Dabo Swinney said he is going to run his quarterback because that is what they do at Clemson.
“It is what it is,” the Tigers’ head coach said on Tuesday. “We run the quarterback here. That is what we do. It’s like not handing it to your running back because he is a little sore. We play. We run our offense.”
But that is not what the seventh-ranked Tigers’ did in their loss to Syracuse on Oct. 13. Quarterback Kelly Bryant ran the football just four times for minus-8 yards and all four rushes were scrambles or sacks as he tried to get away from the pass rush.
Prior to the Syracuse game, the fewest number of carries Bryant had this year came in the season opener when he rushed for 77 yards on 7 carries in a rout of Kent State. After that he had no fewer than 12 carries in anyone game and the only reason he had 12 against Wake Forest was because he injured his left ankle.
Against Auburn, Louisville, Boston College and Virginia Tech, Bryant averaged 19.5 carries per game, including a season-high 22 against Boston College.
Clemson (6-1, 4-1 ACC) did not run its quarterback against Syracuse because it couldn’t. It was obvious Bryant’s ankle was not totally healthy so Swinney and his coaching staff tried to protect him by having him drop back and throw the football.
For the most part Bryant did okay, but once the Orange saw he was no threat to run the ball, they came after him and eventually knocked him out of the game with a concussion.
Swinney said they would have kept Bryant in the game had he not been concussed, which was fine Syracuse head coach Dino Babers. He said afterwards they wanted Bryant to stay in the game because they knew he was not healthy enough to be Kelly Bryant.
The question is as Clemson heads into Saturday’s key ACC showdown with Georgia Tech can Bryant run the football the way Clemson needs him to?
“Kelly is getting better every single day,” Swinney said. “He looked great yesterday. He will continue to progress all through the week and he will be ready to roll.”
But Swinney’s answer does not answer the question. Can he be the Kelly Bryant they need him to be?
On Monday, Bryant said he was 80 to 85 percent healthy on his ankle. That means, as of Monday, he was still limited on what he can do. Can Clemson risk Bryant not being totally healthy again? Remember, a loss at any point the rest of the way means getting to the ACC Championship Game is out the door.
“When you’re talking about an ankle for a quarterback that runs the football, then that is a big 20 to 15 percent,” ESPN analyst Joey Galloway said on College Football Live on Tuesday. “Now if he was a pocket passer that was just going to stand there and deliver the ball downfield, that is a different conversation. So when you think about 80 to 85 percent, when you’re talking football, it always depends where that 15 percent that is missing, where it’s located and what it means to your ability to do your job. When we saw him last against Syracuse with the ankle situation, he didn’t look good when he was trying to run. And you go out on a field and you don’t look good, you don’t have all your tools, for a young quarterback that is tough to deal with.
“I would hope that if on Saturday, if he is 85 percent, he would sit this game out and just get ready for the next game.”
The next game is at No. 14 NC State. The Wolfpack, who play at No. 9 Notre Dame on Saturday, are undefeated in the ACC and a win over Clemson will more than likely lock up the ACC Atlantic Division Championship. The Tigers will need a healthy Kelly Bryant to gain back control of the division and to assure that, the best thing for Clemson might be to sit their star quarterback against Georgia Tech. Why risk getting him injured even more and jeopardizing his effectiveness in both games?
“That ankle is big, not just this week, but for the rest of the year because ankles just don’t heal unless you give them time,” said ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, who is calling this week’s game against Georgia Tech. “If he’s out there playing this week, that thing is going to linger all year long. He’s an ankle turn away from (Zerrick) Cooper getting in there, and Clemson at that point, they’re out of the playoff discussion if they cannot keep Kelly Bryant healthy.”
The Tigers are out of any discussion of any championship if they can’t keep Bryant healthy. If Bryant cannot get his ankle closer to 100 percent by Saturday, what will Swinney do and what quarterback will he play?
It’s a big decision. It’s an important one. It’s one that could decide the Tigers’ fate in the ACC race and in the College Football Playoff picture. Swinney says he always asks his quarterbacks to play smart. He ask them not be reckless.
When it comes to playing Bryant, is anyone asking Swinney that same question?
“Our quarterback is always going to be a factor with his legs. If he can’t put us in position to win, then we have to put someone else in there,” Swinney said.