Clemson trailed Oklahoma by just one point at halftime of the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Capital One Orange Bowl, but it was enough to cause Tigers first-year offensive coordinator Tony Elliott to do a bit of soul-searching as he jogged toward the locker room.
A promising scoring drive had just ended with an interception in the end zone. Minutes prior, another promising drive stalled after an ill-fated trick play call on third-and-short from the Sooners' 12-yard line. The Tigers settled for a field goal.
There’s offensive creativity, and then there’s doing too much. Elliott knew that he’d blurred the line.
“I’m learning every game,” Elliott said after the Tigers' eventual 37-17 win over the Sooners. “I’ve got a lot to learn as a playcaller. We probably pressed a little bit in the red zone in the first half.”
The Tigers rushed for 2.3 yards per carry inside the Oklahoma 20 during the first two quarters; All-American quarterback Deshaun Watson was 1-of-5 passing for 8 yards, with that pick.
And yet the game was well within reach.
Elliott’s response was to approach each position group in the locker room at halftime. Starting with the offensive linemen, he asked the players for input.
“What do you want to run?” he asked them.
The linemen, as linemen are wont to do, said they wanted to lean on the team’s run game. The receivers, quarterbacks and running backs followed with a similar refrain.
“They were all on the same page,” Elliott said. “I said, ‘Y’all are the ones playing. Let’s go get it done.’ And they did. They took pride in it.”
Clemson started the second half with a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that featured seven running plays. Once the Tigers neared the goal line, Watson took the ball down to the 1 and then running back Wayne Gallman scored on the next play. It wasn’t fancy, but it put the Tigers back in front, and they never trailed again, outscoring the Sooners 21-0 in the second half. They rushed for 312 yards to Oklahoma’s 67. Both Watson (145) and Gallman (150) finished with more than 100 yards.
The coordinator’s democratic approach worked. In a year of learning on the fly -- Elliott had never called plays anywhere before 2015 -- the 36-year-old former Clemson receiver had figured out an answer in the middle of the season’s biggest game.
“You’ve got to have some things and some answers to stretch the defense schematically,” Elliott said, “but if what you’re doing is working, then don’t go away from it. Don’t get caught up in yourself and trying to do too much.”
Because of that adjustment and the Capital One Orange Bowl win, there’s another game for Elliott and Clemson. The top-seeded Tigers face No. 2 Alabama on Monday in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T. A win would give the Tigers their first national title since 1981.
One Power 5 head coach said it's easy to fall into the trap of trying to do too much when there is so much time to prepare for a game.
“In bowl games, with that much time to prepare, you basically convince yourself that you’ve got to do some out-of-the-box type of stuff or else you didn’t take advantage of the extra time to prepare,” he said. “Seems like there was some of that [for Elliott].”
It was a lesson learned for Elliott, and it's not one he's likely to carry into the national championship.
“You’ve got to be in tune with what your players can do,” Elliott said. “Do what your players can do and do well. If they’re confident and they’ve had success, they’ll continue to have success.”