By Will Vandervort.
Did Cole Stoudt check out prior to last Saturday’s loss at Georgia Tech? It’s a possibility.
The Clemson senior had just led the team to four straight wins after coming in for the injured Deshaun Watson in the Louisville game. Despite playing with a bummed left shoulder, Stoudt helped the Tigers knock off Louisville, Boston College, Syracuse and Wake Forest as part of a six-game winning streak.
It appeared to everyone his job was done, including Stoudt himself. With Watson returning from his broken finger, Stoudt understood the job was the freshman’s and after manning the ship for a month he was going to have to let someone else take care of it the rest of the way.
“I think that can be a natural thing for young people,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “All of sudden you have gone and won four games, you are offensive MVP and you feel like you are playing pretty good, but that is kind of the nature of it at any level.
“The starter comes back. He is back in, but you have to be ready to go.”
But Stoudt wasn’t.
For the first 12 minutes at Georgia Tech, everything seemed like it was going according to plan. The Tigers already had a 3-0 lead and Watson was leading the offense down the field for a possible second score when his left knee went out on him while trying to make a cut at the 14-yard line.
Stoudt, who was involved with what was going on the whole time, all of sudden went from being the scout and relaying to Watson what he was seeing from the sideline, to being out on the field trying to save the day, again.
But mentally he was not prepared for whatever the reason and the defense was going to need a little more help than it had in the Tigers’ win over Louisville after Watson’s previous injury. Georgia Tech’s offense was too good to hold it off all game.
As everyone knows they could not.
“It’s hard because they are a four-down team all the way,” Swinney said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s third-and-ten or first-and-ten. They’re fully committed to running the football. And they will spread you all across the field from a schematic standpoint and creates a lot of one-on-ones. And their guys are winning a lot of those one-on-ones.”
That put more pressure on the offense and Stoudt and neither could respond. Clemson finished the game with 190 yards and only 107 yards after Watson went out in the first quarter.
Stoudt completed just 3 of 11 passes for 19 yards and threw three interceptions, two that went for touchdowns and another that set up a field goal.
“We’ve seen him play better, that’s for sure,” Swinney said.
Though it was not pretty at times Stoudt did an admiral job in the previous weeks in keeping Clemson on track. Of course the play of the defense played a big role in that too.
“He’s not been perfect, but he’s made some huge plays for us and has led us to some victories. We need to get back to how he played against Wake Forest, how he played up at (Boston College), because he did a nice job for us in those couple of ballgames,” Swinney said. “It just starts with confidence. Just getting the confidence back and I think last week with Deshaun coming back for whatever reason, he just wasn’t as confident as I’ve seen him.
“He had a bad day, for sure. We had some other guys that didn’t play particularly well, either, but it’s getting back to executing at a high level and playing with great energy and making sure from a coach’s standpoint we do things that give us the best chance to be successful and that’s it. This week we have to get this taste out of our mouth, go into the game and see if we can finish strong. We’ve got two games left. We have played better and we know we can play better, and that’s our focus.”
Swinney says Stoudt went back to work on Monday and has had a good week of practice to this point. He can’t explain why it looked like his senior quarterback checked out last week, but he feels confident Stoudt will be ready to play against Georgia State on Saturday in Death Valley.
“All I know is we did not have a good game on Saturday and we are going to play better this week,” the Clemson coach said. “That’s our expectation and everybody has to do their part. Everybody has to do their part, not just one player, to play better, offensively especially.”