As South Carolina’s football season wound down, each week we were told the whole playbook was about to be opened up.
A close video breakdown shows they just about did that in the first half against Clemson. The South Carolina staff debuted new plays, wonky looks and rolled out two extra players at quarterback. The results were underwhelming.
Only seven of South Carolina’s 36 plays before halftime traveled more than four yards, but all of those went for more than 10. The main feature was a rotation of quarterbacks with freshman Lorenzo Nunez getting seven snaps behind center and wide receiver Pharoh Cooper getting three more.
Cooper got the rare occasion to throw a pass out of the team’s diamond set and also got sacked on an ill-fated double-pass. Four times Nunez got to run a play called an inverted veer, an option variant Auburn’s Cam Newton used to great effect and something the team had not used previously.
At times, the fact that these were not heavily rehearsed showed through. Reads were not as clean and blocking seemed less decisive, less practiced. In some ways it served as a reminder the best teams know what they do and have their base stuff down completely (USC did not do that this season).
It showed a moment after Cooper was sacked on the double pass. The next play he ran a short route dragging horizontally across the field. But when quarterback Perry Orth escaped the pocket, Cooper moved with him and floated deeper, snagging a 24-yard catch-and-run to pull his team out of a hole. It’s that sort of play-making talent the Gamecocks have needed more of all season.
Some of the best work in the second half, when the offense found life, came on staple option plays and quick passes. One exception was a nifty design the team broke out early in the third quarter.
The play looked like a relatively common combination of a zone read run inside and a screen to the outside (with a running back swinging out). But instead of blocking, Cooper ran a slant. Clemson’s top corner left him. One safety went at the screen, the other at the run fake, and Cooper sauntered 48 yards for the final college touchdown of his illustrious career (it should be noted South Carolina was burned by similar concepts more than a few times this year).
Another bright spot for the Gamecocks was wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who registered 104 yards as a nice end to an injury plagued season. He did much of his damage on slants, registering three catches of 10-plus yards and a drop where he got wide open. He also pulled in a touchdown with a one-handed grab after Orth threw into tight coverage on a goal-line fade.
Orth played his own role in the offensive issues, struggling so badly early he lost snaps and the coaching staff threatened to bench him.
In that half he threw four uncatchable balls on 13 attempts, several at very open receivers. He also threw an interception into heavy coverage, tossed a couple more risky passes and got himself sacked on a designed play to move the pocket (he stopped running and was suddenly on the wrong side of a Jerell Adams block).
He improved in the second half and also started taking more chances. Clemson’s cornerbacks were aggressive and good enough to play tight, and he challenged them on occasion. He also set up a touchdown to cut the deficit to three with the latest option pitch you’ll see, a potential fumble that produced a 21-yard Shon Carson run.
Elementary dear Watson
No one has exactly figured out the secret to controlling Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. He runs their offense well, and it’s a scheme built to make decisions clear cut. He’ll have short stretches of inaccuracy, but then follow up with something truly special.
Perhaps the way to stop him involves plenty of athleticism in the front seven. South Carolina hasn’t shown that, and while it did an OK job preventing Watson from producing massive plays, the Gamecocks couldn’t bottle him up either.
He only had four runs longer than five yards, but always seemed to get enough to convert a third down or set up a manageable one (the Clemson staff dialed up an array of power runs, zone read and let him read and take off on pass plays when he saw too few bodies in the box).
As a passer, he was smart enough to find the holes in the Cover-2, both a window on the sideline between safety and cornerback and seams in the intermediate zones. But he could also show off a rare skillset with a 55-yard touchdown pass that was a perfectly-placed rainbow to a well-covered receiver.
After the game Clemson coach Dabo Swinney remarked USC has conservative gameplan, only changing it to roll safeties to different spots or send zone blitzes (South Carolina sent an extra rusher one third of the time). One play showcased the Gamecocks rigidity as a third down call featured three players dropping into intermediate zones (as part of a common tactic of showing pressure and backing off) on the offense’ left where there was only one pass-catcher. The Tigers flooded the right side of the field and hit a slant pass to convert a third down.
Middle linebacker T.J. Holloman got the worst of the Watson experience. He took bad angles on at least five plays, jumped into the wrong gap on a big run and looped wide on a blitz, only to see Watson just right at the lane he vacated.
▪ One wrinkle that did work out was an unusual punt formation that put almost no blockers on the line in front of the punter and instead featured a cluster to the right of the formation. It was enough to unnerve Clemson into a timeout and eventually into not putting a returner back at all.
▪ Both teams’ top playmaking linebackers — South Carolina’s Skai Moore and Clemson’s B.J. Goodson — made a habit of chasing down edge runs with decisive cuts across the formation. Goodson seemed to have a better day as Moore had a few issues in coverage, not picking up receivers going through his zone.
▪ Where many teams prefer not to move a top corner inside to lock down Cooper, the Tigers had no problem with it. Mackensie Alexander, a likely All-American, shadowed Cooper on at least a third of South Carolina’s snaps.