What went wrong for the Clemson Tigers?
When talking over the national championship matchup with my colleague Steve Palazzolo last week I made the point that Clemson looked uniquely qualified to stop Alabama because of the high level talent of Mackensie Alexander, Cordrea Tankersley, and Jayron Kearse in the secondary. Alexander could lock down Ridley on his own and then the pieces could fall in line from there. Steve, in all his wisdom, correctly pointed out that for as good as this secondary was, there were still gaping holes that could be exploited. Namely, safety T.J. Green and nickel cornerback Travis Blanks. Once Mackensie Alexander was limited to only 31 of a possible 72 snaps with a hamstring injury, the back half of the Clemson defense changed from a strength to a liability.
All week long I was repeating two different stats as to why Clemson had a chance. The first was that Mackensie Alexander had only allowed 18 catches in 14 games heading into the national championship. The second was that Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley had combined to allow a 36.2 completion percentage when targeted, by far the lowest of any cornerback duo in the country. Travis Blanks on the other hand had a 59.1 completion percentage against heading into the game and a negative coverage grade overall.
Once Mackensie was out though you can throw those stats out the window and the entire secondary was left in disarray. Multiple busted coverages cost them big time and it was something we rarely if ever saw from Clemson during the regular season. On Monday night Blanks was forced to play 68 snaps, his second highest total of the season. The junior ceded five of six targets for 117 yards. He wasn’t the only one looking out of sorts though.
As I alluded to before, junior safety T.J. Green had been by far Clemson’s lowest graded member of the secondary heading into the game and hadn’t had a pass defensed or interception all season long. On Monday he was no match for the likes of ArDarius Stewart and O.J. Howard when he inevitably found himself matched up with each. Green allowed 63 yards to Stewart, including a 38-yarder early in the fourth quarter on possibly the most crucial third down of the entire game. It was also his side of the field that busted the coverage on O.J. Howard’s walk in 53-yard touchdown right after halftime.
In the end, it’s obvious that Alexander’s injury proved to be the turning point of this ballgame. The redshirt sophomore allowed one catch for zero yards in his limited snaps and had a +2.0 overall grade. He’ll be likely be headed to the NFL draft while his teammates Shaq Lawson and Jayron Kearse are liable to make the jump as well. They also lose their highest graded linebacker, B.J. Goodson, and that Clemson defense will have a decided different look in 2016. One has to still think of them as a legit contender though as it was the unbelievable play of sophomore DeShaun Watson (+5.6) that gave them any semblance of hope on Monday. Him, running back Wayne Gallman, and wide receiver Artavis Scott form arguably the best returning ‘triplet’ in the country.