Monday Morning Quarterback
Prior to Saturday’s game in Columbia, South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp told ESPN’s SEC GameDay crew that if his Gamecocks had any chance of beating Clemson, they had to take away Kelly Bryant’s ability to run the football.
Muschamp got what he wanted as South Carolina’s defense limited the Tigers’ quarterback to 26 yards on 10 carries. However, what Muschamp did not plan for was for Bryant to pick apart his defense.
Bryant completed 23-of-34 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns in leading the top-ranked Tigers to an easy 34-10 victory.
“There were a lot of windows in the defense where the receivers got open for me and they made the plays there,” Bryant said. “I had to use my arm a little bit more tonight and that was what I did.”
What Bryant showed was his ability to make plays with his arm when defenses try to take away the run. It was a big step in his continued growth as a quarterback, a step that showed that the Tigers’ offense continues to mature as the postseason starts to ramp up.
“We’re always coaching and always trying to encourage and teach and prepare,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “But the biggest thing is just him just continuing to be who he is and execute the offense, just embrace the moment, know that you’re prepared.
“He did a great job for us. He’s really been a good leader, and really proud of him. Nobody had more pressure on him than Kelly Bryant coming into the season, and he has led this team to 11-1 and a state championship, division championship, and hopefully an ACC Championship.”
In becoming the first Clemson quarterback to win 11 games in his first year as a starter, Bryant had to adjust to just being the guy. It’s not as easy of a role as one might think, especially when it comes to being the starting quarterback for the defending National Champions.
“Initially in the spring, you know, it was new to him because he had not been the guy,” Swinney said. “He really hadn’t been in that — and it’s different when you’re a backup. The light isn’t quite as bright. But I think that for two years, the thing I love about Kelly is for two years, he had a front-row seat to Deshaun (Watson), and he really learned a lot and paid attention.
“He took ownership. He continued to prepare. But I think he had a great example in Deshaun.”
Bryant not only watched Watson shatter just about every Clemson passing record while becoming one of the greatest college quarterbacks of all-time, but he also watched how Watson carried himself and how he led the team, even in adverse situations.
Watson never changed his demeanor. He was the same during the good and the bad times.
But more than anything that he took from Watson was the fact, he could never be Watson, he just had to be Kelly Bryant.
“He just really realized that, listen, ‘I just need to be the best version of Kelly Bryant, and don’t worry about trying to replace Deshaun,’” Swinney said. “‘We don’t need you to replace Deshaun. We just need you to be the best you can be. That’s why we recruited you.’”
Whether it is running the football for 106 yards and scoring two rushing touchdowns against Boston College or throwing for 316 yards at Louisville or 272 and two scores against the Gamecocks, Bryant has been himself, and in doing so he has the Tigers within one win from returning to the College Football Playoff for a third straight season.
“I just think that he’s done a great job of working really, really hard to where he can play fast within our system, process things fast,” Swinney said. “He’s put the work in from a studying standpoint, and then he’s just developed so much as a quarterback and as a passer. He’s always been a guy that could beat you with his legs, but he’s become much more of a complete player as the season has progressed and made some big, big plays in some big moments.”
Like he did on Saturday when he threw a third-and-10 dart over the middle to Tee Higgins for a 24-yard gain to set up the Tigers’ second score of the night or when he threw a perfectly thrown pass to Higgins for 40 yards down the sideline where only Higgins could make the play to set up the Tigers’ third touchdown.
Despite all the criticism he has been getting, especially when it comes to throwing the deep passes, Bryant just played the way Kelly Bryant can play, and in doing so, he led the Tigers to another win over the Gamecocks.
“As a coach, you evaluate where you are as a team,” Swinney said. “Sometimes you just have a lot of youth. Sometimes you’ve got a lot of experience back, and so you can maybe get to another level of your offense, kind of like – it’s kind of like math. Sometimes you’re in algebra, sometimes you’re in calculus. Just kind of depends on the experience factor.
“But we really haven’t changed much of anything. We’ve been able to run the ball better this year, and I think that that’s a credit to our offensive line. We had a very experienced offensive line coming back, and then Kelly is a dynamic runner, big, strong kid. But we still like to push the ball down the field and do all the same things we’ve always done, but we just get into the course of a game, and we feel like we have the ability to do what we need to do to win the game each and every week based on how defense plays us.”
And Kelly Bryant has been able to execute it and has put the Tigers in position to win a third straight ACC Championship.