This past week, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and the rest of the offensive coaches got their players together and told them they needed to stop listening to all the talk about why they have not lived up to the standards the 2015 offense set.
Those Tigers put 500 or more yards in 11 straight games to conclude the season. They averaged over 45 points in those 11 games and scored on anyone they played, including Alabama in the national championship game.
Because of those reasons, plus the return of eight starters off that unit, everyone just expected Clemson to look the same in 2016. Through the first four games, that was not the case.
The Tigers sputtered at times. The offensive line looked shaky, quarterback Deshaun Watson has been off the mark at times, the wide receivers have been dropping passes and the running game has been inconsistent.
“When we spoke to the guys, we told them, ‘This is 2016. What is our identity going to be on offense?’ They have been compared to last year so much, last year was the standard and I don’t know if that can be duplicated, especially with 11 straight games of 500 yards.” Elliott said. “But, we have an opportunity to be a very explosive offense. So I asked them, ‘What is our identity going to be?’”
If Saturday’s 42-36 victory over Louisville is an indication, the Tigers are going to be a big-play offense, especially when they need those plays the most.
Against the Cardinals, Clemson (5-0, 2-0 ACC) had touchdowns of 33, 37, 24, 20 and 31 yards against a defense that came in ranked No. 13 in the country in yards allowed. They averaged 8.2 yards per play.
However, it wasn’t just the big plays. The Tigers also rushed for 201 yards on 31 carries (6.5 yards per carry). They threw the ball for 306 more on 31 pass attempts. And they did not allow a sack. Louisville had just two tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
“We can run the football when we want to run the football,” Elliott said. “We had over 200 yards rushing against a top 15 defense. We can throw the ball when we want to throw the ball. We can take what is there.
“We can be an offense that is very similar to last year, but it may not happen the same way so we have to be able to adjust last year. What we really want to see are these guys perform, and what you saw today is that they have the heart of a champion and if we keep working, we will clean up those little things which will help us get better.”
Against Louisville, turnovers were the problem. Watson threw three interceptions, two that were his fault, while also losing one fumble. One of his interceptions was in the end zone. Tight end Jordan Leggett also lost a fumble down near the goal line that cost the Tigers’ seven points that changed the entire complexion of the game.
But both Watson and Leggett bounced back. Trailing by eight points, Watson first found Mike Williams on a skinny post for a 20-yard touchdown with 7:05 to play that cut the lead to two points. Then, he and Leggett connected for a 31-yard touchdown pass with 3:14 to play that turned out to be the game winner.
“It validates to them that we can be everything that people think we are, but we can’t be focused on what they are saying. We have to focus on our formula for success,” Elliott said.
And when the Tigers do that, they’re very hard to beat. Ask Louisville’s defense.