There are a lot of reasons for fans to feel frustrated at the way fifth-ranked Clemson looked in its 30-24 win over Troy on Saturday. In the moment, it felt like merely a poor performance, but in hindsight, some circumstances conspired to make that happen.
It was hot—really hot. The game took four hours due to incomplete passes and some incomprehensibly long reviews. The offense was out of sync. It was outgained by the Trojans. Veteran players made uncharacteristic errors. The score was too close for comfort. Sun Belt Conference member Troy had an onside kick with a chance to get the ball back and win the game at the end.
All of these things made the game a giant headache for fans. The hand-wringing has begun two games into a defense of what was at least Clemson’s second-best season in 120 years of football. Unveiling a permanent logo to commemorate the playoff appearance served as a reminder, both of the magic carpet ride of 2015 and the great lengths this team needs to go to be able to match it.
But what if I told you there was more to Saturday’s game than style points? What if I told you there were other priorities involved than simply doing whatever it takes to win the game, and that Clemson was able to do those things without sacrificing the win?
It was interesting to hear the approach to this game. Everyone said the right things about Troy being a team with weapons that was good enough to win. No bulletin board material was handed out to the opposition. Getting back home, it was assumed, would be the elixir for whatever ailed the Tigers at Auburn in the opener.
In hindsight, though, Dabo Swinney himself set the tone for the struggle with Troy with some comments he made in his Tuesday press conference about his top regret from the Auburn game:
“That was probably the biggest disappointment for me out of the game. I did a poor job of managing our personnel like I wanted to. Again, first game and a very difficult place—I’m going to do a better job of that. In fact, I apologized to some of the guys because it’s frustrating to me when we’ve got some guys that deserve to play that don’t get the opportunity to get in there.”
Those comments seemed harmless. Honestly, they are. Playing a bunch of players is something fans expect coaches to do when facing teams like Troy. It’s assumed that the game will be one where experience is built within the lower half of the depth chart.
For some reason, however, it seems like Swinney may have overcorrected. After playing only 38 players on offense and defense against Auburn, he played—by our best count—54 guys in the first half against Troy. That’s a dramatic shift in approach from one game to the next. By doing it in the first half, he made sure young and inexperienced players got meaningful snaps at critical points in the game.
In short, he kept his promise.
Because of how he did it, the game hung in the balance for the duration. Starters were on the field in the fourth quarter, long after they should have been able to hit the showers. The offense lacked any consistent rhythm until late in the game. The Trojans took advantage once or twice by scoring against a lineup populated largely by non-starters on the Tigers’ side.
Swinney was asked about whether this strategy was the cause of his team’s poor play. His answer was spot on.
“That had nothing to do with the mistakes we made,” he said. “We had seven or eight drops. Again we aren’t making the layups. If you don’t make those you’re not going to make the three-pointers. We aren’t doing the easy things.”
It’s true that simply playing a ton of new players isn’t the reason why Clemson’s studs failed to consistently produce. Having Maverick Morris or Justin Falcinelli in the game didn’t cause Deshaun Watson to overthrow receivers, or Deon Cain to drop touchdown passes, or Ray-Ray McCloud to sprint into the end zone sans football. Making it a cause-and-effect issue doesn’t address the root.
Swinney insisted that more players would play, and he accomplished that goal while still winning the game. Was it a “best is the standard” game? Not by a long shot. Was it an aesthetically pleasing game to watch? Nope, but Swinney has stated many times that he isn’t interested in style points.
Perhaps the best question to ask when addressing the Troy game is this: Was Saturday about the present or the future? See, by playing a slew of inexperienced players when the game was close, Swinney attempted to build depth first and win the game second. Obviously, it didn’t work out as planned.
When Watson throws 53 passes and Wayne Gallman only gets nine carries, there’s something wrong. One had the workload of a championship game, while the other was obviously being rested. It doesn’t make sense, unless the goal was reflected in Gallman’s workload and the reality of the situation was reflected in Watson’s.
When players don’t execute, the best-laid plans of coaches fail. Drops were a killer. Inconsistent line play was a killer, although a lack of gameday chemistry could be to blame for that. Watson put balls in jeopardy that prolonged his afternoon.
The block quote above wasn’t the only time Swinney spoke about his desire to more evenly distribute playing time on Saturday. One wonders if the top-tier players bought into that more than they should have, assuming both the win and a short afternoon, then arriving to find a whole different challenge awaiting them. For a program that does messaging incredibly well, it appeared to be a case of mixed messaging taking its toll.
Another opportunity to build depth will come against South Carolina State, then the true tests will begin. If this theory is correct—that Swinney accomplished the things he wanted to do to enable long-term growth—the program will benefit. It seems reasonable to think the Tigers will look different when the stakes are higher, but after Saturday, it also seems fair to question the mental maturity of this bunch.
In Swinney’s world, a win is a win. That theory was tested on Saturday. Now, he has to prove that he believes “best is the standard” means taking care of the business at hand, then worrying about what might come down the road.