Top-ranked Clemson had no issues in disposing of Wake Forest Saturday night as it rolled to a 37-13 victory in Winston-Salem, N.C.
But how did the Tigers fair overall? Did they make a passing grade in their opening game? Here are my grades from Clemson’s first game of the season.
If I were just grading Trevor Lawrence, I would give him an easy “A.” There were only three negatives I can remember from Lawrence. He took a sack for a 16-yard loss on the opening drive, he missed fired on a deep pass to Frank Landson later in the first quarter and then he lost four seconds in the Tigers’ two-minute drill by failing to call a timeout. He instead clocked the ball, which ended with B.T. Potter having to make a long field goal attempt to close the half, which he did. But that is being nitpicky. Lawrence was almost flawless, completing 22-of-28 passes for 351 yards. He totaled three touchdowns, two rushing, while running the offense very efficiently. Clemson ran 50 plays in the first half. However, Clemson’s offense sputtered after Lawrence went out of the game. D.J. Uiagalelei and Taisun Phommachanh were inconsistent in leading the offense. The only promising drive they had ended with Phommachanh throwing an interception. Uiagalelei finished the game 2-for-3 for 16 yards in his debut.
Running back: B
Again, Travis Etienne would receive an “A” if I were just grading his performance. He rushed for 102 yards on 17 carries and averaged 6.0 yards per carry to go along with one touchdown. He also caught three passes for 47 yards and stepped up on occasion to knock off a blitzing linebacker, giving Lawrence plenty of time to step into a pass and find his receiver along the sideline. But when Etienne was not in the game, the Clemson running game was not as effective. Lyn-J Dixon (knee) was held out of the game for precautionary reasons, though the medical staff did clear him to play. Darien Rencher ran hard and averaged 4.9 yards per carry, but Kobe Pace and Demarkcus Bowman averaged just 3.7 yards per carry and totaled 44 yards. Granted it was not all of their fault, but there were times when they did not trust the play and tried to bounce the ball outside, which might have worked in high school but the speed of the game is a little different at the college level. That is something they have to work on going forward.
Pass catchers: B
There were a few dropped passes but overall, the wide receivers and tight ends played well. Amari Rodgers did drop a potential touchdown in the end zone. However, the pass was not the best from Lawrence and Rodgers had to make a “business decision” and try not to run into the goal post. Ladson dropped a couple of passes, including a touchdown in the end zone that he should have caught. The tight ends were flawless. Braden Galloway caught 5 catches for 60 yards, including a 25-yard catch-and-run. Davis Allen had a 42-yard reception, while J.C. Chalk caught his first career touchdown, a 12-yard pass from Lawrence in the second quarter. Joseph Ngata also caught three passes for 48 yards. The good thing for Clemson is with Rodgers and the tight ends, Clemson looked more effective in the middle of the field, something that was missing in last year’s passing attack.
Offensive line: B
One of the two sacks Clemson allowed was credited to Lawrence. However, Carlos Basham blew up the left side of the line on the play, forcing Lawrence to take off. The other sack was on the O-Line. Overall, the line played well, especially the starters. They opened up gaping holes for Etienne at times and the blocking on the goal line and in short-yardage situations was very good. Etienne rushed for more than 100 yards, and that reflects on the offensive line. Also, the pocket most of the night was clean for Lawrence.
Defensive line: A
The Clemson defensive line gave us a peek of how good they can be this year. Playing without last year starters Xavier Thomas and Justin Foster did not seem to matter. The defensive front was credited with 4.5 of the Tigers’ six sacks, including two from freshman Myles Murphy, who also had three tackles for loss. Murphy led the Tigers with seven tackles overall. Fellow defensive end K.J. Henry also had a sack and freshman defensive tackle Bryan Bresee had a half sack. The surprise of the night came from Regan Upshaw. The senior defensive end had four tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss. One of those tackles for loss was a sack. Wake Forest ran for just 37 yards on 34 carries, a 1.1 yards per carry average.
James Skalski did not start the game due to serving his half-game suspension from targeting in the second half of the national championship game last January. However, in making his first career start at middle linebacker, Jake Venables played well quarterbacking the defense. Clemson allowed just 113 total yards in the first half, including just 13 rushing yards. Mike Jones looked solid in his first career start, totaling five tackles, while Baylon Spector also had five tackles and a half sack. Jones also did a fine job in coverage as Wake tight end Brandon Chapman had just one catch for eight yards. Wake’s running backs were also ineffective in the passing game. LeVonta Bentley also had a sack for the defense.
It did not help that Clemson had two of its best and most experienced corners on the inactive list, including All-ACC corner Derion Kendrick. Fellow junior Mario Goodrich was the other who was out. That left the Tigers with first-time starters Andrew Booth and Sheridan Jones, as well as a cast of others. Booth was burned on a deep pass that the Wake receiver dropped. The Demon Deacons attacked the Tigers’ weakness with 50-50 balls they won all night. Freshman Fred Davis was called for a pass interference penalty, while fellow freshman Malcolm Greene should have been called for PI the play before. Clemson’s safeties did not play much better. Landon Zanders was beat on a couple of passes that were not executed correctly by Wake Forest’s receivers, while Nolan Turned missed a tackle that allowed Wake to break off a long pass play in the second quarter. Jaylin Phillips also whiffed on a tackle. All in all, it was not a great night for the secondary, who also struggled to get their heads turned around at times to locate the football.
Special Teams: A
Potter made a 52-yard field goal that he could have made from 70. He also made kicks of 42 and 29 yards and was 3-for-3 on his field goal attempts. All three came from the right hash, where he missed seven of his eight kicks from last year. All six of Potters’ kickoffs went for touchbacks, while Will Spiers averaged 42.8 yards on four punts, including a 56-yard boot. He also dropped one punt inside the 20-yard line. Bresee was also credited for partially blocking a field goal attempt.
Dabo Swinney and his entire staff did a great job having their team ready to play. Clemson won all three phases of the game and it looked dominant in doing it. That is a credit to Swinney and his staff for having their players prepared in this COVID-19 world we live in. Also, credit needs to go to Danny Poole and his training staff at Clemson. They did a great job all summer protecting the players, testing and making sure the student-athletes were in position to practice this summer and ready to play and have success this season.
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