All-SEC linebacker Skai Moore covers a lot of ground.
South Carolina's schedule made it difficult to pick a game to scout. Over the last two months, they've faced two playoff teams (Georgia and Clemson), four SEC squads ranked worse than 80th in S&P+, and Wofford.
I chose Clemson given the comparably fierce defense to Michigan. The offenses are, uh, different. As such, I expect SC to take a slightly different approach than what I saw in this game, but thankfully Will Muschamp's schemes are well-known at this point. In this game, Clemson picked apart his pet coverage in a way Michigan should be able to reclicate. The Tigers jumped out to a 34-0 lead before setting it on cruise control for most of the second half.
Personnel: Seth's diagram will go up tomorrow along with the offense post, as he's currently at a wedding. South Carolina doesn't have any recent major injuries to report on defense; they lost talented SLB Bryson Allen-Williams early in the year.
Base Set? Multiple. Muschamp runs a DJ Durkin-like 4-3 (he's even used the same BUCK terminology for the weakside end) that often morphs into a three-man front, including quite often a true 3-4 look with a zero-tech nose.
[Hit THE JUMP for the rest of the breakdown.]
Man or zone coverage? South Carolina almost exclusively ran a funky hybrid cover six (quarter-quarter-half) with one cornerback in man coverage and the other playing in the parking lot. More detail on that coverage scheme at College & Magnolia, where I lifted this graphic:
Against Clemson, SC played this very soft. Both corners, including the man-coverage corner, tended to bail out on the snap—they don't often play press. Here's how it usually looked against Clemson; the corner to the bottom of the screen is giving a massive cushion, while you can see the corner at the top is already going into his backpedal a split-second after the snap:
More on this later, but Clemson abused the quarters half of the field.
Pressure: GERG or Greg? Very GERG, at least when facing a mobile quarterback. Carolina rushed three about as often as they brought extra pressure. Given the meager 2.2% havoc rate by their linebackers this year, that seems to be the norm.
Dangerman: Weakside linebacker Skai Moore earned first-team All-SEC honors from the coaches and looked the part against Clemson. Moore was constantly around the football, making 12 solo tackles and an impressive TFL on a third-and-short:
#10, linebacker above the far hashmarks
Moore is listed at only 6'2, 218 pounds. He compensates for that lack of size with impressive instincts and sideline-to-sideline speed, and he plays on the edge—sometimes too much so, as he picked up a late hit personal foul and nearly had a second in this game. He also looked like SC's best coverage linebacker; Clemson mostly avoided him.
The other player to stick out was BUCK (hybrid DE/OLB) DJ Wonnum, who batted down a couple passes and, on a day that SC could generate little pressure, was the player most often threatening the backfield. He finished second to Moore in run stops (12) and first on the team in sacks (six) this season. While mostly a pass-rusher, Wonnum is athletic enough to drop into coverage and surprisingly quick in pursuit for a 250-pounder.
We'll start with the caveats: Clemson's offensive line is significantly better than Michigan's, and Clemson's quarterback is more mobile than Brandon Peters. The Tigers were able to neutralize the Gamecock front all day; Kelly Bryant took only one sack on 35 dropbacks, and Clemson had several gashing runs before their numbers came down from going into kill-the-clock mode.
Still, in the time the game was remotely competitive, this looked like a defensive front Michigan could handle. Wonnum isn't an overwhelming pass-rusher. The best pass-rush move I saw from them was a quick inside swim from DT Taylor Stallworth, who doesn't have a sack this season, that caused a hurried incompletion. The strongside end duo of Keir Thomas and Dante Sawyer combined for only five sacks this year.
The front four did a solid job of holding their ground given Clemson's excellent run-blocking. They're a big group with Stallworth at 305 pounds and the nose tackles, Javon Kinlaw and Ulric Jones, both checking in well north of 300. Clemson still had success running between the tackles, however, for a couple reasons. First, there were a number of one-guy-blows-it plays when an SC lineman would try to shoot a gap and get sealed off. Second, the non-Moore linebackers didn't make many plays and frequently got caught up in the wash.
TJ Brunson, the middle linebacker, looked like the linebacker most often unable to get to the ballcarrier. There were a number of plays that Moore had to pursue from behind and hold down to keep from breaking into the secondary.
Meanwhile, Clemson constantly picked on the quarter-quarter-half coverage; Bryant averaged 8.0 yards per attempt even though a ton of his throws went underneath. Quick hitches and out routes were easy money against the cornerback playing a deep quarter:
Clemson also attacked the soft coverage with the screen game, something that Michigan should be able to do as well. You don't see a lot of RB flare screens to the short side but this one works because the corner is, as usual, bailing out:
Compounding SC's issues was poor tackling in the secondary. You can see some of it above. The first play from scrimmage of the second half was far worse:
The flag was for a facemask on the corner making the initial tackle attempt.
The safeties took some bad angles in this game; Clemson didn't attack them enough for me to make either a sore spot, but they looked beatable. Other than going at the soft corner in C6, Clemson found success through the air against whomever was in the slot. When SC stayed in their base package even when Clemson went four-wide, they got hit with a big play on a post route when Moore got matched up against five-star freshman wideout Tee Higgins. When they went to nickel, Higgins beat freshman nickel Jamyest Williams clean off the line for a 40-yard play to set up a TD.
Even beyond the exploited scheme, the corners didn't look good. JaMarcus King missed a couple tackles badly on the edge; Rashad Fenton showed why SC doesn't play much press man when he essentially hugged a receiver all the way downfield, picking up a blindingly obvious DPI:
This continued for 15 more yards.
If Michigan can protect Brandon Peters—Clemson's right tackle situation is, uh, better—the Wolverines should be able to move the ball well. Other than Moore, nobody really jumped off the screen as a star, and Moore isn't ideally suited to face a manball outfit. While Muschamp has had a month to vary his approach, he's a known commodity, and Harbaugh should be able to scheme up some plays to take advantage of the soft coverage. This sets up as the type of game in which space players like Chris Evans and Donovan Peoples-Jones have big days.