South Carolina's offensive line versus Clemson's defensive line

Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports


When South Carolina and Clemson face off this Saturday night, one of the key battles will be between Clemson's defensive line and USC's offensive line. Many believe that this year's Gamecock OL is the best iteration since Spurrier arrived in Columbia. It certainly seems that way with Mike Davis leading the SEC in rushing.

On the other side of the ball, Clemson has finally been able to shape its 4 and 5 star recruits into an elite DL. Clemson has faced three good rushing attacks (FSU, BC, and Georgia Tech) and has been successful in limiting the effectiveness of all three

  • Boston College: 30 non-QB rushes for 125 yards; average of 4.2
  • FSU: 31 non-QB rushes for 123 yards; average of 4.0
  • Georgia Tech: 45 rushes for 248 yards; average of 5.5


When you dive deeper into advanced statistics, it is obvious that Clemson's front seven has been the main reason for Clemson's success on defense. However, before I dive in deep, I'll summarize in case people don't wish to read all the details

  • Clemson's DL has been elite at limiting 4-5 yard runs and at sacking opposing QBs
  • Clemson's secondary has been awful at limiting big runs (and likely just as bad against passes)
  • USC's OL has been good at blocking the opposing front seven
  • Mike Davis has been elite at breaking big runs once into the open field
  • One key to the game is whether USC's OL can continue to be successful at blocking the opposing front seven; if so, Mike Davis will likely break several long runs
  • My prediction is that we will see Clemson's DL cause more 1-2 yard carries but that Mike Davis will break multiple long runs. Failure to do this would be a huge lost opportunity for USC
  • Connor Shaw will be pressured and needs to use his mobility to escape sacks or throw the ball away
  • All numbers are unadjusted for opponent or situation so a slight downgrade in numbers and ranks for Clemson and slight upgrade for USC due to opponent strength is likely; only FBS opponents are considered

Explanation of statistics

I will show this by using some advanced statistics developed by Football Outsiders, specifically adjusted line yards, second level yards, open field yards, power success, stuffed, and sack rate. For more information, you can read the links below.

Adjusted line yards measures the success of the OL in blocking the DL. It credits the OL with 120% of lost rushing yards, 100% of 1-4 rushing yards, 50% of 5-10 rushing yards, and 0% of 10+ yards. Second level yards and open field yards shows how successful a team is at intermediate and long runs. These two measure a RB and secondary's skill. Power success shows how often a team is successful at converting short yardage situations. Stuffed percentage shows how often a team loses yards on a running play.

I also included a key passing stat: sack rate. It divides a team's sacks by pass attempts. The reason to do this is to adjust for teams that pass a lot versus teams that never pass. You wouldn't expect Georgia Tech to get sacked a lot on offense, but it's still interesting to see what percent of the time they are sacked.

Clemson DL versus USC OL

Let's see how Clemson's defense and USC's offense stack up.

Clemson defense USC Offense
Metric Average Value Rank Top Value Team Metric Rank Top Value Team
Yards per rush 4.82 5.05 88 3.19 Baylor 5.42 24 7.29 Wisconsin
Adjusted Line Yards 3.10 2.52 10 1.99 Virginia Tech 3.32 32 4.22 Navy
Second Level Yards 1.02 0.94 45 0.60 Alabama 1.02 60 1.51 Ohio State
Open Field Yards 1.15 1.99 118 0.22 Ohio State 1.55 26 2.82 Wisconsin
Power 60% 44% 8 29% North Texas 64% 48 88% Hawai'i
Stuffed 12% 15% 23 31% Tulane 10% 40 5% Navy
Sack Rate 6% 9% 8 11% Virginia Tech 6% 77 1% Toledo

The first thing I notice is how bad Clemson's defense is overall against the run versus how good USC's offense is. But what's even more interesting is that Clemson's DL shows elite performance in adjusted line yards, limiting runs in power situations, and stuffing runs for no gain or a loss. What this means is that Clemson prevents a lot of 4 and 5 yard runs and they sack the opposing QB a lot. But if a RB can get to about 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, there's a great chance that the RB will break a long run against Clemson's defense

The second thing I notice is that USC is good at blocking, ranking #32, and USC's open line yards are elite. Think about all those long Mike Davis runs (and that one Shon Carson run against Florida). Davis is great at breaking a tackle or making a defender miss to break a long run.

What this means that if, and it's a big one, USC's OL can block Clemson's DL, you should see quite a few long Mike Davis runs.

Clemson DL compared to similar USC opponents

Let's see whether this is possible by comparing Clemson's DL to the best ones USC saw this year.







USC versus those four

USC overall

Yards per rush








Adjusted Line Yards








Second Level Yards








Open Field Yards
























Sack Rate








My immediate takeaway here is that all four of those defenses were successful in limiting USC's blocking. However, USC still got a healthy yards per carry due to breaking multiple longer runs (high open field yards). You'll remember that USC had a bad day running against Missouri, but was more successful against the other three teams, which fits in each of their profiles. (Mizzou is elite at limiting long runs as well whereas the other three teams are not.)

Sack rate ended up where you'd expect--between USC's average and what the other four averaged. That means that Clemson will likely get pressure on Shaw. He needs to use his mobility to escape the pressure that he'll see or be quick with his reads to neutralize the rush.

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