The Gap Defense: When Gaps Go Wrong.
Thanks everyone for the great comments and questions on my first edition of "French on the Bench". Many of you asked what causes the defense to be ineffective against different teams, and it is very difficult to address all the reasons because of the different styles of offense. So, I will take a moment to look at the new Clemson offense and try to explain why the Hokies struggled against it last year.
Clemson runs the Urban Meyer spread, a version of the old Single Wing. The Single Wing is predicated on motion, misdirection, play-action, and forcing a defense to commit, and then going somewhere else with the football. It uses a very small number of plays, but each play serves as a direct counter to the others.
Clemson's base bread and butter play for their offense is the buck sweep. It looks similar to an old power sweep, but it is meant to be a kick out play that creates a seam off the tackle. The quarterback bootlegs off the hand-off, which serves as a counter action that must be accounted for (as Tech defended it with the stud end).
The Hokies attempted to defend the buck sweep, as they did most of the game, with a nickel look. That means no whip, Kyle Fuller at nickel corner, and Cris Hill coming off the bench. On this play, Fuller has man responsibility on the H-Back, who motions from the slot to a wing position. Fuller follows him across the formation.
Clemson's wide splits make it difficult for the Hokies DL to stunt to their assigned gaps, leaving them vulnerable to down blocks. At the snap, Clemson's right guard and the H-Back pull to the left. The center blocks down back on the nose (Luther Maddy), who gets too far upfield and does not control the 0-gap. Gayle can't pursue down the line because he has to account for Tajh Boyd on the bootleg.
On the playside, the left guard blocks down on Derrick Hopkins, getting an advantageous angle on Derrick as he moves to his left to secure the 1-gap. Derrick ends up getting blown out of the hole as he attempts to cross the guard's face back to the play. The left tackle blocks down on Jack Tyler, who attempts to pursue through the 5 gap, but finds himself right on the tackle's railroad tracks. He gets blown up. The tight end does a veer release and option stalk blocks the rover (Exum), who before the snap is lined up almost of the line of scrimmage, but backpedals when he sees Allen release. He is moving backwards with Allen moving forwards... that's never a good mixture when trying to beat a block against a bigger stronger player. JR Collins crashes inside to take on the pulling guard and does a decent job, but because gap integrity has been lost inside, there is a huge hole for the running back to cut inside of the guard's block. Edwards has the gap outside of Collins, but by covering that gap, he takes away the only unblocked player in the front seven who can scrape to get Ellington. The H-Back, who now doesn't need to block Edwards, turns upfield looking for a safety or some kind of backside pursuit. The end result is a crushing 15 yard run on the first Clemson offensive play of the 2nd half, right up the gut. Here it is drawn out.
Now, Clemson has established that buck sweep, and the rest of that opening drive, they methodically moved down the field with a wide variety of misdirection. By the last two or three plays, Hokie defenders were looking into the backfield trying to find the football rather than aggressively securing their gaps. Clemson finishes the drive with the same offensive formation as the first play, but a simple pass pro with Allen breaking Bonner's ankles on a flag route for a touchdown finishes the drive.
Clemson then gets the ball back, and this time the play action comes into play.
The Tigers fake a sweep, and the Hokie defenders crash to the fake, including James Gayle, who has bootleg responsibility in the 6 gap. Tajh Boyd fakes, rolls away from the play, and then finds Watkins flying behind Chris Hill and Jack Tyler (what the hell is he doing 40 yards from the line???) for an easy touchdown. If Gayle doesn't bite on the fake, Boyd doesn't have time to roll comfortably and pump fake to sell the double move.
Now, can the Hokies stop this bread and butter look? Here is an example in the first quarter:
Tariq Edwards stunts to take the outside gap. The Hokies interior maintains their gap fits and Edwards holds up Ellington enough that he bounces outside, where the free safety Eddie Whitley makes the tackle. Still, even in this best case scenario, if your safeties have to make a bunch of tackles, that leaves you very exposed to play action. Simply put, Clemson presents a bad matchup for Virginia Tech's gap defense.
For those of you who have spoken with me since this game, you know that I think Clemson and Georgia Tech both present very unique challenges for the Hokie defense. I watched South Carolina stymie Clemson, but their success was more the result of bigger/stronger/faster DL beating up Clemson's OL than any scheme. In fact, Clemson was able to be successful running the ball, but was so ineffective in passing situations that they could not sustain drives. Short of simply manhandling the offensive lines of both teams in future games, Bud Foster's scheme will need to continue to evolve to handle both looks.