2015 Orange Bowl Preview

The 2015 Orange Bowl will decide one of the participants in this year’s College Football Playoff National Championship. The #1 ranked Clemson Tigers will face the #4 ranked Oklahoma Sooners in Miami Gardens, Florida. Mark Schofield has looked at the tape and lets us know what to watch for in this year’s Orange Bowl.

The 2015 College Football Playoff kicks off New Year’s Eve when Clemson and Oklahoma clash in the Orange Bowl on Thursday afternoon. The Tigers enter the contest the top-ranked team in the playoffs, having finished the year with an unblemished record and a victory over North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game. Standing in there with them are the Sooners from the Big 12, who secured the conference title and a playoff berth with impressive late-season victories over Baylor, TCU, and Oklahoma State.

When Clemson Has The Football

Clemson’s offense is keyed by sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. The QB completed 287 of 413 passes for 3,512 yards and 30 touchdowns with 11 interceptions during the season, his first as a full-time starter. Watson has an impressive arm, which is on display in this play against Appalachian State:

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The passing game looked to take a step back when the Tigers lost talented receiver Mike Williams in the season-opener, but a number of players have picked up the slack. Artavis Scott leads the team with 84 receptions, for 805 yards and five scores, but Deon Cain (suspended for the playoffs because of a failed drug test) and tight end Jordan Leggett have also contributed to the passing game. When Watson needs a big play, he often looks to wide receiver Charone Peake:

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Not to be ignored is the Clemson running attack. Watson is the team’s second-leading rusher, with 163 carries for 887 yards and 11 touchdowns, outpaced only by classmate Wayne Gallman, who carried the football 243 times for 1,332 yards and 10 scores. The RB displays vision, patience and an impressive burst at times, very suitable for a zone running scheme. All of these traits were on display in this run against Florida State, which helped clinch the ACC Coastal Division:

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A year after finishing next-to-last in the Big 12 against the pass, the Sooners have a revamped defense under defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. Gone is the 4-3 defense, in favor of a three-man front that features Charles Tapper up front, Dominique Alexander and Jordan Evans bolstering the second level along with hybrid LB Eric Striker, and a talented secondary with safety Ahmad Thomas and cornerback Zack Sanchez. The junior CB is one of the nation’s leaders in interceptions, notching five takeaways on the season.

The defense starts up front, with both Tapper and, at times Striker, applying pressure from the interior and off the edge. The senior LB tallied 7.5 sacks on the season, and is a veteran edge player who might be the perfect foil for some of Clemson’s option looks. Watch as Striker plays the option here, stringing out the play toward the sideline and forcing Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs to commit to keeping the football. The LB then secures the tackle for a loss on the play:

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Sanchez, however, might have delivered the biggest play of the year for the Sooners’ defense with one of his five interceptions:

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In overtime against the Volunteers, the CB begins this play in man coverage against a stack-slot look, and perfectly reads the quarterback to cut underneath this out route to seal the victory.

When Oklahoma Has The Ball

Oklahoma has a number of offensive weapons at its disposal as well. Triggered by junior quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Sooners are the sixth-best team in FBS in terms of total offense, averaging 542.9 yards per game. Their running attack features a two-headed monster with Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Perine, a sophomore, is the featured RB, with 211 carries on the season for 1,291 yards and 15 touchdowns:

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After leaving the TCU game with an injury, the sophomore RB returns to the lineup and scores on an impressive 72-yard run that displays speed, power, and competitive toughness as he limps into the end zone.

But the Sooners utilize Mixon, a freshman, a lot in their offense, and the young player has rewarded his coaches to the tune of 110 carries for 749 yards and seven scores. Oklahoma runs a number of plays with both running backs on the field, and even uses the wildcat at times, with Mixon handling the snaps from center.

When Mayfield looks to throw, his prime target is Sterling Shepard. The senior WR led the team with 79 receptions for 1,201 yards and 11 touchdowns, and has shown a flair for the dramatic. It was his touchdown reception against Tennessee that sent the game into overtime, but not to be forgotten is his catch from earlier in the drive along the sideline that displays awareness, hand strength and footwork:

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The Tennessee game was not the only time that Mayfield and Shepard connected in a big spot. When the Sooners needed to finish a crucial drive against Baylor to seal their win, the biggest play of the drive was this connection on a corner route:

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Shepard is not the lone receiving threat for the Sooners. Mayfield also has receivers Dede Westbrook (42 receptions for 674 yards and four TDs) and Durron Neal (42 receptions for 527 yards and three TDs). Mixon has chipped in 25 receptions for 345 yards and four touchdowns working out of the backfield.

The Tigers defense is led by three players who might be first-round selections in the upcoming NFL draft. Defensive end Shaq Lawson notched 9.5 sacks on the season, including two in Clemson’s blowout victory over Miami. The DE is impressive to watch on the field, and as noted by Jeff Risdon in this piece at DraftBreakdown, he is “a legit top 20 talent with a nice barrage of moves and impressive speed-to-power conversion.” Behind him the secondary is keyed by two other potential first-round selections, cornerback Mackensie Alexander (a redshirt sophomore) and safety Jayron Kearse. The CB is skilled in both man and zone coverage schemes, and does travel on occasion, and he might be matched up against Shepard at times. Alexander also displays impressive awareness and recognition, as shown here on this attempted swing screen by N.C. State:

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The CB identifies the play and splits the duo of blockers, delivering a crushing blow to the intended target to breakup the play.

Kearse is a big safety (6’5” 220) in the mold of Kam Chancellor, who plays often down in the box. Here he is blitzing against North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game, applying pressure on the quarterback and forcing a throw that results in an interception:

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He is also tasked with playing in the deep middle of the field in a center fielder’s role, but that doesn’t prevent him from exploding forward when the situation warrants:

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And for good measure, he can even line up outside in press alignment:

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Matchup To Watch

The game might come down to the contest between Mayfield and this Oklahoma passing attack against Alexander, Kearse, and the Clemson secondary. It will be interesting to see how the Tigers choose to defend Shepard, whether by relying on man coverage with Alexander or rolling Kearse or free safety T.J. Green over to provide help. How the Clemson defense plays in the secondary – and how Mayfield reacts – will go a long way toward determining the winner of this playoff game.

Draft Prospects

Some analysts consider Shepard one of the top receivers in this class. Striker, Sanchez, and Tapper are all considered early-round talents. For Clemson, Lawson, Alexander, and Kearse have all been mocked in the first round in recent reports. Another player to keep an eye on is tight end Jordan Leggett. In what might be a down year for the position, the TE is a versatile player who can line up all over the field, and is an adept blocker in space and on the inside.

Prediction

Clemson has the talent to slow down Oklahoma and the weapons to score points. 31-27 Tigers.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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