Clemson’s quarterback power has been almost impossible to stop in short yardage situations
By Will Vandervort
During the Steelers-Vikings game last Sunday, long time NFL analyst for CBS Sports and former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms said the hardest play in football is third down-and-a foot.
“Everyone knows what’s coming,” he said.
Usually what is coming is an isolation play with the tailback, a quarterback sneak or, on occasion but not as much anymore, the fullback dive. These are conventional ways to pick a first down on third- or fourth-and-short, but what third-ranked Clemson does most of the time is anything but conventional.
The Tigers, who travel to Syracuse this Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. kick, will line up quarterback Tajh Boyd in shotgun either in an empty set or with one back in the backfield beside him. They will send a receiver in motion—most of the time Sammy Watkins—and right when the ball is snapped Boyd will more than likely fake the ball to the receiver and run what is called a quarterback-power.
Boyd has run this play for perfection and rarely is it stopped. In fact, it usually goes for five or six yards.
“We change it up and do different things, but make no mistake, when we have to have it number ten is going to run it,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said after practice Wednesday evening. “We really don’t care if everybody knows. If you hat-it up right, it is very hard to stop for one yard.”
Ask NC State. With the Tigers (4-0, 2-0 ACC) driving late in the second quarter and down a point, they faced fourth-and-one at the Wolfpack 18-yard line. At that point, most coaches would kick the field goal or hand the ball off to a running back or something.
But Swinney went over to offensive coordinator Chad Morris and asked if “he had a play” and Morris said, “Absolutely!” Clemson ran the quarterback power, which Boyd ran for seven yards and a first down, even though NC State knew what was coming. Boyd threw a touchdown pass to tight end Sam Cooper on the next play and the Tigers never trailed again.
“He has been really good. We are really good on third down,” Swinney said. “We have been one of the better short-yardage third down teams the last couple of years and he is a big reason why. There is no question. That’s why we do what we do.
“That’s why I wanted to recruit the way we recruit. That’s why we run the offense that we run it. Again, when your quarterback is a factor in the run game it makes you much more difficult to defend. That’s the same thing for us when we are defending other people.”
Swinney said his philosophy on wanting to use the quarterback more in the running game came when he was an assistant coach at Alabama. He loved watching the old Oklahoma teams at the time and how they used the quarterback.
That’s one of the big reasons why he recruited former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow when he was the receivers coach at Clemson, and went and got a coordinator like Morris who believed in his philosophy and incorporated creative ways to run the quarterback.
“Just watching how Florida used (Tebow), he was just so hard to stop,” Swinney said. “When you have a guy that is a very good runner, but has some size to him and can throw the ball a little bit and have one willing to run (at quarterback), you just picked up an extra blocker.
“It stresses the defense tremendously and that’s when, in my mind, it started evolving a little bit.”
Now it’s Clemson’ bread-and-butter play, a play it runs three to four times a game. Swinney was quick to point out that it works only because of the offensive line.
“That all goes back to the guys up front,” he said. “That isn’t just Tajh Boyd. The guys have to being doing a good job up front. If we don’t block anybody, they are going to stop anybody that runs it. We have been very good up front in those situations the past two years.
“Credit first goes to the OL, then all the tight ends, the backs that are (getting a hat on) people and blocking. A couple of years ago we were terrible in short yardage. I mean just awful. We went back and worked hard at that and our offensive line took a lot of pride in it. Then we got Tajh involved.”
And the Tigers have not really missed on short yardage situations since.