By the time the final whistle blew on Clemson’s 10-3 loss to Georgia on Saturday, the Tigers had officially gone without a touchdown for the first time in nearly fours.
The last time that happened was in Clemson’s Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama in January of 2018. The primary culprit in the Tigers’ offensive struggles came down to the fact that Clemson became one-dimensional with the inability to piece together any real semblance of a running game. The Tigers finished with 2 net yards on the ground — the fourth-lowest rushing output in program history — and Georgia’s defense teed off on quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and Clemson’s offensive line to the tune of seven sacks.
Clemson rarely tried against a defense that’s been the best against the run the last two seasons. The Tigers’ running backs combined for just nine carries. A day after Clemson coach Dabo Swinney voiced some regret about the Tigers abandoning the run as quickly as they did, offensive coordinator Tony Elliott echoed that sentiment.
“Felt like it wasn’t there as much,” Elliott said. “And when you go back and watch the tape, we were actually creating some holes and we had some RPO stuff if we hand a couple of balls off. So probably stick with the run game. And definitely down there in the red zone.”
With the luxury of hindsight, that was one of two times Elliott said he wished he’d dialed up another handful of runs. Instead, after driving 82 yards to Georgia’s 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter, Clemson went with three straight passes, all of which fell incomplete and forced the Tigers to settle for a field goal.
The other regret for Elliott came earlier in the second half when Baylon Spector intercepted J.T. Daniels to set Clemson’s offense up with its best starting field position of the night at the Bulldogs’ 33. Back-to-back sacks sent Clemson backward from there and out of field-goal range.
“I thought I could’ve managed those situations a little bit better,” Elliott said.
The lack of balance didn’t do much to help Uiagalelei, who had a career-low completion percentage and threw the first interception of his career, or an offensive line that wasn’t much of a matchup for a Georgia front seven that knew what was coming. It was the first start for Matt Bockhorst and Jordan McFadden at center and left tackle, respectively. Throw in true freshman Marcus Tate and right tackle Walker Parks making their first career starts, and Elliott said it’s natural to assume the reworked unit may need some time to gel.
But Elliott went a slightly different direction in his assessment of where the group is heading into Clemson’s home opener against South Carolina State on Saturday.
“I think the cohesion is starting to come together,” he said. “Now they were challenged with some three-man twists. (Georgia) had some really good three-man twists that we were just half a count late on passing off. So I think as we continue to practice, that cohesion will solidify as we go forward.”
Bottom line is, establishing a consistent running game to take some pressure off of Uiagalelei and his receivers is going to be important going forward for the Tigers, who weren’t good in that department last season even with Travis Etienne in the backfield. The Tigers’ 153.8 rushing yards per game was their lowest average since the 2014 season.
The level of opposition Clemson will face this weekend won’t be nearly as high as what the Tigers just saw in Charlotte. But with a philosophical belief in being balanced, Elliott said implementing an effective running game is about much more than Clemson’s next opponent.
“It’s going to be critical, and our guys understand that. And then we’re committed to that,” Elliott said. “The biggest thing for us is to get our rhythm and get our timing down. It’s the details at every position and getting on the same page. We’ve got to work through that. We’ve got to grow as a group.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!