Clemson’s navigation of its ACC schedule got off to a white-knuckle start Saturday as the Tigers hung on for a 14-8 win over Georgia Tech at Memorial Stadium. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly from the Tigers’ survival (not counting that 1-hour, 52-minute weather delay).
What can you say about the defense at this point? And, if you’re Clemson, how much more can you realistically ask of that group? The Tigers limited Tech to 2.7 yards per carry, 4.3 yards per play, got to Tech quarterback Jordan Yates for four sacks, pressured him countless other times and pitched another touchdown shutout on a day when they had to have it. Clemson is the only team in the Football Bowl Subdivision that still hasn’t allowed an opponent to reach the end zone.
Tech certainly had its chances. Three of the Yellow Jackets’ drives reached Clemson’s 5-yard line or deeper. They were turned away each time, none more timely than the Tigers holding on four straight plays from their 3 with less than 2 minutes left to keep Tech from potentially drawing even in what was an eight-point game at the time.
Clemson may also have more linebacker depth than it thought. The Tigers didn’t have Baylon Spector (knee inflammation) and played most of the game without another starting linebacker after Trenton Simpson was ejected for targeting late in the first half. But LaVonta Bentley filled in for Spector on the weak side and racked up a game-high 13 tackles (2.5 for a loss) and a sack.
And Will Shipley continued to make a strong case as the Tigers’ top running back. The freshman got more carries (21) than Kobe Pace and Lyn-J Dixon combined (12) in a game that was tightly contested throughout, an indication of what Dabo Swinney and his coaching staff think of Shipley’s talent and maturity. He scored Clemson’s only two touchdowns.
D.J. Uiagalelei wasn’t asked to do much in the passing game — and there’s certainly an argument to be made as to whether the Tigers should be doing more through the air — but the misfires on the mid-to-deep throws are starting to become a pattern for the sophomore quarterback.
Numbers-wise, Uiagalelei had his most efficient performance of the season by completing 72% of his passes (18 of 25), though almost of them were short to intermediate throws against a Tech defense that often dropped seven or eight defenders in coverage in an attempt to keep everything in front. But on the few shots Clemson did take down the field, whether they were deep crossing routes, seam routes or back-shoulder throws, Uiagalelei was well off the mark, something that’s going to have to change if the Tigers’ offense is going to reach its full potential at some point.
But on a night when the Yellow Jackets’ defense sagged off, it was a prime opportunity for Clemson to get its running game going, right? Eh.
While Shipley (4.2 yards per carry) and Uiagalelei (5.8) used speed, power and brute strength at times to turn what would’ve been short gainers into longer runs, Clemson averaged just 3.9 yards per carry as a team against a Tech defensive line that’s smaller than most it will go against this season and, again, a box that wasn’t all that crowded. In other words, the push from the offensive line was decent at best, which isn’t a great sign considering the Tigers will see better defenses in the future than what they saw Saturday.
Swinney reiterated afterward that the Tigers are going to do whatever is needed to try to win each week, but there’s no identity to Clemson’s offense right now. The Tigers ran for 166 yards Saturday but needed 41 attempts to do it. In the opener against Georgia, Uiagalelei threw it nearly 40 times.
And the explosiveness for an offense that’s been among the most explosive in the country in recent years is sorely lacking. Uiagalelei’s longest completion went for 17 yards, and that was on a broken play where the quarterback found Pace out of the backfield for a catch-and-run first down in the first half. The Tigers’ longest run? 15 yards.
The Tigers also put the ball on the ground far too many times, which is starting to become an uncomfortable pattern. Clemson technically only had one turnover, but Uiagalelei’s fumble inside Tech’s 20-yard line early in the fourth quarter was a drive killer. It easily could’ve been more with the Tigers fumbling three other times, including one by Shipley in the shadow of his own end zone in the waning seconds of a one-possession game that nearly turned disastrous.
Of course, it was also a head-scratching coaching decision for the Tigers to still be lined up in the shotgun and start a play three yards deep in its own end zone in that situation.
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!