If he could do it again, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott would run the football.
Scott is referring to the Tigers’ second-and-goal play from the Pitt 3-yard line when he and fellow offensive coordinator Tony Elliott agreed to run a bootleg to the right as opposed to running the football and running clock. The risk of putting the ball in the air was worth the reward if the play was executed the correct way, or so they thought.
Instead the play was doomed from the beginning, which turned out to doom the Tigers in a one-point loss to underdog Pitt this past Saturday.
With Clemson (9-1, 6-1 ACC) leading the Panthers by eight points with under six minutes to play in the game, running back Wayne Gallman took a handoff from the 7-yard line and carried it to the three. It appeared, even if they got a Greg Huegel field goal, the Tigers were going to put the game away.
But Elliott and Scott wanted to end the game now. They wanted to punch the ball into the end zone to go up two touchdowns. After the defense had finally found a way to slow down the Pitt offense with three straight three-and-outs, they knew this was their chance to really put the game out of reach.
Elliott and Scott had noticed in film study that the Panthers had been burned twice for touchdowns down near the goal line with a bootleg to the right in two other games. They figured if they got in this situation against the Panthers, they were going to run the bootleg.
So with the ball at the Pitt three, Elliott sent the call down to the field and Scott relayed it to Watson.
“They are a very aggressive defense so going into the game we felt really good about running a naked down there inside the five because of how aggressive their guys are. There were two easy touchdowns against them this year so I don’t think we had too many drives down inside the five, maybe one earlier. So when we got in that situation that was a play we had been wanting to call the whole game,” Scott said.
Watson rolled to his right and saw wide receiver Hunter Renfrow coming open, or so he thought. What, or more like who, he did not see was Pitt linebacker Saleem Brightwell sitting there in a zone. Brightwell picked off the pass at the goal line and returned it 70 yards to the Clemson 30-yard line.
“The big thing is he wanted to throw the over route. That was the guy that was open twice against them,” Scott said. “He saw Hunter had a yard or two-yard head start inside and was open as far as he could see, but the defense was in a call where the linebackers did not step up and blitz. They were more sitting back, more in a zone look so he did not expect the zone dropper to be standing right where he was. All he was doing was watching Renfrow wide open so he went to throw it, except the guy he thought would be lower in the box was sitting right there in that window.”
Brightwell’s interception ultimately led to a 20-yard James Conner touchdown, which pulled the Panthers within two points, 42-40, with 5:17 to play.
Despite the result, Watson said if he was given a do-over he would want to run the same play.
“There is more detail if you watch the film and understand the play call and the play,” the Clemson quarterback said. “Renfrow was coming across the middle. A lot of people thought I was throwing the ball to Jordan Leggett, but I was throwing it to Renfrow, and the guy just jumped in the way and made a good play. I have to give credit to him.”
Watson later confirmed that Leggett and Renfrow were not supposed to be in the same area, another contributing factor on why the play did not work. Leggett owned up to the mistake.
“I got too deep on my route and the linebacker was able to undercut me,” he said.
As for Scott, as he watched Brightwell run down the sideline, he was wishing they would have run the football with Gallman, chewed up more clock and played it safer. Who knows what would have happened if they chose that route.
“In hindsight, we probably would have liked to have done that if we knew we were going to throw an interception,” Scott said.
But they can’t turn back time. A few minutes later, the Tigers failed to pick up one yard on third-and-one and, again, on fourth-and-one from the Pitt 35-yard line and turned the ball over on downs. Six plays and 34 yards later, Chris Blewitt connected on a 48-yard field goal with six seconds left to hand the Tigers their first loss in Death Valley in more than three years.
Scott says they will have to live with the mistakes they all made on that play, but he said one thing it will not do is affect the way they call a play or their faith in giving Watson the ball in those situations.
“We have the ultimate trust and faith in Deshaun. We are not going to call a game scared or anything or say, ‘Hey, I hope he does not throw an interception.’ You may do that with other quarterbacks you have had in the past and other quarterbacks that maybe have not earned that trust. However, Deshaun is a guy that has earned a lot of trust and there are not as many concerns when he has had the ball in his hand,” Scott said.