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Gridiron Grandmasters Pt. I: Poor Opening in UM/Clemson Dooms Rhett Lashlee’s Plans

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It is often in football said that playcalling between two great coaches is a “chess match”, but it has never been said that use of chess principles will benefit great coaches. Until now, that is.

In chess, the opening moves establish the lines of battle. Certain openings have been practiced and studied for centuries, to the point that one move can pre-determine the next 20 moves for both sides. It is critical for chess players to have an opening gameplan that they know well to minimize the chance of making a mistake early on in the game.

In football, offensive coordinators have been known to script the entire opening drive to set up their strategy for the rest of the game. This also minimizes the chances of making a costly mistake in the first quarter.

Mistakes during the opening sequence of moves & plays in both chess and football will often decide the entire game in a matter of minutes. In the Miami/Clemson game, the game was over by the end of Miami’s first drive:

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Miami’s first drive came after Clemson scored on a trick play. Rhett’s play- calling clearly shows that he wanted to respond to Clemson with his own trick play, perhaps to fight fire with fire. However, this was a risky strategy that put Miami on a knife edge from the beginning of the game.

Coach Lashlee explained it himself two days before the game during an interview on the Joe Rose show, saying: “No one wins a championship if they can’t run the football…if you can’t, then it gives you no room for error. Throwing the football and pass protection puts a lot of pressure on your offensive line, puts a lot of pressure on your quarterback and receivers.”

And yet, Lashlee called one run on his first drive, an option run that was blown up in the backfield on the first play. For the next six plays of the drive, he called passes. Mistakes on three of the six passes led the drive to end with a punt, the first of seven for the night.

None of the plays called by Lashlee established runs between the tackles, and all of them attempted to go around the heart of the Clemson defense. While this was likely not the original gameplan based on Rhett’s interview, the opening drive set the tone for the rest of the game: outside of a broken pass play where D’Eriq King ran for 56 yards, Miami only rushed 23 times for 39 yards. The three running backs totaled 10 attempts for 11 yards.

Hindsight is 20/20. Plenty of people have analyzed how Miami went wrong against Clemson. From a chess perspective, things went wrong because the opening was botched. This also shows the best way to avoid similar issues against Pittsburgh. In chess, the best way to improve your openings is to practice and study a particular sequence until you are fully comfortable with a certain sequence of initial moves. This means understanding both the strengths and weaknesses of the opening to the point that you can adjust your tactics based on the strategy of the opposition without losing sight of the overall strategy.

If Coach Lashlee applies the tenets of chess openings to the game against Pittsburgh, Miami’s first drive will be an opening sequence of plays that establishes the run even if Pittsburgh uses an aggressive defense similar to Clemson. Look for Coach Lashlee to call counters, draws, and screens to the running backs during the first drive. When effective, these plays will force Pittsburgh to slow down their blitz and allow for playaction passes. Even if these plays are not effective initially, establishing the run in the first drive should set the stage for more runs later in the game, which in turn allows for more effective and creative playcalling in the second half.

Chess is cool. Go Canes.

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