Pittsburgh’s 43-42 victory at former No. 2 Clemson was one of the biggest surprises from a Saturday filled with them, but it wasn’t just a game in which crazy things happened.
Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers took it to Dabo Swinney’s Tigers for four quarters and were rewarded with a win.
There’s a good chance someone else will be able to replicate their success, especially considering Clemson’s number of close wins already this year. Here’s how they pulled off the win.
First, they stopped the run.
Swinney’s Tigers have rarely been great in the run game, ranking No. 74 in yards per carry this year and no better than No. 30 in any season since his first year, 2009. Auburn held Clemson to 3.4 yards per carry in the season opener and gave itself a fighting chance. It wasn’t shocking that a Narduzzi defense would be able to pull that off, but what was fairly shocking was how they did it.
For years, Narduzzi’s Michigan State defenses were nightmares for Big Ten offenses, with their smothering press-quarters coverage that could easily bring nine defenders into the action against your run game. However, spread-option tactics caught up, and Narduzzi had to tweak his scheme to prevent his squad from getting isolated by spread play-action or run/pass option (RPO) plays.
In essence, Narduzzi no longer sends all three of his linebackers flying toward the line of scrimmage at the hint of a running play. Now, the ones in pass conflict will “cover down” on the receivers that the QB is reading and eliminate the pass option before joining the fray against the run.
Here, Clemson is running a typical smashmouth spread play, combining a power run with a quick bubble route so that the linebackers will be unable to get enough defenders to the point of attack to stop both plays at the same time.
Pitt’s strong-side linebacker, No. 23 Oluwaseun Idowu, is out wide to help cover the slot receiver.
He plays at depth, and he attacks when he sees Deshaun Watson put the ball in the RB’s belly, rather than when he sees the OL run block.
It’s a subtle difference, but punishing it would require Watson to pull the ball out of the RB’s belly, turn, and throw, all actions that would give Pitt time to recover. Indeed, Clemson had mixed results throwing the bubble screen in this game and frequently just saw the corner beat the block and make the tackle for a loss or the free safety fly down and deliver a savage hit on one of their slot receivers.
In the clip above, Idowu comes in to fill the cutback lane while the other LBs flow with the pulling guard to stop the run. Pitt also has its strong safety waiting to be an extra man in the box. When he’s blocked, CB Ryan Lewis replaces him stuffs the run.
That tackle set the tone. Clemson ran 25 times for 50 yards, including 18 carries for 36 yards for Wayne Gallman, and largely gave up the run in the second half.
This Clemson offense is at its best spreading you out and trying to throw. It’s not good enough up front to overpower a physical and well-coached defense.
When Clemson elected to attack via the air, the Panthers gave up some big plays, but made enough of their own.
Another adjustment that Narduzzi has made is in his pressure package. His Spartans were defined by their double A-gap zone blitzes.
Those blitzes would bring six pass-rushers, drop two defenders to take away hot routes over the middle, and drop three defenders into deep zones. It’s essentially cover 3, but with no one defending either flat, unless you count the waving arms of pass rushers. It doesn’t work terribly well against spread passing teams who get the ball out quickly.
Now, Narduzzi will look to create pressure in more conservative fashions, perhaps bringing five rushers and playing a cover 2 fire zone ...
... or firing his inside linebackers inside, like he did at Michigan State, but dropping the DEs back in pass coverage:
But Pitt did mix in some of Narduzzi’s throwback pressures, which also proved difficult for Clemson:
Here, Watson finds a window down the seam, but his throw is rushed. The nature of this blitz means those three deep zone defenders are often in great position to pick off errant throws.
Clemson went all in with its passing game, which makes sense. Watson threw 70 passes for 580 yards, 8.3 yards per pass, and three touchdowns (which calls to mind Narduzzi’s last game at MSU: the Cotton Bowl win over Baylor, in which the Bears threw for 603 yards but ran for -20), but also three interceptions. Watson has now thrown multiple picks in four different games this year, after only three such games in all of last year.
One of those picks came on the Pitt goal line, when Watson failed to see a LB covering his TE on a play-action rollout. Those three lost possessions kept Clemson from making the most of their dominant spread passing attack.
On offense, Pitt mitigated Clemson’s defensive aggression with some option plays from pro-style sets.
Pitt shredded Clemson for nearly three quarters with the same play.
TE Scott Orndoff caught nine passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns. The big TE did some damage off play-action or RPO routes, but most of those catches looked like this:
That is one of the most clever plays of the modern era. It’s a brilliant offshoot from the power-read line of option concepts, one Urban Meyer was using all the way back in his Utah days.
Like with the original power-read play, Pitt is attacking the defense with either the outside run or the inside power run. But instead of taking the inside path on power himself, the QB is throwing a shovel pass to a motioning player. In this case, instead of QB Nathan Peterman serving as the inside runner, it’s the 265-pound Orndoff. If you don’t have a QB who has the build and mobility of a TE, but why not use the TE as the inside runner?
Here’s Pitt going back to the play on a third-and-5:
The DEs simply didn’t know what to do. They tried to position themselves to take away the inside running paths, but Peterman would flip it inside of them to a TE with some momentum, and he’d be rolling behind blocks for an easy gain. It wasn’t until nearly the fourth quarter that they figured out how to position themselves to tackle the shovel receiver, and by then they’d already given up nearly 40 points. Brent Venables specifically mentioned that Clemson prepared for the play, to no avail.
Pitt also had some fun wrinkles off this play, which included Peterman keeping the ball, some play-action, and an instance in which Peterman pulled up and tried to throw to the back, who became a receiver after he didn’t receive the hand off.
The Panthers also mixed in some RPOs and everyone’s favorite play from yesteryear, the jet sweep:
Pitt used the jet sweep like many teams use the zone read: to freeze the backside DE without blocking him, thus allowing his usual blocker to get downfield and pick off a LB. Clemson’s poor DEs had trouble with this, as well, and when you give James Conner creases to build up speed, he goes for 132 yards on just 20 carries.
The Panthers found ways to get the ball to big guys like Conner and Orndorff running downhill, then let physics do the rest. Clemson was in a bind that it couldn’t blitz its way out of.
While Clemson is an exceptional team, it’s also something of a finesse team.
They met a bigger, badder dog, and they were both outsmarted and whipped in the trenches on both sides.
You have to wonder if some of the clever, physical teams that are in line to be in the Playoff could cause similar problems for the Tigers.