By Gray Gardner.
CLEMSON – It took every second of the game for Clemson to clinch the ACC Atlantic Division title against Wake Forest, and much of it wasn’t pretty. The Clemson Insider has the inside track on the Tigers’ performance against the Demon Deacons in this week’s edition of Game Grades.
Tajh Boyd’s stat line finished a lot better than it could have on Saturday: 27 of 43 passing for 343 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Boyd did finish the game strong, marching the Tigers downfield on each of his last two possessions. However, the sophomore struggled throughout the majority of the game, and benefited from Wake Forest’s inability to capitalize on mistakes. The Demon Deacons’ defense dropped what could have been 5 more interceptions from Boyd, all on throws that were considerably underthrown. Number 10 will have to play with more confidence in the coming weeks if his team wants to end the season the way they started.
RUNNING BACK: B
Andre Ellington was supposed to be 100% for the first time in weeks and carried the load of Clemson’s rushing attack. Ellington finished the game with 98 yards on 25 carries for an average just under 4 yards per carry. The junior showed great burst on a couple of runs, and made his way into the endzone for 2 scores. D.J. Howard and Mike Bellamy proved to be effective spell backs when Ellington went out and combined for 22 yards on 4 carries. The only negative for this group? Another fumble – this time by Ellington. Clemson’s running backs have to protect the ball better.
WIDE RECEIVER: B+
Maybe it was Wake Forest’s secondary playing outstanding coverage. Maybe it was Clemson’s receivers having a bad route-running day. Or maybe Tajh Boyd was really just that off. Whatever the case, Clemson’s receivers seemed to have a harder time getting open on Saturday than they have in previous games this season. Regardless, the group was still able to haul in some incredible catches. Brandon Ford had the best game of his career with 3 great catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. Jaron Brown, Dwayne Allen and DeAndre Hopkins are all qualifiers for the Mr. Dependable award, as all three players made clutch receptions throughout the game. Sammy Watkins was impressive as always with 5 catches for 62 yards and 2 rushes for 32 yards before leaving the game in the third quarter with a shoulder injury.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
Clemson’s offensive statistics always make the offensive line look better than I think they actually played. The fact is, this line always seems to play softer than opposing defensive lines. There were a few third- or fourth-and-inches situations when Clemson’s line was unable to get a push. Given the fact that Wake Forest’s defensive line averages only 250 lbs. across the board, it’s safe to say the Tigers’ front five underachieved. But, stats are stats, and the Tigers didn’t give up any sacks and opened enough room for 180 yards rushing, which is at least worth an ‘average-above average’ grade.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
Clemson’s defensive line was suspect to many non-holding calls for most of the game. Malliciah Goodman and Andre Branch were held on the ends for most of the game, but were still able to flush the pocket on more than one occasion. Brandon Thompson was destructive inside, but was often double- or triple-teamed. The group created pressure when needed most toward the end of the game, but allowed Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price too much time to throw on more than one occasion. This has and will continue to be an area of improvement for this group.
The Tigers’ linebackers were suspect again in their last outing. There did seem to be improvement in stopping the run, but one-on-one pass coverage was dismal. Clemson’s backers are either just not athletic enough to keep up with receivers across the middle and in the flats, or they are just playing out of position on nearly every pass play. Either way, Clemson’s own defensive scheme seems to be beating them game after game. The best thing this group did? Blitzing. Corico Hawkins benefited from several A-gap blitzes where he went untouched to create pressure in the backfield. The Tiger defense will benefit for more blitzes in the future.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: D+
This may seem harsh to some, but in retrospect, the Demon Deacons had way too much space to make plays. I mean, Wake Forest’s star receiver, Chris Givens, accounted for only 4 catches and 31 yards. Kudos to Coty Sensabaugh for not giving Givens much open room to make the big plays for which he’s known. However, there isn’t much else positive to say about the rest of the Tigers’ secondary. Tanner Price completed 65% of his passes against Clemson’s porous coverage, continually eating up the middle of the field on short slant plays. Part of this can be attributed to poor linebacker play – absolutely. But much of Price’s completions came against man-coverage with his receivers and Clemson’s corner backs. This group is young and has stood strong when needed, but will have to improve.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C+
Allowing a punt return for a touchdown typically knocks this group’s down considerably. So do missed field goals. However, Chandler Catanzaro redeemed all of the special teams when he hit on a game winning field goal from 43 yards out as time expired, punching the Tigers’ ticket to the ACC Championship Game. Don’t get me wrong – the blunders on the punt team and on Catanzaro’s previous field goal attempt must be addressed and improved. But, much like the rest of the team, the group responded in the most critical situations, and deserves credit for their ability to bounce back.
COACHING STAFF: B
As I’ve said in each of Clemson’s ugly wins this season – the bottom line is always winning. It wasn’t pretty. The team did not come out of the gate as if they were ready to play 60 minutes of football, and they proved that. However, adjustments were made throughout the game, and the coaching staff did just enough to leave with an unblemished record at Death Valley.
It’s hard to point fingers at Chad Morris for the offense’s struggles Saturday. Tajh Boyd had a bad game, and when your quarterback has a bad game in a spread offense – the whole offense has a bad game. However, when Boyd got going, the offense was able to function at its ideal pace and forced Wake’s defense to keep up – just as Morris intended.
On the other hand, it’s easy to point fingers at Kevin Steele for the defense’s struggles. Clemson has young, raw talent on the defensive side of the ball, yet has been exploited on a weekly basis this season. If it’s an issue with talent, then the blame is on the coaches for poor evaluation in the recruiting process. If it’s an issue with the complexity of the scheme, then the blame is on the coaches for not adjusting the scheme to the players’ strengths. Either way, Steele and his staff must improve in making adjustments that put their players in position to stop opposing offenses.
At the end of the day, a win is a win, and I’m sure all of Clemson nation will take an ugly ninth win over an ugly second loss.