On the beat: Clemson-Florida State outcome could be determined in seconds
CLEMSON – The ninth meeting between top 10 teams in Atlantic Coast Conference history will come down to a matter of seconds when No. 10 Clemson travels to No. 4 Florida State at 8 p.m. Saturday (WCIV-TV).
Florida State is making a bet – perhaps a risky one – that it can disrupt the Tiger receivers for just a second on most every snap, just enough time to derail the powerful Clemson offense.
The Seminoles have employed press coverage this season, a tactic Clemson rarely encounters. Florida State has played its cornerbacks directly across from receivers. At the snap the corners jam receivers with their hands, attempting to keep them out of their route for perhaps just fractions of a second, enough time to allow a pass rush to develop and disrupt the timing of a play.
The strategy is also designed to discourage quick passes – where Clemson star receiver Sammy Watkins excels. But if a cornerback gets beat at the line, big plays are available down the field.
Most defenses give Clemson’s speedy receivers plenty of respect, lining up five yards or more from the line of scrimmage. But teams like Alabama do not subscribe to off coverage. They believe offenses are less equipped to handle press coverage. Scout team players can’t simulate press-coverage ability of elite defenders and if you do not press you are allowing talented receivers free releases to play against air.
“It’s like a fight,” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “The defensive back presses up in the wide receiver’s face. Who is going to win?”
The one-on-one matchup NFL scouts are eager to see is when Florida State’s top corner, the athletic, 6-foot-2, 210-pound Xavier Rhodes pressing Watkins. Both are projected by analysts as eventual first-round draft picks in the NFL draft.
Will Rhodes throw off the timing of the game by jamming up Clemson receivers? Or will Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins beat the press coverage and deliver big plays?
Said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney: “I like my guys.”
The winner of their one-on-one matchup could determine the day.
“(Rhodes) is a long cornerback. He’s 6-2, super athletic, he kind of reminds you of (Cleveland Browns corner) Joe Haden,” Boyd said. “Regardless … I don’t care who’s guarding them, NFL players, Pro Bowl players, if I get a one-on-one matchup I’m going to take it every day of the week. I feel like I have the best receiving corps in the nation.”
Swinney said his offensive line is still a question mark entering the Florida State game and said the key to beating press coverage begins with the line giving Boyd enough time.
“The reason they do that is they are confident in their guys up front. Protection (is key),” Swinney said. “We have to have great technique and we have to finish plays on contested throws.”
Decisions, decisions: Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris has said Boyd’s decision making is key.
Clemson met more teams in the second half of last year that were able to create pressure with their front and drop seven or eight defenders into coverage. That’s when Boyd forced more throws and threw as many interceptions (9) as touchdowns (9) in the last six games of the season.
Boyd has thrown only one interception this season but he hasn’t faced a defense as talented as Florida State’s.
“You have to do a good job of not putting the ball in jeopardy and he’s done a good job to this point,” Morris said.
He said it: Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher on Sammy Watkins: “He’s the most impactful freshman, maybe since Herschel Walker.”