Asked if the game against Wake Forest on Saturday will be a measure of the improvement and corrections Clemson’s defense has made since Saturday’s loss to Pittsburgh, defensive coordinator Brent Venables shrugged the question off.
“We don’t play well, we’re not going to win,” Venables said on Tuesday. “I don’t really care about gauging and all that. We need to play well.”
Against Pittsburgh, Clemson’s defense allowed 42 points, 464 yards and eight plays of 20-plus yards, including three plays of 40 or more yards.
It wasn’t a situation where Venables needed to sit down and watch the film to diagnose the issues and mistakes defensively. He knew right away.
“I knew the problem,” Venables said. “I didn’t have to watch the film. I knew it on the field.”
The paramount problem was the effectiveness of Pittsburgh’s tight ends and backs in the passing game. The Panthers’ tight ends and backs combined for 17 of their 22 completions, 258 of their 308 passing yards and all five of their passing touchdowns.
Particularly, Pittsburgh had the most success with what Venables called the “inverted shovel option.”
Pittsburgh scored two touchdowns on shovel passes, one to fullback George Aston on the first possession of the game and the other to tight end Scott Orndoff in the third quarter.
The Panthers’ other touchdowns came via a 46-yard pass to running back James Conner on a wheel route, a 55-yard pass to Orndoff on a throwback pass, a 1-yard pass to Aston on fourth-and-goal from the 1 and a 20-yard run by Conner in the fourth quarter that cut Pittsburgh’s deficit to two points with about five minutes left.
Orndoff finished with nine receptions for 128 yards and two touchdowns, while Aston had four catches for 29 yards and a pair of touchdowns as well.
“They had 13 shovels for 75 yards,” Venables said. “The tight ends were the target for all of them but one.”
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney attributed the Panthers’ success with shovel passes to the way they presented it as well as a lack of discipline on the part of the defense.
“I thought Pitt did a great job, first of all,” Swinney said. “I thought they did an excellent job with a lot of different presentations in how they did it. We didn’t play with a lot of discipline. We didn’t do a good job with our eyes, and at the end of the day it falls back on us as coaches. It’s just that simple.”
Clemson’s defense made adjustments at halftime and limited Pittsburgh to just 108 yards and 66 passing yards in the second half thanks to more disciplined play.
“Just played with a little better discipline, as much as anything,” Venables said. “Just better gap integrity and not running up the field on the option. That’s the biggest thing.”
Moving forward, starting with Wake Forest, Clemson can expect coaching staffs to study the weaknesses the defense showed and attack the defense in a similar manner as Pittsburgh did.
Venables said Wake Forest utilizes its tight ends the same way.
“Same way,” Venables said. “Throwback, vertical, stick, boot. I’m sure they’ll put the shovel in.”
“I would,” he added.
Wake Forest has a weapon in junior tight end Cam Serigne, who was an honorable mention All-ACC performer in 2015 when he recorded 46 receptions for 562 yards. Thus far in 2016, he has 20 receptions for 268 yards.
Serigne entered the season tied for third in school history in career receptions and third in receiving yards. He also holds the school mark for career touchdown catches by a tight end.
“He blocks well, catches the ball in space well,” Venables said. “Knows how to run routes and is a big part of their offense.
“Hopefully they don’t throw it to him.”