In the battle for the national championship between Alabama vs. Clemson, one of the key storylines will be the Tigers stalling the Crimson Tide's running game in this massive matchup.
With Alabama a touchdown favorite according to the college football odds to win a fourth national championship under Nick Saban, most will only give the unbeaten Tigers a puncher's chance to prevent the Tide from rolling. But does coach Dabo Swinney's team really have a chance to ruin when appears a foregone conclusion and if so where does it start, especially on defense?
Taking Away Henry is Imperative for Clemson
The Tigers were very good but not elite rushing defense this year, ranked 23rd in yards allowed at 128.8 per contest and 30th in yards per attempt at 3.7. Alabama's running game is at its best with this year's team running up the gut of the defense in the A and B gaps. This means Clemson has to buckle it's chin strap and get ready for war in the trenches.
The Tigers have to do is what Arkansas and Michigan State did which was attack the Alabama offensive linemen and get underneath them, which allows the linebackers to come in and fill the gaps and make tackles. From a yards per attempt perspective, these two opponents had the greatest success. The Razorback held Henry to 3.5 YPC and the Spartans limited him to 3.8 YPC.
How this is accomplished is having three levels of defense. Because Henry is explosive through the hole, Clemson has to maintain 'a tree' to stop Alabama's run offense, starting with the defensive linemen, supported by linebackers and finally safety help if all else fails. Alabama has more ways to beat teams than they did early in the season, but cutting off the head of the monster is a great place to start.
Can Swinney's Defense Actually Slow Alabama Running Game?
The answer is "yes they can". Both Arkansas and Michigan State were forced to pick their poison against Lane Kiffin's offense, because they were weaker in the secondary. The Hogs were 121st in yards allowed passing and the Spartans were 75th. These teams chose to sell out to stop the run and took their chances QB Jake Coker would make plays to beat them.
Saban's and Kiffin's game plan out-smarted Michigan State by coming out throwing, which got the defense on their heels. The benefits were not immediate, but once the Crimson Tide built a working margin, Spartans defenders were no longer sure what Bama's offense would do and they ended up with 440 total yards.
Clemson does not have to make the same commitment, ranked fifth in the country in pass defense at just 166.9 yards a game. The Tigers have the cornerbacks to matchup with the Tide and other than WR Calvin Ridley, none of the other pass catchers are real playmakers.
The Tigers defense will be about forcing third and long, which diminishes Henry's effectiveness (11 catches all year) and then they can turn pass rushers loose like they did against Oklahoma.
Do Not Forget Role of Clemson Offense
Part of keeping a defense motivated is having the offense keep them in the contest. Anyone making college football picks understands defense is about execution and emotion. In a contest like this, the offense has to keep matching scores or stay close, giving the defense, especially in the second half, a reason to play their best.
With the Michigan State offense doing nothing against Bama's defense, the Spartans lacked the fire to start the second half and gave up 75-yard touchdown drive to fall behind 17-0 and once the offense did not respond, the game was over except for the final score.
Quarterback Deshaun Watson and the Tigers offense has a momentous job to score on Alabama defense, but if they do, they will help their teammates to stop Henry and the potent Tide running game.