s offense is poor across the board, and Virginia Tech’s offense was much more effective through the air than on the ground. Ohio State’s offense is essentially FSU’s rushing attack, but a little more efficient and less explosive, along with Virginia Tech’s passing attack, but less efficient.
  • Clemson’s offense has had a few slow games, scoring just 19 against Auburn, 26 on Georgia Tech, and 24 on NC State. But Deshaun Watson and the offense have been rolling ever since that narrow win over NC State. That’s important — Clemson’s worst statistical performances have come despite good games from the offense.
  • Finally, Clemson has faced five top-30 S&P+ opponents (Ohio State has faced four, though all were top-16). Three are on this list of worst games (FSU, Pitt, and Virginia Tech), while the other two (Auburn and NC State) Clemson won by one score in each. That’s not too surprising — of course the Tigers’ toughest games would be against their best opponents — but it’s also telling that Clemson doesn’t have a blowout win over a top opponent, either.

Advanced box scores for Clemson’s worst performances

Game Team Yards/Play Drives Scorings Opps Pts/Opp Avg FP Success rate Turnover margin
Game Team Yards/Play Drives Scorings Opps Pts/Opp Avg FP Success rate Turnover margin
vs. FSU FSU 6.25 14 6 5.83 25.3 0.42 1
Clemson 5.98 15 8 4.62 33 0.42 -1
vs. Pitt Pitt 6.75 14 7 6.43 26.3 0.4 2
Clemson 6.51 13 8 5.25 31.9 0.53 -2
vs. Wake Forest Wake Forest 3.35 13 3 4.33 31.2 0.21 1
Clemson 5.93 13 6 5.83 30.6 0.54 -1
vs. Virginia Tech Viriginia Tech 5.49 13 7 5 30.4 0.4 -1
Clemson 6.36 14 6 7 25.2 0.5 1

Touchdowns, not field goals

On the season Clemson allows just 3.81 points per scoring opportunity, which ranks 20th in the country. That’s solid — far more often than not, the 6th-ranked overall S&P+ defense keeps opposing offenses’ promising drives from reaching the end zone. But against these four teams, Clemson allowed an average of 5.4 points per scoring opportunity, despite allowing just a 36% offensive success rate overall.

The numbers were mixed in terms of how the opposing offenses found their success. In general, the Clemson defense has been incredible at generating havoc, early in games, against the pass, and on third downs. Nathan Peterman lit up the Clemson secondary with 8.3 yards per attempt and FSU’s Deondre Francois averaged 8.2, but Dalvin Cook ran for 169 and 8.9 yards per carry with a 70-yard run, and James Connor added 132 yards on 20 carries.

This is more or less what you’d expect — Wake couldn’t manage much besides capitalizing on a few scoring opportunities, and Virginia Tech has absolutely no ground game, but running backs from the two top-40 rushing S&P+ offenses both over 100 yards and 6.6 yards per carry.

Turnovers

As we noted above, Clemson’s worst games happened when the defense faltered. But there’s more to the story, as the four games have two other shared factors: offensive turnovers and limited rushing production.

If there’s one knock on Deshaun Watson this season, it’s that he’s struggled with interceptions. The Tigers have the 19th-most interceptions this season with 15. And turnovers play a big role in Clemson’s close games this season. In three of the four games Clemson lost the turnover battle, and they’re 67th in turnover margin (at a net zero on the year) despite ranking 20th in total takeaways and 7th in total interceptions.

For reference, Ohio State is tied for fourth in the country with 19 interceptions and is 3rd in turnover margin this season at +16.

Limit Wayne Gallman

Deshaun Watson had multiple interception games against both Pitt and FSU, throwing five total against the Seminoles and Panthers, and a total of 6 across these four games. Multiple interception games are correlated with two other factors: an incredibly prolific passing game from Watson, and more importantly, almost no production from the Tigers’ ground game.

Against Florida State, Gallman was held to 4.1 yards per carry on 20 carries, with a long run of just 12 yards. Pitt completely made Gallman a non-factor, holding him to 18 carries for 36 yards and a long run of 8 yards. Against Virginia Tech a few weeks ago, Gallman was held to 3.5 per rush, recording fewer yards than Watson on the ground. It wasn’t for lack of trying either, as the Tigers offense gave him 17+ carries in each of the four games. His only productive game of the four was against Wake Forest, where he had 22 for 161 yards following a 42-yard run.

The lesson for the Ohio State defense is clear: stop Gallman, which forces Watson to pass, and then create turnovers.

In the shootout with Pitt, Watson set a career high with 580 passing yards, but he also had an astounding 70 passing attempts because the ground game was held to just two yards per carry. Similarly, against Florida State, Watson had 378 passing yards on 43 attempts while the run game averaged just 3.5 per attempt.

All in all

This post intentionally singled out Clemson’s worst performances to find any common ways that opponents were able to limit the country’s 4th-ranked S&P+ team.

All in all, the Tigers’ worst S&P+ performances were because of defensive breakdowns, particularly against Pitt, FSU, and Virginia Tech. Both the Panthers and Seminoles had strong rushing attacks, and all three were able to maximize their scoring opportunities and completely shut down Wayne Gallman. Shutting down Gallman seemed to force Watson to bear too much of the burden, because while he was prolific in terms of passing yards, he also managed six interceptions across those three games. The blueprint for Ohio State’s overall gameplan is there: trust the run game on offense, shut down Gallman, and force interceptions out of Watson.

Looking just at Clemson’s struggles gives the impression that this will be a cakewalk for the Buckeyes. As we looked at earlier, I don’t think that’s the case at all. So next we’ll take a look at Clemson’s strongest attributes.