By Ed McGranahan
Historically, the series is a virtual wash on Maryland soil, and the last couple of visits have been precarious.
Dabo Swinney continues to tout his team’s experience as a strategic advantage, but the weaknesses in that discussion were identified weeks ago and Florida State virtually shot it full of holes.
Clemson’s final ACC game in College Park, Md., could not have come at a worse time and a requisite measure of wariness remains after the numbing loss. If ever a game had the look of collateral damage, this one does.
Swinney’s message this week sounded like an attempt to rebuild the fractured spirits of the team and fan base. And while rarely does it
sound genuine when a coach “accepts” responsibility for a butt kicking, be assured that was the case this week.
When the conversation segues to fundamentals, the hope is the team will be reassured that the schemes are sound and they can avoid Florida State beating them twice by remaining on script.
“Sometimes you take the little things for granted but it is the little things that lead to the big things. We have to get those little things
corrected so we can do the big things,” he said. “Let’s get back to being fundamentally sound.
“It is like a symptom and we have to cure it.”
Swinney thought offensive coordinator Chad Morris might have been a bit strident in his assessment of the offense, characterizing it as the proverbial “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.”
Honestly, it was hard to disagree. Clemson struggles to run, and beyond Watkins and Boyd there’s not another playmaker that troubles a defense though Mike Williams has the potential, Adam Humphries was underused against Florida State and Stanton Seckinger just didn’t play well.
“We are not playing intelligent right now on offense,” Swinney said. “That is the frustrating thing to me. Being intelligent should be our
competitive advantage. We have a lot of experience from our group. That is why I think we need to refocus and retool the guys on the basics.
“We have been doing a lot of calculus so let¹s go back and do something arithmetic,” he said. “This is a hurt football team.”
Before the catastrophes that struck Maryland dumb a week ago, Saturday’s game loomed much more daunting.
In his very first start two years ago, quarterback C.J. Brown nearly led Maryland to a win over eighth-ranked Clemson. Before that Maryland upset a team that played for the 2009 ACC championship, a pure example of “pulling a Clemson.”
Clemson’s run production is off 30 yards per game from last season. Rod McDowell had 132 yards against Georgia and 91 against Boston College, but the next highest total was 69 by quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Further reflecting the offensive line’s limitations are Clemson’s diminished numbers on third down (42.7 percent from 52.6) and in red
zone scoring (83.3 from 94.6).
Defenses discovered they can commit more resources to Clemson’s pass and hope to minimize the big-play potential. Further compromising has been Boyd’s tendency to lock on a primary receiver, sometimes in pre-snap, and not “look off” the secondary.
And there’s the issue of trust beyond Watkins. After catching 17 balls for 266 yards the previous three games, Humphries was rarely targeted last week, Martavis Bryant and Germone Hopper were virtually absent with the game on the line.
Add the metastasizing issues with turnovers and Clemson’s hot buttons are obvious. Maryland isn’t an ideal opponent to begin fixing them.
Clemson entered the game with a 56-0 edge in scoring after turnovers. Florida State’s 24 points off four turnovers were critical in Clemson’s worst home defeat in four decades.
Maryland has run well, particularly when Brown was healthy, averaging 177 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry minus sacks. Clemson has allowed 153 yards per game and 4.4 per carry. Maryland also lost receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long, which may allow Clemson to flex its pass rush muscles.
Still, Maryland does some things well in areas that could be problematic for Clemson.
Swinney often espouses an egocentric approach to preparation – “it’s about us.” This week it may be less coachspeak and closer to the truth.