We're almost to game day as Oklahoma's chase for #8 faces it's next hurdle with the Clemson Tigers, in Miami. Last week we turned Ryan Kantor from SB Nation's outstanding Clemson site, Shakin The Southland to tell us about the Tigers' offense. Today he's back to answer questions about the nation's 18th ranked scoring defense.
CCM: Much like Clemson's offense, Oklahoma starts with the quarterback position. What is the Tigers' experience with mobile quarterbacks, who are able to extend plays, this season? How do you see them game planning to stop Baker Mayfield?
STS: A few years ago, under our past defensive coordinator, this question would have been much easier to answer. Tiger fans likely remember Kevin Steele's defenses getting gashed by speedy Georgia Tech option quarterbacks, and maybe most infamously, South Carolina QB Connor Shaw (107 rushing yards in 2011).
After 2011, Brent Venables became the Clemson DC and his defenses have fared much better against mobile quarterbacks. That doesn't mean Mayfield's ability to extend plays doesn't pose a challenge. Looking at three games away from home against quality runners shows inconsistent results for the Tigers.
In 12 regular season games, Jacoby Brissett accumulated 303 rushing yards, but had -2 against Clemson and was sacked five times. Clemson's defensive line was in the backfield all day against the Wolfpack, but because Brissett is both big and fleet of foot, they often had trouble converting blitzes into sacks. Brissett finished with 254 passing yards, 3 passing touchdowns, and one rushing touchdown. While -2 rushing yards and five sacks sounds ugly, Brissett's knack for keeping plays alive and avoiding even more sacks kept NC State around late into the game. I think Mayfield could present a similar issue, although he's not nearly as big in stature.
Marquise Williams is the best rushing QB Clemson faced this season (786 regular season rushing yards) and he finished with 81 yards on the ground in the ACC Championship game against the Tigers. While that number is much higher than Brissett's -2, he had 17 carries (compared to Brissett's 8) and seemed rattled by pressure throughout the game. While he avoided sacks, he missed short screen passes and finished just 11/33. This is what we hope to do to Baker Mayfield.
Finally, Zack Mahoney of Syracuse is the most negative example for the Tigers. He only ran for 151 yards on the season, but 76 came against Clemson. Syracuse used a lot of motion and hit Clemson with a handful of designed run plays. It was about the only thing that worked. Mahoney was held to just 80 yards passing, but the Syracuse offense was successful in pulling the Clemson linebackers out of position and scoring 27 points on 242 rushing yards.
OU will surely be looking at that film to see what they can duplicate, however it is our hope that the game in the Carrier Dome was more of an aberration resulting from fatigued defensive players, quirky motion calls, and a lack of focus than anything more structural.
Overall, I think Mayfield's speed will be critical in neutralizing Clemson's advantage on the lines (Clemson D-line vs. OU O-line), and makes the Sooners a much tougher out, though I don't think the Tigers have a particularly big weakness in this area.
CCM: The Tigers are only giving up an average of 128.8 yards per game on the ground and Oklahoma is averaging more than a hundred yards over that mark. Who are the names we need to know about when it comes to the Tigers' attempting to put the brakes on Samaje Perine?
STS: Chris Smith has a great article up on our site about LBs B.J. Goodson and Ben Boulware and the work they'll have to do to stop Perine and Mixon. In it, he says:
"Goodson and Boulware have been good, but inconsistent this year. We need them to have their best game of the year. I suspect Perine will go for 150yds, Mixon for another 80, and that they will hit at least one big passing play on a wheel route. The designed runs with Perine and Mixon and Mayfield scrambling will likely be what keeps this game close. I still believe we win the game, but we might lose this battle."
It's my hope that getting Boulware healthy (he played through a shoulder injury late in the season) will be a big boost. Additionally, it seems Goodson and Boulware have taken a lot of snaps and may benefit from the three weeks of rest. We'll need great linebacker discipline to hold an outstanding rushing attack from busting out. As with our aggressive strategy, I expect some great defensive plays to put OU in third and long as well as some foolish mistakes that allow the Sooners to pick-up chunk yardage on the ground. Hopefully the rest and healing will mitigate the latter, but I'm not counting on it.
CCM: You guys have an article on your site about the key match-up between Sterling Shepard and Mackensie Alexander. Between Shepard, Mayfield, and Perine, who takes priority in the Clemson defensive game plan?
Perine. I believe if we can stop the run (I'm not claiming we will), then our defensive line will get too much pressure on Mayfield for OU to win the game solely through the air. Shepard is great, but so is Mackensie Alexander. WRs defended by Mac have only caught 31% of balls targeted to them and QBs have only thrown their way 42 times (courtesy David Hale, ESPN). That's not a knock on Shepard and it's not to say he won't make an impact, but Mac should be able to hold him at least reasonably in check.
CCM: There's been a lot of folks talking about Shaq Lawson, but it doesn't seem like we hear as much about Kevin Dodd (who I believe is equally impressive). Tell us about Clemson's defensive ends and what Oklahoma fans should expect to see from them.
STS: With Vic Beasley off to my (pitiful) hometown Atlanta Falcons, Shaq Lawson got his opportunity to start at WDE. He wasn't a total unknown though. He racked up TFLs as a second-string player a season ago. He's earned first round NFL draft consideration (9.5 sacks), so it's probably fair that he gets so much of the talk, but to your point, Kevin Dodd has been very good as well.
Dodd took a medical redshirt in 2013 and played sparingly in 2012 and 2014. Now in his redshirt junior season, he is one of the better player development stories on the team. Without the benefit of attending practice, we at Shakin the Southland were fearful he would not successfully fill the void left by Corey Crawford and Tavaris Barnes - who were both ahead of him at SDE in 2014. Fortunately, we were dead wrong and the work of DE Coach Marion Hobby continues to pay dividends. Kevin Dodd has 8 sacks and is a big reason the defensive line has maintained a high level of play despite so many departures to the NFL.
CCM: Who are some of the other names on the Clemson defense that we should be aware of.
STS: Cordrea Tankersley is one of the more under-appreciated players on this Clemson defense. Because QBs often avoid attacking Mac Alexander, Tankersley is often picked on. This is his first year starting and doing so alongside a star CB could have made him look very bad. Fortunately for Clemson, he has risen to the challenge and has 5 INTs (to Alexander's 0).
Safety Jayron Kearse will likely play a major role in run support, as he is a bigger safety who you'll oftentimes find creeping up towards the line of scrimmage. Keep an eye on how DC Venables uses Kearse in run support and trusts Alexander and Tankersley at cornerback.
CCM: I believe that whichever team wins this game will also go on to win the national championship. Do you agree?
STS: I like this take, partially because it favors my alma mater, but I also agree with it.
Clemson's trio of wins over top 10 teams (Florida State, Notre Dame, and UNC) is the most impressive in the country.
While I acknowledge that OU's amazing run towards the end of their schedule largely came against banged up competition, it's hard to deny they're the hottest team in the playoff. Wins against TCU, Baylor, and Oklahoma State (the last of which is most impressive) made them the team I wanted to avoid when playoff seeds were announced. Those three wins are more impressive than Bama's victories over LSU, Wisconsin, and Mississippi State, though OU's loss is uglier.
Lastly, the S&P+ puts MSU a notch below the other three teams in the playoff (although I believe they're deserving), so I agree with your assessment.