APTOPIX Cotton Bowl Football (copy)

Clemson wide receiver Tee Higgins (5) celebrates a touchdown catch with two seconds left in the first half of the 2018 Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame. Clemson in 2018 outscored foes in the "middle eight" minutes of games 132-10 and in 2019 have a 77-17 edge. AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter

CLEMSON — There isn’t a buzzer on the Clemson sideline that goes off when there are four minutes left in the first half.

Star players Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne don’t stop giving maximum effort once the third quarter creeps into a fifth minute.

It just seems that way to hapless opponents.

Another reason Clemson is an undefeated defending national champion on the way to a fifth consecutive College Football Playoff appearance: the Tigers again are dominating the “middle eight” minutes, a critical period that includes the last four minutes of the first half and the first four minutes of the second half.

No. 3 Clemson going into Saturday’s game at South Carolina has outscored foes 77-17 in the middle eight this year. Only four teams — Ohio State, Utah, Memphis and Wisconsin — have done better.

That after a whopping 132-10 edge when Clemson led the nation in middle eight-point differential during its run to a national title last season, per SportSource Analytics.

“When you can score points before you go in at half, it’s huge,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said this week. “Just kind of setting the scene for the second half and just the momentum you have going in at halftime. And, conversely, probably how (an opponent) feels giving up points right before half.”

Easier said than done.

There are two keys to Clemson’s middle eight success:

  • Those always important halftime adjustments
  • Pre-halftime adjustments, the kind that separate top teams from average teams that wait for halftime adjustments

Belichick vs. Manning

Veteran football fans probably won’t find it shocking that Bill Belichick was the first to popularize middle eight importance among coaches from high school to the NFL. On his way to winning six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, the hooded genius figured the best way to combat elite quarterbacks such as rival Peyton Manning was keeping them off the field.

“Belichick actually built an entire game-management theory around this simple realization,” Michael Lombardi, an NFL analyst and former Patriots staffer, told USA Football’s Zach Dunn last summer.

It was all about time management.

Both scoreboard clock time and real time, including a 20-minute halftime break.

“If the Patriots could manage a drive at the end of the second quarter,” Lombardi said, “that would keep the opposing offense off the field for almost an hour of real time. For a guy like Manning, that’s an eternity. No offense, no points. No plays, no rhythm. When Manning does finally get back in the game, he and his offense have lost their edge.”

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney bought in.

The best example of a Tigers’ middle eight headlock came in the Cotton Bowl last December. Clemson led Notre Dame, 9-3, with four minutes left in the first half. After a Lawrence touchdown pass to Justyn Ross, Swinney and co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott pressed the attack with possession at the Clemson 20 and 48 seconds left before halftime.

A 19-yard Lawrence pass to Tee Higgins with two seconds left put the Tigers up, 23-3, going into the break.


‘Any edge we can get’

Clemson stands out in the rarefied area of execution by good, smart, diligent players.

“It’s one thing to see something as a coach and all you can do is communicate it to them,” Scott said, “but for them to be able to understand what you’re saying and kind of take those words and put it into action, that doesn’t always happen. That comes from a lot of really good communication during the week, them putting in some extra time studying the opponent during the week and then being engaged during our meetings.”

Senior safety Tanner Muse, for instance, carefully studies an opponent’s two-minute drill, knowing what’s likely coming just before halftime.

“We’re taught to remember their schemes, their routes,” he said. “Any edge we can get.”

The start of the second half is a time to make a statement. Most coaches say that, but fewer celebrate.

“We definitely want to come out charging,” Muse said. “When you’re stagnant after halftime, it just gives the other team juice and momentum. We want to come out firing in the third quarter and get them on their heels. Once you get them on their heels, you’ve got them.”

Want to beat Clemson?

Better to try and emphasize the “first 26” minutes or the “last 26” when the Tigers are ruling the middle eight.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff