Whether he was at home on the couch, or in his office, or stuck in an airport pub between flights, it was pretty simple to imagine what Mark Stoops may have been thinking as he watched Clemson upend Alabama in the national title game Monday night.
“See? I was right.”
Clemson played brilliant defense and keep-away offense, enabling the Tigers to score 21 fourth-quarter points on a Crimson Tide defense that, up until then, had surrendered only 32 in the final period all season. But even if you’re a four- or five-star guy, you get tired chasing someone like Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson all over the Raymond James Stadium turf.
And that’s what Stoops had in mind when he decided the Kentucky offense had to undergo a serious make-over, not long after a golf cart carried Drew Barker to the locker room and with him, seemingly, the UK hopes for a winning season.
You know what happened next. Stephen Johnson stepped in, the offense morphed from a pass-happy scheme that would make any quarterback drool, to the ball-control grind of a three-headed, rushing monster. And it worked.
It wasn’t nearly as sexy as the offensive aerial attack Eddie Gran and Darrin Hinshaw unpacked after their trip down I-75 from Cincinnati, where they had helped the Bearcats develop one of the more productive offenses in the country. You couldn’t blame them if their game plan each week came with the subtitle, “Bombs Away, Dream Babies” (with a nod to John Stewart, the singer/songwriter– NOT the guy from Comedy Central).
Instead, the head coach saw a need for the Wildcats to better grab control of their games. “We analyzed things,” said Stoops, describing the long hours he and his staff spent, poring over video. “Twenty-four-seven is not a figure of speech around here.”
And what they concluded was that at best, when the Cats were scoring and at worst, turning the ball over, they weren’t giving their defense enough time on the sideline.
“When you score on one play, or you go three and out, or you turn it over and you’re not playing good defense, that’s not a good recipe to win,” he said. “There was no possession time.”
Johnson was struggling with the short passing game, the defense hadn’t taken shape yet and the Wildcats were turning it over once every eight plays. “You add all that together and we were in for a couple of wins,” Stoops said, “and nobody was excited about that.”
No, they were not, because Kentucky fans had suffered through just that during Stoops’ first season. And THIS had to be a bowl season – which it turned out to be, thanks in large part to the change in offense, which gave the Wildcats a better chance to compete each week.
It was far different from what Clemson ran Monday but the design was similar. The Tiger defense limited Bama’s offense, holding the Tide to two-of-15 third down conversions, essentially saying, “You’ve had your chance to move the football. Now, get off the field. Because we’re getting off, too.” Then the Tigers went to their sideline and rested some more.
Meanwhile, the Clemson offense moved the chains all over Tampa, it seemed. The Tigers ran 99 plays. NINETY-NINE. That’s one less than a hundred. Most coaches feel good if their offense lives somewhere in the 70s. It’s sort of like golf, in reverse. They’re tickled if they break 80.
NINETY-NINE. Alabama’s offense managed only 68. Any coach in America can tell you, be it Bill Belichick, Nick Saban or your cousin Bob who coaches the pee-wees over in Castlewood Park, it’s tough to win if the other guys have the football for 31 additional plays.
And thus, the Bama defenders were dead-legged by the time the final quarter arrived, which is when the lead began to change hands. In fact, Clemson took its first lead at 28-24 with 4:38 to play, only to see Alabama march down the field, almost defiantly, and move back on top, 31-28, with 2:07 left.
Watson said he looked at the clock and smiled. He knew he had enough time to work and he got after it, the final drive finishing in the Tide end zone with exactly one tick left on the clock, Watson finding former walk-on receiver Hunter Renfrow with the most famous touchdown catch in Clemson football history.
It made for joy in the Tigers’ locker room, frustration and a tinge of bitterness in Bama’s. Yahoo!’s Dan Wetzel had this, from Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey: “I just think, man, you’ve got to limit the number of times we’re throwing it to their offense. They are just too good to just, [our] offense to get three and out. That’s no excuse.”
No, but it’s a reason. Keep giving the other guys the football and send your defense back out on the field, time and again and you’re giving yourself little chance to win – even with a roster dotted with more stars than a planetarium ceiling. And that’s what Mark Stoops had in mind when he tweaked his offense three games into the season.
See? He was right. As if you didn’t already know.