Clemson plays Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, part of the college football playoff. The Sooners are currently 3.5 point favorites to win the game.
Teams don’t always play the same in bowl games as they played at the end of the season. It is the only time in the season where there is a long layoff between games. Some teams use that time to fine tune their attack and fix issues they are having. Other teams get rusty and have trouble getting started in the bowl game. In this game the break might be an advantage for Clemson.
At the end of the season the Sooners were playing their best football, and Clemson was surviving. The Tigers continued to win, but they weren’t playing as well as they had earlier in the schedule. They didn’t cover the spread in their last four regular season games and were -5 in turnover margin during their last four games overall. They played much better earlier in the season.
Oklahoma, on the other hand, was playing its best football at the end of the year. In consecutive weeks they beat Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State, two of those games on the road. The offense was clicking on all cylinders. They may be able to play just as well, but it would a mistake to assume they will.
Oklahoma has been beaten once this season in the Red River Rivalry against Texas. After that game, I explained how Texas used the quarterback power repeatedly to beat the Sooners. Here’s that article to refresh your memory.
Clemson runs the quarterback power with Deshaun Watson, himself a very capable runner. They also like to use similar principles to get Watson to the edge on quarterback sweeps. Here is Watson’s first touchdown against South Carolina with the quarterback power.
Clemson will definitely run this play, and they will utilize several formations to give different looks. The more early success they have with this the better their offense will be. If Oklahoma has to commit extra defenders to the box to stop the run, passing lanes will open down field. Clemson’s scheme works well to pass off this play since Watson can just roll the pocket and find a receiver coming across the field.
If, on the other hand, Oklahoma can take away this play without brining safeties down to help, that will slow down Clemson’s offense considerably.
The key to stopping Clemson’s offense is no secret: you have to stop Deshaun Watson. Watson throws the ball well and runs well, too. Lots of quarterbacks can do that. What makes Watson such a problem for the Sooners and what makes the Tiger offense so effective is Watson’s tendency to pull the ball down and run on pass plays.
Many times this season Clemson has been facing a key down and called a pass play. The defense has been ready, has the receivers covered and is close to putting pressure on Watson. Then he pulls the ball down, escapes the pocket and picks up whatever yards the Tigers need. He’s done this repeatedly, and it’s an important aspect of their offense. Can Oklahoma stop it?
Well, how do you stop this? Generally there are three ways. The Sooners will have to use some of all three. First, they can get to Watson before he has a chance to run. To do this they will probably have to bring a blitz, which they can’t rely on the whole game. Second, their defensive line has to rush with discipline. They can’t get too far upfield or get trapped inside. They have to keep Watson in the pocket. Third, and least desirable, Oklahoma can put a spy on Watson.
A spy is a defender, usually a linebacker, whose job is to wait for the quarterback to run and then keep him from doing so. It can be effective if the defender is an excellent athlete and open field tackler. it’s not very desirable because they spy is neither rushing the passer nor being effective in pass coverage, but if the alternative is the quarterback scrambling for first downs, there may not be a choice.
Clemson and Oklahoma haven’t played any common opponents, so if you want to look at schedules and make wildly insignificant inferences, you can. Three such inferences jump to mind.
The Baylor-North Carolina data. Oklahoma beat Baylor by 10 who beat North Carolina by 11. Clemson just beat North Carolina by 8. 10+11-8. Oklahoma will win by 13.
The Tennessee-South Carolina data. Oklahoma beat Tennessee by 7. Tennessee beat South Carolina by 3. Clemson beat South Carolina by 5. 7+3-5. Oklahoma will win by 5.
The Notre Dame-Texas data. Clemson beat Notre Dame by 2. Notre Dame beat Texas by 35. Texas beat Oklahoma by 7. 2+35+7+44. Clemson will clearly win by 44.
Every offense plays better when it can be balanced. Both of these offenses are explosive and have a habit of building big leads early. When they do that the game can look like an avalanche. The opposing team becomes one dimensional trying to throw to get back in the game and becomes less effective. The Tigers or Sooners are then able to get quick stops and score some more. The results are games that are over before half time. That probably won’t happen here, but with these offenses, it could.