Todd Blackledge on the College Football Season and Playoff Semifinals

December 29, 2015

With college football season heading into its final stretch, we’re looking forward to the action of the Orange Bowl and College Football Playoff Semifinals on New Year’s Eve. Todd Blackledge, former NCAA and NFL quarterback, will be calling the action during the Orange Bowl on Thursday, as well as serving as game analyst for the National Championship presented by AT&T on ESPN Radio on January 11th. Our good friends at ESPN were kind enough to share Derek Volner’s recent in-depth interview leading into the Playoff.

Live stream all the action during College Football Playoff Semifinals on New Year’s Eve December 31 on ESPN.

Derek Volner: Can you break down the quarterbacks? What do you think about the match‑up between Clemson and Oklahoma?

Todd Blackledge: I’m thrilled to be doing this game for that reason, as much as I think both teams are outstanding. But I’m really excited to watch these two guys play.

I saw Baker Mayfield twice during the season. I saw him early against Tennessee, and he was brilliant in the comeback late in that game. And then I saw him against TCU, and he didn’t finish the game because he got injured and knocked out of the game. But [I] watched him a lot on tape. Deshaun Watson I have not seen in person, but I’ve watched a lot of tape on him, and they are just two outstanding football players, and very similar in a lot of ways.

They’re both extremely accurate, excellent decision makers in their offense, and both very dangerous, not just capable, but very dangerous runners in critical situations, and so I just think it’s going to be an outstanding match‑up.

Obviously it’s not those two going against each other, but it’s going to be really fun for me watching the two of them. I love the way that both of them play the position.

Do you think a more defensive‑oriented team like Michigan State is more of a match‑up for Alabama than what either Clemson or Oklahoma could potentially give them in a potential final?

Well, you know, I think that you see in today’s world of college football, you see a little bit of everything, so even within the SEC, whereas several years ago maybe you didn’t see a Big 12‑type offense or a Clemson‑type offense and you were seeing more teams similar to yourself, that’s changed. I mean, everybody is doing a lot of different things offensively now.

I think when Alabama looks at Michigan State, they see a team that’s very similar to themselves, and they’re physical, they want to control and dominate the line of scrimmage. They don’t want to beat themselves. They’re not vanilla when it comes to offense, but they are a physical—they play a physical brand of offensive football, and they want to try to hurt you with play action passes and big plays off their running game, and then they play great defense. I think more so than maybe looking at Oklahoma or Clemson as a match‑up in a semifinal game, they’re looking in the mirror more with Michigan State than with either of those other teams.

The Sooners have a pretty good backfield, obviously. How would you rank their backfield nationally?

I think they’re an outstanding backfield. I mean, when you throw the quarterback in there, as well, and his ability to run, but just even when you talk about Perine and Mixon, I think they’ve done a great job this year of getting them not only both touches, but both on the field at the same time, which really creates some problems. Mixon’s versatility and his ability to go out and play as a slot receiver, as well as line up in the backfield, I just think has given them a real bonus offensively, and the numbers don’t lie. Really, on this seven‑game winning streak they’ve been averaging over 700 yards a game rushing. Part of that is the offensive line and that group gelling and settling in, but you have two outstanding backs that really make it difficult for a defense to zero in on either one of them.

And then again, when you get to 3rd and 3 or 3rd and 4, Baker Mayfield is a dangerous runner, as well, if you concentrate too much on anything else.

Kirby Smart juggling both his coordinator role at Alabama and the head coaching role at Georgia, if they get to the national title game, how do you think that works out in terms of the exposure for Georgia and not being full‑time on those new duties?

Well, I don’t think it’s ideal, obviously, for either group. But I think, and I’d have to go back and look, but I’m pretty sure that Nick Saban and Alabama has managed this before with some other guys. I think Jim McElwain was in the same situation before he went to Colorado State, and I think Nick is really good about, at least my recollection in the past, he’s been really good about, this is the time when you focus on us, and in the evening if you need to do stuff for your new job and recruiting and your staff, you have time and an office and an opportunity to work both.

It’s not ideal, but I think Nick and the people at Alabama probably manage that as well if not better than anybody else.

30‑some years later with Penn State playing Georgia, what’s your last memory of that ’83 Sugar Bowl and the way the national title is determined now versus what it was then?

Yeah, well, I have a lot of great memories from that game. It just kind of gets rekindled every time I do a Georgia game. I have great respect for Georgia and that program and the team that we played in that Sugar Bowl. They were undefeated and ranked No. 1, and the way the season had played out, we ended up No. 2, so it was that kind of a championship match‑up just by the way the season played out.

And I guess my most lasting memory is Gregg Garrity’s catch, his diving catch in the end zone in the fourth quarter, and we never trailed, so we were ahead the whole game, but that touchdown kind of extended the lead at a critical time, and that’s the play that stands out to me more than anything.

Do you recall the pattern and do you remember even the name for that play, and can you speak to the fact that Gregg was a former walk‑on and the hero he became at a game like this, and if bowl games kind of lend itself to this possibility? There are a lot of examples of unsung guys, unheralded guys, that have been heroes in games like this.

Yeah, I mean, that’s true. Now, I would say this about Gregg Garrity, first of all: He had an outstanding career at Penn State. He was a walk‑on. His dad was a player at Penn State. But he ended up playing in the league and was Randall Cunningham’s, one of his favorite targets with the Eagles, and he was a really good receiver, deceptively fast and quick for his size. So he was a very dependable guy.

And in that particular play, I think if I remember, I think the name of the play was 643, which was a play action pass. We had run seven consecutive plays before that, and we threw a play action pass, and he ran by their cornerback. I think the kid was a freshman, Tony Flack, and then just made a great catch down in the end zone.

But he was an outstanding receiver, a very sure‑handed guy, and it was just a fun play to be a part of.

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I was going to ask you about Bob Stoops, a guy who hasn’t had the Sooners in this position for seven years, sort of some murmurs that the program had gotten stale the last several. I’m wondering what kind of a season this has been in terms of importance for Bob. You don’t see a coach stay at a place this long and here he is 17 years later getting OU back to where he once did.

Yeah, well, first of all, Bob is a great coach, and he always has been. All he’s done is win there.

Sometimes success is your greatest enemy, and the success that he had and has had over a continued period of time there, you know, the expectations are incredibly high at Oklahoma.

And I think he gets that, and he’s a competitor. He’s a Youngstown guy. I’m an Ohio guy. He’s a tough‑minded guy.

So I think…I don’t think they’ve fallen off or been that far away over the last few years, but this has to be a sweet season for him.

And obviously he made some difficult changes on his coaching staff. I mean, coaches are…my dad was a coach for 40 years, and it’s a really tight fraternity and you hate to let guys go, and when coaches get fired or changes are made, it affects families, and that’s a lot easier said than done from the inside.

But he made some tough choices at the end of last year and brought in some new guys, and I think that the staff changes have been a real breath of fresh air for them.

And of course when you have a quarterback that shows up at your doorstep and walks on and turns out to be the kind of player that Baker has been, that helps, too.

But I think it has to be a super rewarding season for Bob because when I look at their team right now, and I’ve said this on the air down through the stretch of the season, they remind me very much of what Ohio State looked like last year, a team that had a disappointing loss early in the year, an upset loss. They made some fixes, they made some changes, and then they continued to get better and grow as the year went on, and the more Oklahoma played this year, the better they got down the stretch, and that’s exactly what happened with Ohio State last year. That’s why those teams, they remind me very much of each other as Oklahoma gets ready for this game.

Do you think last year’s Clemson‑Oklahoma game has any relevance at all, and also could you comment on the job that Swinney has done just getting Clemson to where they are now?

Yeah. Well, I think for the guys that played in the game last year, it has some bearing. But every team is different. Every season is different. I don’t think revenge is a great motivating factor for any team, so I don’t think Oklahoma will put a lot of stock in we’re going to try to revenge or avenge last year’s game.

This game is huge. This game, the winner has an opportunity to go play for a National Championship, and that’s all the motivation you need.

I think Oklahoma also will look at that game and say, okay, well, this quarterback who finished third in the Heisman race, he was on the sidelines in street clothes last year, and so it’s a different team even than the one that we faced because he is a running threat, particularly the last five, six, seven games of the year. Their offense is a very high‑level offense.

So I don’t think it has a whole lot to do with it, and once they kick it off, I mean, you have two outstanding football teams going at each other.

Can you talk about Swinney a little bit?

Yeah, well, Dabo, he’s one of my favorite guys because of his energy, his passion. When you talk to him, I mean, he gets everybody in a production meeting, he gets you fired up. He’s genuine and real, and he’s turned on all the time like that.

So where you know that plays out and has always played out in his career is recruiting. He’s always been able to recruit and attract talent, and he’s very charismatic that way, and he’s done a great job of that.

And then I think where he’s really started to show himself, and maybe people have been a little bit slow to give him credit is just how good of a coach he is.

He has taken Clemson to an elite status, I think, in college football. I think a lot of people, even this year, a lot of people on the outside kind of were waiting for Clemson to stub their toe or stumble, and they didn’t do it. In fact, they’re the only team that didn’t, and not only did they win, they won some impressive games against some good opponents, some high‑caliber opponents.

So I think not only has he taken Clemson to a new level; I think in the eyes of people that cover college football, he’s gone to a different level. It’s not just this charismatic, energetic, team‑building, great recruiting guy, but also a guy who along with his staff can coach the heck out of football.

Of the teams Oklahoma has played this year, who would Clemson compare to offensively?

Well, you know, here’s the interesting thing. I mean, you would automatically say probably, if they would have been healthy, if Trevone Boykin would have been healthy, I would have said TCU probably more than anybody else. The interesting thing to me, I think Oklahoma defensively to me has played at a much higher level than they did last year. In fact, that to me is the biggest difference in their team, particularly in their pass defense. But the reality is in those key wins down the stretch against Baylor, TCU and Oklahoma State, they didn’t face the top quarterback, you know, in those offenses.

This will be a different challenge because they haven’t played a guy as good as Deshaun Watson at that position. From a decision‑making standpoint, from an accuracy standpoint, from a run, dual‑threat standpoint, this is the best guy at that position that they’ve faced.

I think the other weapons around, they’ve faced comparable talent in Baylor in particular. TCU was down because Doctson was hurt, and Oklahoma State has good skill guys.

But the quarterback, the guy who has the ball in his hands every play, they haven’t faced a guy like this yet.

Staying with Clemson, I was asked on a radio show out of Oklahoma last week, where was the disconnect in that Clemson has beaten three top‑10 teams and might have the best résumé of the four but is considered by many in the national media to be the weakest of the four and not really have much of a chance to advance to the title game or win a title. I was just wondering your thoughts on that; what makes people still not believers in Clemson?

I don’t know. 13‑0 is pretty impressive to me. In today’s world of college football, if you go undefeated over 13 games, that’s not an easy thing to do.

Maybe it’s because people still maybe don’t look at the ACC the same way that they look at the SEC or the Big 12 or the Big Ten, but I think in the case of the four teams this year, you know, I think all four teams have a 50 percent chance of winning at this point. I think everything, all bets are off. Everybody has had time to rest and get healed up and put a game plan together. You’ve got four outstanding teams, and I think you can make a case for all four of them.

I don’t slight anybody in this Final Four field, and certainly not with Deshaun Watson and the way he’s playing and a rested football team, shoot, I think they can play with anybody.

Is there another player on the roster that jumps out to you other than Deshaun Watson?

Well, I think I like the way Gallman runs. I think he has given them a physical presence in the running game. I think they’ve always had, and I don’t want to call them Wide Receiver U, but they’ve had a pretty good history here recently of big‑time wide receivers, and I think they’ve got some guys that are big‑time players. Some of them are young and maybe are a year away from being dominant players, but they’ve got guys that scare you.

I think Leggett, the tight end, is an impressive guy, very valuable part of their offense, and if you get too concerned with guys outside, he’s a guy that can hurt you in the middle of the field.

So I think they’ve got really good weapons all around Watson.

And then obviously on defense, Lawson stands out when you see him on film. I mean, he’s one of those guys that you just have to account for. You’ve got to pay attention to where he is and know where he lines up because he can ruin plays, and those are guys you have to account for in your game plan.

The talent pool in this College Football Playoff is deep from top to bottom. Say that you’re a coach and you have to pick one player to build your team around; who are you picking?

Out of this Final Four pool? Is that what you’re saying? Well, you know, I would take one of these two quarterbacks that’s in this game, Watson or Mayfield, because to me in today’s world of college football, it’s become a much more quarterback‑oriented game, and I just think those two guys have played at an extremely high level.

Not to take anything away from a guy like Derrick Henry who won the Heisman Trophy, or the quarterback on Michigan State or Alabama, but I just think those two guys, I’d flip a coin. You give me either one of those and we’ll go see what we can do.

I wanted to get away from the Final Four a little bit here and talk about Christian Hackenberg. Assessments of him are kind of all over the place. He’s going to be the next Troy Aikman and then there’s other people who have a problem with his accuracy, and a lot of people think his numbers are impacted by the offensive system he’s in, the offensive line he’s playing with. Where do you kind of fit on that? What’s your take on his career and the year he’s had this year and what kind of an NFL prospect?

Well, I think a lot of the things you mentioned all have played a part in his production, in his development. I think the fact that he’s played a couple different systems—I think everything that you’ve pointed out is a factor.

Here’s what I think about Christian: I think Christian has all the skills to be an outstanding NFL quarterback. However, I think he needs to be kind of retooled and re‑coached fundamentally. People talk about his accuracy. Anybody that plays or coaches the position of quarterback knows accuracy has more to do with your feet than it does with your arm, and I think his footwork and his fundamentals and those kind of things, he’s regressed a little bit, I guess, in some of that.

And part of that is protection breakdowns. Part of that is not trusting your protection. But part of it is I just don’t know how well he’s been coached in that part of it over the last couple years, and I just think that whoever gets a hold of…whatever he does and whatever he does for next year, I think the key thing for him is he needs to get back to the basics and get kind of retooled from a footwork and fundamentals standpoint to go along with the arm talent, the brain, and his toughness.

He’s got all the skills, but I think his production has been a little inconsistent because I think his fundamentals are inconsistent. I guess that’s my assessment of him.

Alabama was also a big favorite in last year’s playoff game against Ohio State. Is there anything that they could have learned from that game that they can bring into this year, and how would you compare last year’s Alabama team to this year’s?

Well, first of all, I did that game when they lost to Ohio State, and you know, that game was on the verge of really going in Alabama‘s favor, and they threw an interception. They kind of went for a little bit of a trick play. They had good field position after a turnover. Had they scored there, it would have really put more pressure on Cardale Jones to throw them back into the game, and who knows, it might have been a different outcome.

Ohio State was clearly the best team by the end of that game, but there was a point in that time, in that game early, where Alabama had a chance to kind of really put the squeeze on them and didn’t do it.

So in comparing the teams, I think last year Alabama maybe was a little bit better offensively, had a little bit more going for it in that regard, but I think defensively they’re a better football team this year. Their defensive front is so deep and so strong, and they just make things very, very difficult, particularly when it comes to running the football.

Ohio State was able to run the football, and the longer that game went on, the better they ran the football, and I think Alabama is a much better run defensive football team than they were a year ago.

You’ve talked a lot about the OU offense. What about the defense; what impresses you about the Sooners‘ defense?

Well, I think the biggest thing, when you look at where the improvement that they’ve made, it’s in the back end of their defense, and it’s in the pass defense. Last year they were real good against the run and not as much against the pass, so it was a real imbalance in their defense. That may be okay if you play in the Big Ten like that or in some cases you play in the SEC like that. But when you play in the Big 12 if you’re shaky in your pass defense, you’re going to have some major problems.

And so I think that contributed to their season last year and some of the losses.

This year they’ve balanced out their defense much better. They still are strong against the run, but they are much more sound in their back end of their defense, and I think part of that is you’ve got some guys that are a year older. They played young guys last year that maybe weren’t quite ready to play as many reps as they were getting. But those guys are all better.

And then I think just the combination of Sanchez and Thomas at the corner, when those two guys are both healthy and out there and playing, that gives you two guys that are really pretty solid defenders that you can kind of get creative with some other guys and do some different things coverage‑wise.

I just think that their pass defense is so much better, and so they’re just so much more consistently sound and fundamentally sound, and a lot of that is just guys are older, more mature in the defense, and they’ve just played at a very high level together throughout the course of the year.

Could you just give me what you think is the key match‑up to this football game between Clemson and Oklahoma, what you think is going to be maybe the thing that’s going to sway the outcome of this bowl game?

Well, I really think that which team can have the most success creating balance offensively. I think that’s one of the keys, and being able to establish their run. Obviously coming into the game, Oklahoma seems to be the more powerful running team, but I think that Clemson has greatly improved their run game this year compared to last year.

So I think that as good as these two quarterbacks are and as good as they both throw the football, if either defense has a chance to one‑dimensionalize the offense, they’ll have the upper hand. As good as Baker and as good as Deshaun is, they have to have balance in their offense. I think that’s important. I don’t think that there’s a specific number that they have to hit in terms of rushing yards, but I think there has to be some effectiveness and efficiency in the run game to balance the offense.

And then I think the other thing is turnovers. One of the most amazing stats or interesting stats to me looking at this game is that usually one of the most telling stats is turnover margin. It’s usually consistent with top teams, with championship teams, and teams at this level. Oklahoma is +10 in the turnover margin. Clemson, the only undefeated team in the field, is ‑2. That’s intriguing to me. But I think especially with the layoff and not being hit and not having a lot of contact in practices, taking care of the ball and turnovers in a game like this become huge, as well.

Don’t miss Todd Blackledge calling the Orange Bowl and all the action during College Football Playoff Semifinals on New Year’s Eve December 31 on ESPN.

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