Making the grade: No. 2 Clemson 19, Auburn 13

NCAA Football-Clemson vs. Auburn_DP_2016-2611-XL

In the aftermath of Saturday’s win at Auburn, The Clemson Insider grades No. 2 Clemson’s performance in the 19-13 victory.

Quarterbacks: B-

It’s hard to tell what the issues were exactly without a ton of context, but Saturday wasn’t Deshaun Watson’s best game—not by a long shot. He completed 19 of his 34 passes for 248 yards and a touchdown and made some fine plays along the way. Several of those passes were simply jump balls that he put into the air for his teammates to go catch—a product of Auburn’s defensive scheme and perhaps a bit of impatience—and the rate of success on those appeared low. Watson was held to just 21 rushing yards on 11 carries, too, so Auburn did a nice job of slowing down that aspect of the game. Sure, he made some plays, but given the standard he has set for himself at Clemson, Watson is capable of much more.

Running Backs: A-

This grade is on the shoulders of Wayne Gallman, whose play was largely outstanding during the game. It was a typical Gallman effort on Saturday, as he managed 123 yards on 30 carries and one catch for eight yards. He finished his runs pretty well in traffic and was undeterred when the holes weren’t big enough for him to run straight through. As usual, Gallman was also excellent in pass protection. There are a couple of plays where his blitz pickup stood out in live action. This part of his game is perhaps the most unheralded, but he is excellent in that facet of play. Adam Choice had three carries for seven yards in Saturday’s contest.

Wide Receivers: B

This group was buoyed by Mike Williams’ insane performance in his much-anticipated return to the field. His nine-catch, 174-yard day was by far the most impressive individual performance on the offensive side of the ball. It’s clear he and Watson enjoy a special level of chemistry. The other receivers’ contributions were spotty. Hunter Renfrow’s touchdown grab was a thing of beauty, and it came when Clemson desperately needed someone to make an amazing play. Artavis Scott only had three catches for 30 yards, and after receiving much praise for their respective improvements, Ray-Ray McCloud and Deon Cain combined for nine yards on three receptions. Auburn’s cornerbacks were much better than advertised, but this group will need to get open more frequently in the future for Clemson to fulfill its promise.

Tight End: D-

No catches. No targets. Nothing. The troubles started early when Garrett Williams moved early prior to the game’s first snap. An embarrassing sequence when Clemson had to burn back-to-back timeouts prior to a third down play featured Dabo Swinney laying into Jordan Leggett, only to have Leggett false start after the second timeout. I’m sure there were some nice moments paving the way for runs or chipping in pass protection, but once again, this group seemed to be a train wreck overall.

Offensive Line: B

This group had a difficult challenge. Auburn’s best and deepest unit on either side of the ball is its front four. The fact that the home team didn’t earn a single sack and only had three tackles for loss—aside from being at least somewhat statistically likely—is a credit to the rugged play of this group. The jumbo package that paved the way for Gallman’s touchdown run was a thing of beauty, a throwback to old-school smashmouth football. Besides an illegal formation on a punt that wasn’t attributed to any player, there were no penalties committed by the offensive line. They weren’t charged with holding, and in a raucous environment where communication can be rough, they were never called for a dead-ball penalty. That’s a strong statement right there.

Defensive Line: A

My goodness. Wasn’t there supposed to be some kind of a dropoff here? Clemson did what Clemson does defensively, wreaking havoc in the backfield and reestablishing a new line of scrimmage against the opposition. The Clemson defensive front accounted for two of Clemson’s three sacks, four of its 13 tackles for loss, and all four of its quarterback hurries, as well as two of its five pass breakups. Freshman tackle Dexter Lawrence was second on the team with seven tackles, and bionic man Christian Wilkins added six. Clelin Ferrell made some plays in his debut, and Carlos Watkins was outstanding, as well. The depth and talent here was unmistakable, even in the absence of starting end Austin Bryant.

Linebackers: B+

First, let’s get this out of the way: Both personal foul penalties assessed to Clemson were committed by linebackers. Those screw-ups were poorly timed and unacceptable—especially Ben Boulware’s roughing the passer penalty—but no one can be upset at the level at which this bunch played. Boulware had half-a-dozen tackles, forced a fumble, and intercepted a pass at the goal line. Kendall Joseph was the team’s leading tackler and commanded the game well in his first game as the starter at MIKE linebacker. The others were solid, with very few noticeable errors. Even the times when the group missed in coverage looked like playcalling or physical wins by the offense rather than defensive errors.

Defensive Backs: A

I’m not sure it’s possible to script a better debut for this group. Auburn managed only 175 yards through the air between their three quarterbacks. The expectations were low for their passing game, but given the nature of Gus Malzahn’s offense, it would have been natural to expect more than the one big play that transpired in the downfield passing game. Much to the delight of Clemson fans, the safeties were where they were supposed to be on all but a couple of plays. Jadar Johnson made an outstanding play on an interception in the second half and saved the game by batting the ball down in the end zone on the game’s final play. Van Smith had six tackles in his first game as a starter. The cornerbacks were rarely noticed, and that’s a good thing. Cordrea Tankersley had two tackles for loss and a PBU in the game.

Special Teams: C-

It wasn’t a very good night overall for this crew, even though there were clearly some bright spots. Greg Huegel made both of his field goals, but he also missed an extra point that nearly proved costly. His 40-yard attempt was barely good after a very high snap threw off the timing of the play and drew the ire of Dabo Swinney. It also perhaps led to Swinney’s puzzling decision not to kick a medium-range field goal late in the game that would have all but put Auburn away. Huegel had one touchback in five tries, but he also kicked one out of bounds. Andy Teasdall pinned his first punt inside the 20, but then he bombed one that the Auburn returner deked the Clemson players into allowing to bound into the end zone for a touchback. His next two punts were short, including one that—with help from an illegal formation penalty—gave Auburn the ball at the Clemson 36 prior to its final scoring drive. There were no issues handling punts, and only one kickoff was returnable, but this group was generally underwhelming.

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