Is Clemsons up-tempo offense playing too fast?
CLEMSON —The only time in Clemson football’s 116-year history that the Tigers allowed more than yards than it surrendered Saturday to Florida State was 12 years earlier, also in Tallahassee.
Thirty-one teams have run 1,000 or more offensive plays since 2008. This is how their defenses rank in terms of total yards allowed:
20th or higher| 4
50th or lower | 20
80th or lower | 9
100th or lower| 6
Clemson has allowed 70 points or more in a game on two occasions. Clemson first crossed the threshold in 1931, allowing 74 points to Alabama, and again in last season’s Orange Bowl.
Between the two outlying, infamous performances, the program changed defensive coordinators. Five defensive starters graduated. What remained constant is the offense paired with the defense: an up-tempo, no-huddle philosophy.
The Chad Morris offense and others like it create a lot of points. But they also add possessions and produce rapid three-and-outs, testing their own defense’s depth while also compromising a defense’s ability to practice. Such offenses are redefining what expectations should be for defenses.
Of the 31 teams to run more than 1,000 offensive plays in a season since 2008, 20 of the teams had defenses ranked 50th or worse in yards allowed, nine of those teams ranked 80th or lower and six ranked 100th or worse. Only four ranked in the top 20 of total defense.
No. 17 Clemson is at Boston College at 3:30 p.m. Saturday ranked 95th in total defense after ranking 71st last season.
The defenses of those 31 up-tempo teams combined for an average ranking of 50.9 in yards per play allowed, suggesting up-tempo offenses decrease defensive performance even when adjusting for tempo.
“All I know is you have a job to do,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We are up 14 points Saturday, there’s a (Florida State) sweep, and we got a guy that fits it completely wrong. Is that the offense’s fault? … Now where it is a problem is if you are three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out — that’s the thing. But we really have not been that this year.”
But the Clemson offense did stall Saturday. Clemson led 31-28 when it took possession with 6:15 to play in the third quarter. The next four Tiger possessions? Three-and-out, three-and-out, interception and three-and-out.
During the four possessions, Clemson held the ball for just 4:27. On those 12 non-punt plays, eight were passes.
The play stressed a thin Clemson defense. Florida State scored three touchdowns during the stretch for a 49-31 lead. The Seminoles scored 35 second-half points against a defense Swinney said lacks “trustworthy” depth.
Said defensive coordinator Brent Venables: “We were a little more fatigued. It was obvious. We weren’t escaping the blocks with the same kind of quickness and violence.”
Still, Clemson does not appear willing to deviate at times from its offensive approach.
“As far as taking air out of the ball … that’s when mistakes happen,” Morris said. “My job here is to score more points than the other team. Period.”
Venables was around up- tempo offenses at Oklahoma. Said Venables: “Our job is to stop people. Period.”
The challenge of being paired with an unorthodox offense carries over to practice. Some defensive coaches feel practicing against up-tempo, misdirection-heavy offenses limits the ability to teach fundamentals and to prepare for traditional offenses.
“That is the challenge,” Venables said. “Since I’ve been here there’s been more than a willingness to recognize that and to go through practice so you can have more teaching. My understanding is we are doing more of it now than we have. ... Then there are periods where we are going to go up-tempo and you have to handle tempo because everyone does it now. The management of it in practice is important.”
But until the majority of teams adopt hurry-up approaches, Clemson’s defense is under more relative pressure. It is an tradeoff Swinney is willing to live with, one Venables must cope with.