Clemson’s offense did just enough to win — and almost enough to let one slip away — against Georgia Tech on Saturday in the Tigers’ 14-8 victory.
While a defense that’s still yet to allow a touchdown continues to carry the Tigers, the other side of the ball is still trying to iron out the wrinkles. Three games into the post-Trevor Lawrence era, Clemson has looked like anything but the explosive unit led last season by the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. After ranking 10th or better nationally in total yards, passing yards and scoring a season ago, the Tigers are in the triple digits in each of those categories following their first three games after mustering less than 300 yards and two touchdowns against the Yellow Jackets.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney acknowledged there are no shortage of areas that need to be corrected and improved. But given the extent to which the seventh-ranked Tigers (2-1, 1-0 ACC) are starting over on that side of the ball, Swinney said there’s.a fine line between constructive criticism and positive reinforcement when it comes to coaching up the unit.
“They’re young players. They’re not video game people,” Swinney said Sunday. “They’re human beings, and the good things is they really, really care. They’re passionate about it. They’re very coachable. So, yeah, you’ve got to correct. You’ve got to challenge. But we’ve got to help them, and you certainly don’t want to kill their spirit or anything like that because this is the best we’ve got. It’s kind of where we are right now.”
The turnover on offense went well beyond D.J. Uiagalelei stepping in at quarterback. Will Shipley, Lyn-J Dixon and Kobe Pace have taken over for Travis Etienne at running back, and the offensive line has been overhauled since last season. Sophomore Walker Parks is starting for the first time at right tackle while Marcus Tate is starting as a true freshman at left guard, and Jordan McFadden, one of just two seniors up front, flipped from right tackle to left. Matt Bockhorst also slid over from left guard to center, where he’s repping in games for the first time in his career.
Swinney said the offense had a “great week of practice” leading up to the Tech game. And even if it wasn’t visible to the naked eye or on the scoreboard, he added he saw growth from the unit against the Yellow Jackets, though it was halted by miscues from some players who showed their age.
Shipley, a true freshman who’s seemingly emerging as the Tigers’ go-to back, scored both touchdowns but also put the ball on the ground a couple of times, including a fumble into his own end zone after Clemson’s last-minute goal-line stand that kept Tech from potentially tying the game late. Fortunately for Shipley and the rest of the team, the Tigers pounced on the loose ball for a safety rather than it turning into a touchdown for Tech.
With the Yellow Jackets opting to drop several defenders into coverage in order to keep Clemson from beating them with deep balls over the top, Uiagalelei (eight carries, 46 yards) got heavily involved in a running game that became the Tigers’ preferred method of moving the ball. The offense pieced together its best two drives in the second half with a pair of 12-play marches, but at the end of the first one, Uiagalelei, in his fifth career start, tried to extend the ball past the line to gain on a third-and-short run at Tech’s 19-yard line, resulting in a fumble.
Swinney also pointed out some false-start penalties up front that put the Tigers behind the chains at times.
“I really felt like the other night we should’ve had at least 10 more points on the board, and all of a sudden it’s 24-3 and it’s a different feel,” Swinney said. “But just really critical, critical errors that are costing us in critical situations.
“Again, challenge (the players), but we’ve got to do it in a very positive and constructive way because these kids have given us great effort. And they want to and they care. But we’ve got some guys that are growing into their roles and learning a lot of football on the run.”
Swinney said he’s seen weekly improvement despite the story the numbers might otherwise tell. The next step for the new-look offense, he said, is to translate its performance during practice over to the games.
“And we will,” Swinney said.
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!