Second Look: Grading Clemson versus LSU


by - Correspondent -
The national title game should act as a motivating force for Trevor Lawrence after a tough game.
The national title game should act as a motivating force for Trevor Lawrence after a tough game.

Clemson's school-record 29-game winning streak came to a close on Monday in New Orleans against LSU's Tigers.

TigerNet tackles the national title game for the Tigers with the key takeaways and game grades.

What we know about Clemson football (game-week 15)

* For all intents and purposes Brent Venables’ scheme was exactly what the doctor ordered to stop – or at least slow down – LSU’s vaunted offensive attack, but on this night the other team was simply better.

As difficult as it is to see your team lose, sometimes the other team is simply better on that given night and that’s exactly what happened Monday night in the national championship.

Sure, there were missed tackles and the loss of James Skalski at middle linebacker hurt, but without consistent pressure getting to LSU quarterback Joe Burrow, he was putting every throw on the money and making that offense click.

Even with Burrow playing at a superhuman level, Clemson still had its chances to get stops, but LSU extended drives twice when facing third downs of 10 or more yards.

Venables told the media after the game that his defense didn't play with enough precision to get the win.

“They seemed to do that and they did it in a real timely fashion. I thought the last drive right before half was a killer because we could have gotten off the field,” Venables said. “It was 3rd-and-19 and you have to get off the field. We tried to bluff and disguise and we just don't get deep enough and they get behind us and go in and score. And then they get us on another 3rd-and-10 and they get us on that jailbreak screen in the third quarter after we had a couple of good drives back to back.

“And then they get us on the 3rd-and-10 for 53 and they score. Those two touchdowns were, to me, the difference. They have made plays all year. They have made competitive plays tonight and they've made them all year. They are very good. They are very precise and force you to play with the same kind of precision and when you don't they make you pay.” -- Nikki Hood

* LSU won out in a great tactical battle with each side featuring elite playmakers on offense and defense.

It doesn’t quite compute on the surface after giving up 628 yards and 42 points, but ESPN’s Film Room coaches crew of Mike Gundy (Oklahoma State), Derek Mason (Vanderbilt), Jeff Hafley (Ohio State DC for Fiesta Bowl; BC head coach now) and Gary Patterson (TCU) repeatedly praised the “great plan” from Venables against the Bayou Bengals’ high-powered offense.

It featured six DBs - by their place on the roster, Isaiah Simmons in his usual flexible role, Skalski in his typical middle linebacker spot and three down linemen. All of Clemson’s two-deep at safety played substantial snaps with Tanner Muse more around the line of scrimmage and K’Von Wallace often matching up in man coverage with receivers. It worked early especially, with a rare three punts in four possessions to start out for LSU.

But Burrow and his receivers were really, really good. Coverages from Clemson’s previously top-ranked pass defense that worked quite often in other games just didn’t cut it against LSU. Per Pro Football Focus, AJ Terrell hadn’t given up over 60 yards to any receiver over the first 14 games, but No. 8 shows up a bunch in the big plays below:

It was just an array of great throws and receiver play from LSU that had Clemson on its heels much of the game. There was also some miscommunication that could be expected from throwing together a unique personnel grouping over a couple weeks. The ACC Tigers went into the game tied for the national lead in 20-yard or more plays surrendered (2.5 per game) and gave up 11 on Monday night -- seven alone in the passing game.

Third down conversions were a rarity for both teams, but as Venables noted, the tunnel screen in the third quarter of a three-point game was a backbreaker in particular:

Clemson entered LSU’s side of the 50 eight times and scored on four of them, which just wasn’t going to get it done. Trevor Lawrence connected on 10 of his first 15 throws for 138 yards and then had 14 incompletions in his last 22 attempts -- a questionable offensive pass interference call late robbing him of having at least one touchdown pass in every game as a Tiger (excluding the Syracuse game he left in the first half due to injury).

That said, the first-half reverse TD that put LSU behind two possessions for the first time this season sure seemed like it was going to be a turning point -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney very demonstrative in his celebration.

Instead, only one of Clemson’s final eight drives went for more than five plays, with the longest going all of 50 yards for a TD to draw within three. A point of contention out of the matchup, Travis Etienne received at least two carries on all of the Tigers’ scoring drives, but then in just one other the rest of the game, out of 14 total non-kneel downs drives. He had a strong 67 percent success rate on his rush attempts. Add in Higgins, Lawrence and Lyn-J Dixon’s runs and Clemson had a 69 percent success rate on rushes (42 percent the national average per ESPN’s Bill Connelly), while just a 31 percent passing success rate (10 percent below national average). LSU’s secondary should get plenty of credit for that latter number as well.

Clemson co-OC Tony Elliott said postgame that they could have run the ball more but they wanted to be aggressive. With Lawrence’s accuracy off, we’re left wondering what more touches for Etienne in the run game could have done to lengthen some drives and keep Burrow and company off the field.

Looking big-picture, Clemson was a preseason No. 1 largely for the big numbers we expected from the offense to probably carry a defense in transition. Venables had another idea and put together an incredible season, meeting a sour end against one of the better offenses in college football history. Offensively for Clemson, Lawrence, Etienne, Tee Higgins and the rest of the Tigers finished top-5 in scoring and total offense, but it’s hard to shake the feeling there were points left on the table over the season. And some of those points could have been useful on Monday when it was clear some level of shootout was needed for victory. -- Brandon Rink

* Clemson punted five times in the first half, and twice in the first quarter after crossing midfield and driving deep into LSU territory.

I am not knocking the decisions to punt – they were the right calls at the time – but it was the offense that failed to produce in those spots. Against a team like LSU, a team you know is going to score points, you have to score points when you reach plus territory.

LSU won the toss and elected to defer and the Clemson reached the LSU 24-yard line after a three-yard pass to Amari Rodgers. If you reach the LSU 24, you have to score. Instead, Lyn-J Dixon ran for a loss of one yard and Lawrence took a big sack that made it 4th-and-18. Due to the kicking issues, head coach Dabo Swinney elected to punt instead of try the 52-yard field goal (even though Potter would later kick a 22-yard field goal).

A punt pinned LSU deep and the Clemson defense forced a 3-and-out and a short punt by LSU gave Clemson the ball at the LSU 42-yard line. In what would be a recurring theme, Etienne ran for five tough yards and then two incomplete passes killed the drive. Two drives inside the LSU 37 in the first 10 minutes of the game and Clemson came away with zero points.

The offense had chances to put LSU in a deep hole – LSU’s offense hadn’t gotten totally in gear at that point - and Swinney talked about all of the missed opportunities in the game.

The offense wound up with just 108 total yards in the second half, and on a night when the offense needed to pick up the defense it didn’t happen. -- David Hood

Game grades

Offense: C

One third-down conversion in 11 tries sticks out from the box score in a game where Will Spiers punted a season-high nine times. There was little consistency to the passing game, while the running game was only intermittently featured after some success. As LSU put together scoring drive after scoring drive mid-to-late in the game, those issues only worsened for Clemson and that tells the story in this one.

Defense: C

Clemson joined the club of teams that tried-and-failed to contain LSU’s otherworldly attack -- top-15-ranked squads giving up 563 yards and 42 points on average to the Bayou Bengals. LSU punted more than any other game this season (seven times) and the three in the first four drives gave the Clemson offense an opportunity to get some breathing room for Swinney’s team. Ultimately, they gave the ACC’s Tigers a chance.

Special teams: A-

Clemson’s kicking game was largely a bright spot after a BCS/Playoff-record 52-yard field goal from BT Potter, Spiers landed five punts inside the 20 (a couple inside the 10) and had two of 50-plus yards and Potter didn’t allow an LSU kickoff return. Travis Etienne tried to provide a spark late with a 30-yard kickoff return as well.

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