Kneauxing the Enemy
Record: 14-0 overall, 7-0 in Atlantic Coast Conference
This year, Clemson returned four of five starters on the offensive line from the 2018 national championship team. Three are seniors and the other a graduate senior. The three seniors are left guard John Simpson, senior center Sean Pollard, and right tackle Tremayne Anchrum. The graduate is right guard Gage Cervenka. This is worth mentioning because it is the same offensive line which kept the Alabama defensive front seven off of then freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, in last year's championship game. It opened the door for the Clemson offense to shred the Tide defense for four quarters. It is the same offensive line which withstood four quarters of a battering pass rush by Ohio State in this year's College Football Playoff semifinal game. It is arguably the strong point of the Clemson football team. It allows time.
It protects Lawrence to throw the ball to three dangerous receivers.
Sophomore wide receiver Justyn Ross had 789 yards in receiving this season for Clemson, averaging 12.9 yards per catch. Last year, in the championship game against Alabama he had six receptions for 153 yards, averaging 25 yards per grab. Junior receiver Tee Higgins had 1,115 yards receiving for Clemson this year, averaging 19.9 yards per reception. Last year, against Alabama, Higgins had three receptions for 81 yards, averaging 27 yards per catch. Higgins and Ross had one touchdown each last year in the championship game.
The runningback for Clemson is junior Travis Etienne. The Louisiana native had over 2000 yards in total offense this season. Etienne had 1,536 yards rushing, good for seventh in the nation. He also had 396 yards in pass receptions. He ran for 18 touchdowns and caught four touchdown passes. Etienne had 2,030 all-purpose yards for the Tigers this season. His game is very similar to Clyde Edwards-Helaire for the Purple and Gold.
Lawrence was anointed by college pundits as a front runner for the 2019 Heisman Trophy after his performance against Alabama last season. It did not happen. Lawrence threw for 36 touchdowns this season, fifth in the nation. He threw for 3,431 yards with a 67.6 completion percentage during the 2019 campaign. He passed for 347 yards and three touchdowns in the championship game last season. In this year's semi-final playoff game the sophomore led a come from behind, game winning four-play, 94-yard drive late in the fourth quarter, to beat Ohio State. He also had a 67-yard rushing touchdown in the Ohio State contest.
Last year in the championship contest, Lawrence was not sacked. He was sacked three times against Ohio State in this year's semi-final. The Clemson offensive line allowed only 16 sacks during the season, eighth fewest in the nation.
Defensively, in 2019, Clemson had 41 sacks as a team. They had three sacks against Ohio State. Freshman Tyler Davis led Clemson with 4.5 sacks for the season. Clemson lost its entire defensive line from the 2018 team. Clemson, however, played a lot of defensive lineman, so their players have experience. Actually, they play a lot of players at a lot of positions.
They also lost linebackers, but they returned a lot of linebackers as well, the most notable being junior Isaiah Simmons, a converted safety. Simmons is extremely agile, and can play all over the field, which makes him effective defending passes as well as defending the run. Simmons was the second leading tackler on the team with 97 stops, 76 unassisted. He also had three interceptions. Fellow junior linebacker James Skalski was the leading tackler on the squad with 99, 69 unassisted. He had 3.5 sacks during the season. Chad Smith, a graduate senior, had 80 tackles, 44 solos, with 3.5 sacks during the regular season
Clemson can play with three down lineman with a standing rusher. They can play a three-two with six defensive backs, or a four-two with five defensive backs. They play almost anything on defense. The Tigers recovered 11 fumbles and had 19 interceptions on the season. Clemson was second in the nation in turnovers gained.
Ohio State had success on the Clemson defense in the first half when its offense played at a fast tempo, not allowing the Tigers to set their defense.
Clemson is unusually deep in the secondary. They play two seniors at the safety positions. They are Tanner Muse and K'von Wallace who had 45 combined starts going into the 2019 season. Muse had 69 tackles, 47 unassisted, and four interceptions. Wallace added 69 tackles, 53 unassisted. Junior A.J. Terrell returned as a cornerback. This secondary group included four other defensive backs with extensive playing experience.
Since 2015, Clemson is 9-0 against the SEC in regular season play. In this span, they have beaten Texas A&M twice, Auburn twice, and South Carolina five times. They are 2-2 against Alabama in championship playoff appearances. Overall, since 2015, they are 11-2 against the SEC.
In the Ohio State game Clemson got the benefit of some borderline calls. However, they held the Buckeyes to three field goals in the first half of the game, when one touchdown in those drives would have cost them the contest.
The Tigers drove 94 yards in four plays late in the game for a contest leading touchdown, which was the difference in battle. Clemson lost the game in almost every statistical category, except on the scoreboard. They were kicked around and beaten up by a physical Ohio State team, a team which for most of the game was better, except at the end. They are a worthy opponent and will not go easily into the night. Clemson has played on the big stage before.
But that is the way it should be. It should come down to the two best. If the Tigers, the ones wearing the Purple and Gold, play the best, they will be the best when the play clock hits zero on Monday night.