One snap is all Clemson needed to reveal its intentions for the ground game.
Lyn-J Dixon took the handoff on the Tigers’ first snap and rumbled 16 yards through the middle of South Carolina State’s defense, surpassing Clemson’s rushing output from a week ago. The senior running back got another carry on the next play. Kobe Pace got a carry two plays later. Then another.
Will Shipley took his turn next. The true freshman had back-to-back runs of 4 and 8 yards before the Tigers used quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei’s legs to cap their first scoring drive with a 4-yard scamper, one in which Clemson ran seven out of nine times and covered 56 of 72 yards on the ground.
It set the tone for a much more concerted effort to get the running game going Saturday night inside Memorial Stadium — and one that was far more productive than what Clemson did in that department seven days earlier.
Granted, the Tigers took a step down in competition against the in-state Football Championship Subdivision opponent, but Clemson’s run game showed its first real signs of life early in the new season as part of the Tigers’ 49-3 rout of South Carolina State. By the time it was over, Clemson tallied 242 rushing yards, ripping off 6.7 yards per carry.
“That was something we needed to do and get the confidence going. I wanted to see (Pace) and (Shipley) get a lot of touches and lather them up and challenge the offensive line to get better fundamentally and things like that,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’re obviously the better football than them. We’re supposed to play well. We’re supposed to win this game, but I just wanted to see us play well, execute and play better fundamentally. And I think that’s what I’ll see when I see the tape.”
After Swinney and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott spent much of the week voicing regret about abandoning the running game too early in the Tigers’ 10-3 loss to Georgia last week — Clemson’s backs combined for just nine carries on a night the Tigers netted just 2 rushing yards — Clemson reversed course Saturday.
Dixon played sparingly after the opening drive and finished with just five touches, including a 14-yard touchdown catch late in the third quarter. Shipley led the way on the ground with 80 yards and a pair of touchdowns on just eight carries while Pace followed with 68 on seven, but the Tigers got numerous players carries early and often.
Clemson dialed up 10 more runs on its next three possessions (out of 16 total plays), all of which ended in touchdowns. Uiagalelei got his number called in mostly short-yardage situations with two of his five totes going for scores.
Freshman quarterback Will Taylor, who’s doubling as the Tigers’ primary punt returner, even got in on the action, carrying three times for 15 yards as part of a red-zone package. It would’ve been more had his 19-yard touchdown run on Clemson’s second possession counted, but an illegal block by receiver Joseph Ngata negated the score.
Clemson ran the ball 36 times with 21 of those attempts coming in the first two quarters when most of the Tigers’ primary backs were still getting reps and helping the Tigers build a 35-3 halftime lead. By the time Shipley dashed into the end zone from 13 yards out for Clemson’s first score of the third quarter, Clemson had already racked up 190 rushing yards. The Tigers were averaging well over 7 yards a tote until later in the game.
“We stunk last week and didn’t do a good job of hanging in with it,” Swinney said. “Again, when you’re behind in field position and behind the chains, it was weird kind of day. But we did a poor job of at least working a little harder to be effective there. And so deifntley we needed to get those (running backs) going because it was really to evaluate them with what happened last week.”
Clemson did it behind different combinations up front as the Tigers began starting rotating offensive linemen early, and it helped the Tigers turn in a more balanced effort offensively. They finished with 504 yards, and all but two of their touchdowns were of the rushing variety.
“We were able to kind of run when we needed to run and run it when we wanted to run it,” Elliott said. “So I was pleased with the offensive line and how they allowed us to be able to run it.”
How Saturday’s showing carries over to next week’s ACC opener against Georgia Tech remains to be seen, but it was a bounceback performance that figures to double as a boost of confidence for a running game that needed it.
“From the offensive line to the quarterbacks to the receivers to even us running backs, we all needed confidence,” Shipley said. “And I feel like this game really gave us that. Just that we can go out there and we can click.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!