Key Plays: Clemson v. Florida State

On Saturday night Clemson beat Florida State 23-13 to win the ACC Atlantic Division and remain number one in the Playoff rankings.  Here is how the Tigers did it on some key plays.

Capitalizing on Momentum

Toward the end of the first quarter, Clemson threw incomplete on 3rd and 11.  Florida State was (correctly) called for pass interference, giving the Tigers a first down in Seminole territory.  Clemson took advantage of the opportunity and exploited the middle of the FSU defense for a big gain.  Here’s that play.

Clemson lined up in shotgun with five wide receivers, three to the short side and two to the wide side.  Florida State had nickel personnel on the field and was running Cover 2 with a 5 man zone underneath.

Sheet 1-1

The Tigers were going to try to capitalize on their momentum by sending two receivers at the safety to the short side of the field.

Sheet 1-2

Since Florida State was in Cover 2, the safety to the short side of the field (left on the diagram) is responsible for the deep half of the field on his side.  Clemson sent two receivers into his zone and forced him to choose which one to cover.  He moved to cover the receiver to the outside leaving the middle of the field open.  Quarterback Deshaun Watson threw the ball as soon as the receiver cleared the linebackers’ zones for a big play.

The play was well conceived and designed to beat this coverage.  The Seminoles brought four rushers, but the pocket was clean, giving the play time to develop.  The throw looked easy, but it is difficult to get that ball over the linebackers without over throwing the receiver.

There really wasn’t a lot that Florida State could have done in the coverage they were in.  The most dangerous receiver on the short side of the field was the one running deep along the sideline.  The safety was on his way to cover him when the ball was thrown.  After the throw, the safeties did a good job getting back to hold the play for only a big gain and not a touchdown.  Had Clemson continued to run this play, Florida State could have adjusted their coverage to have the middle linebacker drop deeper to take away the middle of the field.  That coverage would be very similar to the Tampa Two.

Taking the Lead

Early in the third quarter Clemson was just across midfield facing third down.  Had they not converted they would have faced a long field goal attempt or risk going for it on fourth down.  They called a screen and scored a touchdown to take the lead.

Clemson had stacked receivers to both sides of the formation and a running back in the backfield.  Florida State moved its cornerbacks up to the line directly across from the stacks to prevent free releases by the receivers on the line.

Clemson ran a fake screen to the right of the formation, the wide side of the field.  It’s possible that the fake was part of a packaged play, but it’s more likely just a fake.  Since the running back ran to the fake side as a possible receiver and one of the receivers acted like he might catch the pass too, it doesn’t look like a packaged play.  Maybe one of those players was doing the wrong thing, and that is why there are two receivers in the area, or it was a fake.

Nonetheless, the fake to the wide side pulled the middle linebacker over to that side, effectively taking him out of the play.  On the play side (left on the diagram), FSU blitzed two linebackers leaving only a safety and a corner to make the tackle.

Sheet 2

The blitz was well designed and would have overloaded the left side of the Clemson line, but that’s what screens are made for.  Like the first play diagrammed above, Clemson had the right call against the right defense.

Wide Receiver Deon Cain, who caught the touchdown, did two little things well that changed the play from a good gain to a touchdown.  First, he moved forward at the snap to simulate a downfield pass pattern.  Many receivers, especially young receivers, don’t take more than a jab step on hitches or screens, and it gives the play away early.

The second thing Cain does is move inside once he catches the ball.  This set up his blockers and allowed him to sprint to the end zone.  If Cain doesn’t come inside, the safety would have a chance to make a play on him.  Cain would probably have gotten around him, but he would have had to change direction and take time which may have allowed backside pursuit to catch him.

Putting the Game Away

The two plays above were examples of Clemson calling the right plays against the right defenses.  On the last touchdown Clemson didn’t win so much with scheme as they made Florida State miss tackles and get out of position.  Here’s that play:

Before the snap, Florida State’s defense shifted.  During the broadcast Kirk Herbstreit questioned why the linebacker was leaving the middle of the field.  The reason was that FSU was bringing a blitz from that side of the field, and he was moving to cover the area left by the blitzing defender.  This was unlucky for the Seminoles.

Sheet 3

Clemson was running the zone read.  The offensive line zone blocked to the left, and Clemson optioned the outside linebacker.  When the linebacker came up the field, Watson gave the ball to running back Wayne Gallman.  Gallman ran by the optioned defender and the blitzing defensive back, whose blitz took him out of the play.  Gallman then broke the tackle of the backside linebacker and made a move on the safety.  Touchdown, ballgame.

Sheet 3-1

The offensive line completely sealed the backside of the play making most of the FSU defense irrelevant to the play.  There were two FSU defenders who had chances to make the tackle and didn’t.  It also looks like the outside linebacker took himself out of the play.  If he doesn’t go outside to stop Watson, this play may have been stopped.  Since there was a blitz coming from the corner, the outside linebacker probably should have squeezed down to take away the hand off to Gallman.  Watson would have kept the ball and been one on one with the blitzing corner.  Would he have made a move? been tackled?  Tough to say, but it probably wouldn’t have been a touchdown.

The play that put the game away should be credited to Wayne Gallman.  He makes a successful play that gained some yards and ate some clock into a game winner.


Highlight credit: ESPN and ACC Digital Network

Here are some older Key Plays from earlier in the season.

Key Plays: Georgia Tech v. Florida State

Key Plays: LSU Fake Field Goal

Key Plays: The Texas Power

Key Plays: Texas Tech v. TCU

Key Plays: Florida v. Tennessee

About Billy Koehler

Billy Koehler is the founder of and a contributing writer at He has been covering college football since 2006. You can follow him on twitter @billykoehler.
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