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Notre Dame Football

Film Don't Lie | Where to Attack Clemson's Defense

December 13, 2018

1st in S&P+.

1st in yards per play (4.08).

1st in rushing S&P+.

6th in passing S&P+.

4th in Havoc Rate.

1st in “Oh crap, I don’t want to have to go up against this D-line”.

Based on all of these stats, stating it will be a challenge to go up against this Clemson defense is beyond an understatement. It’s not just the toughest defense Notre Dame will have faced this season, it’s the toughest, period.

No one has been better on defense than Clemson. They’ve shut down almost everyone they’ve gone up against in 2018.

(Did you say “almost everyone”?)

Yep, I put almost in there for a reason. In the second game and the second to last game of 2018 for the Tigers, the defense wasn’t as mighty as they were in every other game.

They gave up 430 yards passing against Texas A&M (10.8 yards per attempt) in week two of this year. That’s the most yards a Brent Venables defense has given up since they played eventual national champion Florida State in 2013. Quarterback Kellen Mond threw three touchdowns and zero interceptions.

That was in September, though. Those games tend to happen more often early in the season. Over the next nine Clemson locked down the passing game of everyone they played. They gave up only two touchdowns during that span.

Then South Carolina happened.

Clemson went up against their rival and showed weakness on defense like they hadn’t since playing A&M. Jake Bentley threw for 510 yards (10.2 YPA) and five touchdowns. The Gamecocks put up the most points against Clemson all year and would have had a chance at the upset if they were better in the red zone. No team had thrown for that many yards ever against a Venables defense while at Clemson.

A&M finished 25th in passing S&P+ and South Carolina finished 18th. That’s good, but that’s not exactly Oklahoma (2nd), Alabama (1st), or Ohio State (5th). A&M and South Carolina don’t have Kyler Murray, Tua Tagovailoa, or Dwayne Haskins chucking the ball for them either.

Notre Dame finished 21st in passing S&P+. That includes the four starts with Brandon Wimbush where the Irish passed for 170, 135, and 130 yards in three of those games. Ian Book has averaged 306.9 yards per game in his eight starts. They would be a top-15 passing offense in S&P+ based on only the Book starts.

Simply from what Notre Dame has done and how Clemson did against two those passing attacks, there should be reason for optimism that the Irish can do similar things in this matchup. When looking at the film of those two games and others, I saw even more reasons to be optimistic about the Irish creating big plays in the passing game.

It starts with their safeties.

Make Muse Turn and Run

K’von Wallace and Tanner Muse are both significant parts of Clemson’s top-ranked run defense. Wallace is 210 pounds and can really lay the wood on the perimeter (more on Wallace later). Muse is a monster at 6’1” 230. He looks like a linebacker and hits like one too.

He plays a similar game to Drue Tranquill’s back when Tranquill was still playing safety for the Irish. But like Tranquill, Muse is better suited to play linebacker. He is a box safety that is perfect for Clemson’s system in a lot of ways, but at times they will ask him to do things that he isn’t athletically suited for.

He’s playing the deep half here and he has no shot at this slot running a vertical route. We don’t see him get shaken because of the camera angle, but this should have been an easy touchdown. The slot is wide open.


Here Muse is the safety on the bottom of the screen and his recognition is way too late as the quarterback for South Carolina is rolling to his left. He’s also not natural transitioning out of his back pedal.

This ball is thrown super late and behind the receiver and Muse still doesn’t get there to make the play. He takes a bad angle too. This ended up as a 67 yard touchdown to a tight end.


Venables will play cover zero as well and put Muse in situations where he is one on one with a slot receiver. When Notre Dame sees that, they need to have an air horn to check into something to attack him. That’s just not a favorable matchup for a guy like him.

Around 50% of the time Venables like to drop a safety down to play the run. Muse can often be that guy and he does that part of the job really well. He’s not nearly the same player in coverage, though. Notre Dame needs to take advantage of that like A&M and South Carolina did.

Wallace is Also a Target

Sometimes you can get away with having a safety with a skill set like Muse if the other guy is someone who can erase the mistakes of others in coverage.

Wallace is not that player. At least not from what I have seen from him.

There are times when he’ll drift in zone or bite hard on play-action. His eyes are transfixed in the backfield here as he lets his man run right by him. The hustle to get back and prevent a touchdown is great, but if he ran with the receiver at the start he wouldn’t have had to do that.


Wallace has also been burned in man coverage. He was eventually pulled for getting beat in man twice for big plays against South Carolina. They did a great job of scheming up a play to get Wallace matched up with stud receiver Deebo Samuel in man on this play. Wallace goes with the motion and Samuel beats him on the post for a 75 yard touchdown.


Muse is the single high safety and you can tell he looks lost in this situation too.

This made me think of Notre Dame getting Michael Young against a safety against Northwestern. We know how that turned out and Notre Dame is going to have to attack the middle of the field just like this against The Tigers.


Linebacker Vs a Slot

Venables places a lot of trust in linebacker Isaiah Simmons. A former safety, he plays their version of a Rover.

He’s good at it too, but he’s also 230 pounds. He’s a freaky athlete for his siz, but is not the kind of 230 pound athlete that can run with a slot receiver in man coverage. (So he’s not Jaylon Smith)

He was beat in the red zone on a corner route against South Carolina for what would have been at touchdown, but the receiver stumbled out of his break. Here he is beat on another corner route by Pitt’s slot receiver, but the quarterback over throws him.


What Clemson does here is something I expect them to do against Notre Dame a fair amount. They’ll show press on the boundary and dare the Irish to throw the fade to Miles Boykin. Muse is the safety to that side, though, and he’s immediately running over the top to help defend that play. Wallace is dropping down right at the snap and that leaves Simmons one on one.

If that happens and Book recognizes it, this has to be a touchdown.

This is from the A&M game and Clemson is in cover two with a rare two high safety look for them. Simmons is supposed to run with anything deep middle here, but the tight end runs right by him.


Simmons is a heck of a perimeter run defender and a dangerous blitzer. He’s not a great cover linebacker. The pressure Clemson usually gets up front helps them mask some of the deficiencies of their safeties, but there is no doubt Chip Long is going to try and take advantage of some favorable matchups just like A&M and South Carolina did.

One way to help negate some of that pass rush is to attack Clemson on first down. They gave up five completions of 27 yards or more against A&M (including completions 44 and 75 yards). They gave up eight completions of 20 yards or more against South Carolina (including a 69 yard completion).

That’s not for the whole game. That’s just on 1st down.

Overall this is an elite defense, but their safeties and Simmons aren’t elite players in coverage. A&M and South Carolina were able to exploit that. Notre Dame has to do the same. If Book can make the right reads and connect with receivers like Young, Chris Finke, and maybe even a freshman like Lawrence Keys, the Irish could put up big numbers through the air against Clemson.

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