Last year, Clemson’s offense got criticized at times for not being aggressive. The Tigers were not making those 50 or 60-yard touchdowns that had become so commonplace when Deshaun Watson was quarterbacking the team.
A lot of the blame fell on quarterback Kelly Bryant as fans and media alike questioned his ability to throw the ball down field as a reason for the Tigers’ lack of aggressiveness.
However, that’s not a fair assessment, according to head coach Dabo Swinney.
“I think we were aggressive at times last year when we needed to be,” he said. “Games were different last year. A lot of games were different. We got control of a lot of games early and the previous couple of years we were in a lot of shootouts. A bunch!”
Swinney is correct. Clemson was notorious in 2015 and in 2016 for giving up big leads and letting teams back in games. Remember the Notre Dame game in 2015? The Tigers led 21-3 in the third quarter, but with seven seconds to go the Irish had a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion.
Remember the NC State game? Every time Clemson got a comfortable lead the Wolfpack would storm back with a big play.
Against South Carolina, the Tigers led by as many as 18 points in the second half, but needed a couple of late touchdown drives to put the Gamecocks away in the fourth quarter. In the ACC Championship Game, Clemson led by 21 points in the fourth quarter only to see North Carolina lining up for an onside kick in the final minutes with an opportunity to tie the game.
The main reason the Tigers could not hold a lead was because the defense was horrible in defending big chunk plays. In fact, Clemson ranked 102 nationally, allowing 71 plays of 20 yards or more.
“As a result, we had a lot of games where we got up, and the next thing you know you’re kicking on onside kick. It’s like it was 45-42,” Swinney said.
The Tigers improved things a little in 2016. However, the offense was still needed as the defense allowed 61 plays of 20 or more yards, which ranked 65th in the country. That allowed teams like Louisville, Florida State and Virginia Tech to hang around even when it appeared Clemson at times was in control of the game.
“People had a hard time moving the ball, but then they would get these chunks,” Swinney said. “We had some games, Virginia Tech and a couple of others, where we could not quite put people away. Fortunately, we were able to score a lot so we kind of overcame it.”
In 2015, Clemson’s offense ranked second nationally in plays of 20-plus yards with 100, while in ’16 they ranked ninth with 88 such plays.
But, in 2017, Clemson finished 59th nationally in explosive plays with 60 plays of 20 or more yards. The reason for that, says Swinney, is due to how good the defense was.
The Tigers allowed just 42 plays of 20-plus yards, fifth best figure in the country. This meant, they were in control of games more, and thus the offense did not need to be as aggressive as it had been the previous two years.
“The point is we controlled games a lot more. So, sometimes as a result of that, your style of play is reflected,” Swinney said. “We don’t sit around and get in the flow of games and think about ‘come December we need to do this because in December we want to be able to say we were more this or more that.’ We want to be able to win the game. Let’s play the game.”
With the exception of the Alabama game, Clemson was able to make the big plays when they needed to against everyone else. Even in the loss at Syracuse they still had long touchdown runs from Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne.
“Go to the Auburn game, we had some explosive plays in that game,” Swinney said. “We hit a couple of big plays down the field or we don’t win. Go to Louisville, GameDay, I thought we had a tougher schedule and a tougher road than we did the year we won (the national title). The game got over early and style of play changes.
“Go to Virginia Tech it is the same thing. GameDay, a lot going on, but we got control of the game and we were just so stingy on defense people had a hard time getting chunks on us last year.”
From a pure offensive standpoint, however, Swinney says they want to get back to being one of the best offenses in the country. However, he was still proud of last year’s unit especially considering they had to replace their starting quarterback, center, wideouts, running back and tight ends.
“We won the league and we had a tough road to do it. A very tough road and we were able to make critical plays when we needed to make them,” he said. “We were not as explosive or precise as we were a couple of years prior to that, but I think we have a chance to get back to being one of the best offenses in the country.
“Hopefully, we can have a similar recipe as we did last year and have games where we get control of them and maybe you score 20 or 21 points and the other team can’t score. You play smart and try to find a way to win the game.”
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