By William Qualkinbush.
Here are a few observations following the Tigers’ 26-14 win in Raleigh against N.C. State on Thursday night:
• The Wolfpack provided a really stiff test, stiffer than I thought. Dave Doeren certainly left quite an impression. He used some of the craziest formations I’ve ever seen at any level from any team, and Clemson’s defense had to be on top of things just to keep up with where key players were in the formations. I thought Brent Venables’ crew handled the confusion well, for the most part.
• Defensively, N.C. State was a veteran team, so we knew it would be a tough test, particularly given how the Wolfpack was shredded by Clemson’s offense a season ago. Yardage was tough to come by, and it didn’t help that Tajh Boyd was in a funk for almost the entire first half. The key to winning games will be defense for N.C. State, and tonight was a solid performance that can help build some confidence going forward.
• Rod McDowell was outstanding once again. His stat line isn’t stellar—14 carries, 67 yards, 1 catch, 10 yards. But the senior showed up big in key moments. For example, he took a beating in pass protection on 3rd and 16 on the Tigers’ first drive, allowing Tajh Boyd to step up and complete the pass to keep the drive alive. Plays like that and the spin move on a long run later in the game give particular value to McDowell’s presence on the field.
• Speaking of Boyd, it wasn’t his best effort. He was all over the place early, missing Martavis Bryant and Sammy Watkins on first-half post routes that would have gone for touchdowns. But 24-of-37 for 244 yards and three scores isn’t awful, and his Heisman stock certainly didn’t take a dive given his poise and the degree of difficulty of some of the plays he made throughout the game. His tough running was also important, as he amassed 38 yards on the ground and continued to be automatic in short yardage situations.
• Eventually, Bryant seemed to get comfortable for the first time of his career. He caught a pretty post corner ball from Boyd for his first touchdown in the contest, then he hauled in a back-shoulder throw off the crown of the opponent’s helmet for another score. He was second on the team in catches (6) and yards (73). This may have been the performance he needed going forward.
• Sammy Watkins had the quietest ten-catch, 97-yard receiving game in history. Think about that stat line for a second. The guy was money in the possession game, even though much of his downfield work attracted too much attention for Boyd to try to find him.
• The Tigers got a ton of breaks from the Wolfpack tonight. Twice, players stepped out-of-bounds on long runs. There were several dead-ball penalties called against the N.C. State offense, and it seemed all the motion and chaos of moving parts bogged the pre-snap process down to the point that mistakes were made. In all, the Wolfpack committed nine penalties for 59 yards, while the Tigers had six for 45 yards in the game.
• Speaking of confusion, both teams had issues with calling weird timeouts. Half of the allotted timeouts were used in the first 14 minutes, and neither coach was particularly happy about calling them. Doeren took umbrage with the decisions to grant timeouts to the Tigers, while Dabo Swinney reamed a player for not being on the field and causing him to burn one. Miscues like those were abundant throughout the game.
• Both teams got into the crazy shifting side of offense at different times. On one occasion, the Wolfpack had six—6!!!—players lined up on the line of scrimmage to the right of the center. Another time, the N.C. State offense went from an empty set to a diamond look in the backfield. And on Clemson’s first touchdown, five players split out into motion from a stacked set, including extra tackle Isaiah Battle. Weird, weird stuff.
• Tackle issues plagued the Tigers from the outset. Starting right tackle Gifford Timothy was jerked out of the game after being abused twice on pass rushes by a single rusher on the game’s first possession. Shaq Anthony replaced him and wasn’t quite as bad. At times, Brandon Thomas shifted over into the right tackle slot and Battle manned the left edge of the line. It’s nice to have depth, but I’m sure Chad Morris and Swinney didn’t think Timothy would perform that poorly. For the record, he did return in the second half and perform better.
• The most important stat of the game, in my eyes: third down conversions. The Wolfpack converted just three times out of 16 chances, and only moved the chains on seven out of 16 late-down (third and fourth) situations. Four of those conversions came on fourth downs on an epic late-game drive. In contrast, the Tigers were 10-for-19 on third down and 11-for-19 in late-down situations in the game. Clemson was 4-for-6 on third down in the first quarter alone.
• Clemson’s defense had a quiet, strong performance. Stephone Anthony was a beast, racking up 14 tackles—including two for loss. Vic Beasley had three sacks in the game, giving him six in two games against the Wolfpack, and also broke up two passes. Bashaud Breeland played a good game in coverage, breaking up a pair of passes and intercepting the game’s final throw. Shaq Lawson was also a monster off the edge, grabbing four tackles, 2.5 for loss, and one sack. It was a performance to build on, because it was one of the few times in recent memory the Tigers had a sluggish offensive performance and relied on strong defensive stops to give the team a chance to build a lead.
• Chandler Catanzaro was the historical star of the game. He bailed the Tigers out on both field goals. Tajh Boyd took a third-down sack that might have pushed many teams out of kicking range, but Catman nailed a 49-yard attempt. Later on, a snap infraction created a 45-yard chance that Catman drilled as well. He is simply money in the bank every single time.
• Long drives are usually maddening for defensive coaches, and I’m sure Venables wasn’t a fan of N.C. State’s 23-play, 84-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that took more than half the period off the clock. But with a three-possession lead, and given the way the Wolfpack seemed to ignore the game situation as they methodically drove the ball down the field, it was as bearable a result as any such drive can be.