Texas A&M’s game plan Saturday night against Clemson was to make the Tigers beat them through the air. The Aggies stacked the box, almost daring Clemson to take deep shots.
It was a game plan that several teams used last year against the Tigers, including Alabama in its Sugar Bowl win.
Clemson failed to make teams pay for playing one-on-one coverage far too often in 2017, but that hasn’t been a problem thus far in 2018.
The Tigers had four pass plays of at least 40 yards on their way to a 28-26 win in College Station on Saturday. Clemson has six pass plays of at least 40 yards through two games, which is tied for first in the nation.
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“We want to be more of an explosive offense. Get the explosive plays back. And I feel like we did that last week,” Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant said. “It opened up the whole offense. We can make plays down field and soften the coverage up where we can run the ball, just give defenses something they have to look for, not just stacking the box and forcing us to make plays. Now they have to worry about the run and the pass.”
Bryant had three of the long pass plays Saturday night against the Aggies, while freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence also had one. Bryant showed improvement in an area where he struggled last year as he tossed some pretty long balls.
Co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott added that if Bryant can continue to make teams honest with his deep passing ability it should open up lanes for running backs Travis Etienne, Adam Choice, Tavien Feaster and Lyn-J Dixon.
Clemson had only 11 pass plays of at least 40 yards in 14 games in 2017. The Tigers already have more than half of that in two games this year.
“When you’re explosive down the field now they’re going to have to respect Tee Higgins. I think there was some unknown last year, and obviously we took some shots down the field and we didn’t connect at as high of a rate last year,” Elliott said. “But now you see we’re connecting. The quarterbacks going to put the ball where it needs to be.”
While Clemson’s passing game was solid against the Aggies there is still plenty of room for improvement.
The Tigers had four drives end with touchdowns but also had five three-and-outs.
Elliott said the problem on several of the drives that ended in punts was that the Tigers didn’t do enough on first and second down and were facing third-and-long.
If Clemson can keep having success deep it will force teams to not be able to stack the box, which should help the run game and allow the Tigers to get in more third-and-short situations.
“You’ve got to take advantage,” Elliott said. “If they’re going to bring pressure that means they’ve got more guys close to the line of scrimmage so they’re going to be a little bit softer in coverage. So you’ve just got to throw and catch and keep the quarterback upright by protecting him.”