Clem­son de­fense will play key role

Orlando Sentinel - - SPORTS THURSDAY - By Ralph D. Russo

Top-ranked LSU and Heis­man Tro­phy win­ner Joe Bur­row head into the na­tional cham­pi­onship game peak­ing, match­ing their record-set­ting of­fense with a healthy and im­prov­ing de­fense.

Clem­son has not lost since sopho­more quar­ter­back Trevor Lawrence joined the team in 2018. The third-ranked Tigers are look­ing for their third na­tional ti­tle in four sea­sons and sec­ond straight.

With the help of Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, the only coach to face both Clem­son and LSU, and Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus college an­a­lyst Cam Mel­lor, take a closer look at the matchups that could make the dif­fer­ence Mon­day night in New Or­leans:

WHEN LSU HAS THE BALL

What can Clem­son de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Brent Ven­ables cook up to stop LSU’s hy­per-ag­gres­sive pass­ing game that of­ten at­tacks with five re­ceivers?

Clem­son is play­ing a 3-3-5 de­fen­sive align­ment and us­ing lots of eight-man cov­er­age. Lack­ing a dom­i­nant de­fen­sive line­man, Ven­ables has needed to be creative to pres­sure the quar­ter­back.

“Brent’s go­ing to blitz,” Fisher said. “But LSU has been good at ei­ther pick­ing it up or Bur­row iden­ti­fy­ing it and get­ting the ball out quickly. Or he can scram­ble away from it and keep his eyes down field. He is so pa­tient.”

The stars of Clem­son’s de­fense are ver­sa­tile back-seven play­ers such as All-Amer­ica line­backer Isa­iah Sim­mons and strong safety Klavon Wallace, both of whom can play mul­ti­ple po­si­tions, and free safety Tan­ner Muse.

Mel­lor said Bur­row was the top-graded quar­ter­back in the coun­try this sea­son when fac­ing pres­sure.

“Pres­sure doesn’t mat­ter in this game as much as al­low­ing Sim­mons and Muse to roam the back end freely,” Mel­lor said.

LSU has five play­ers who can con­sis­tently win one-on-one matchups in the pass­ing game in wide re­ceivers Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jef­fer­son and Ter­race Mar­shall Jr., tight end Thadeus Moss and run­ning back Clyde Ed­wards-He­laire. All have more than 40 catches, al­low­ing Bur­row to feast on a de­fense’s weak links.

WHEN CLEM­SON HAS THE BALL

Over his last seven games, Lawrence has been the high­est­graded quar­ter­back in college foot­ball by Pro Foot­ball Fo­cus.

As pro­lific as LSU has been of­fen­sively, Clem­son has the weapons to keep pace, with two-time At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence player of the year Travis Eti­enne at run­ning back and wide re­ceivers Tee Hig­gins, Justyn Ross (both 6-foot-4) and Amari Rodgers.

Hig­gins has been dom­i­nant, av­er­ag­ing 19.9 yards per catch with 13 touchdowns. Ross has been good but not quite the break­out star he was dur­ing last sea­son’s play­off.

LSU has its own $2 mil­lion per year de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor in Dave Aranda, who will try to frus­trate Lawrence with a plan built around two of the best cor­ner­backs in the coun­try: Kris­tian Ful­ton is a pos­si­ble first-round NFL draft pick while fresh­man Derek St­in­g­ley Jr., an All-Amer­i­can, was PFF’s high­est-graded cor­ner­back.

Safety Grant Del­pit also grades well in cov­er­age, but his tack­ling has been spotty. That has im­proved of late af­ter a high an­kle sprain healed.

“Avoid­ing those three [in cov­er­age] is the big­gest win for Clem­son,” Mel­lor said.

The LSU de­fen­sive line is huge, with three 300-pounders usu­ally on the field at once.

“Against that 3-4, it’s hard to get a push in­side,” said Fisher, who ex­pects Clem­son to run out­side the tack­les.

Eti­enne is maybe the tough­est back in the coun­try to take down, so keep­ing him from get­ting out in space is the way to go. Mel­lor said the ju­nior set a PFF record by forc­ing missed tack­les on 45% of his car­ries. The pre­vi­ous best was 33% last year by Iowa State’s David Mont­gomery.

RUSSO’S PICK: LSU 35-27.

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