As he assessed the totality of his team’s performance following the Tigers’ 14-8 win Saturday — one in which Clemson scored its first two touchdowns against FBS competition this season — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney uttered the obvious.
“We’re kind of led by our defense right now,” Swinney said.
That’s an understatement even if it’s not a complete surprise through Clemson’s first three games.
After turning Tech away time and time again, including a dramatic goal-line stand in the final 90 seconds that preserved the Tigers’ closer-than-expected victory, Clemson stands alone as the only FBS team that’s yet to allow an offensive touchdown. The Tigers, led by fifth-year senior Baylon Spector and a couple of sixth-year starters in linebacker James Skalski and safety Nolan Turner, are playing like one of the more experienced defenses in the country that has all but one regular starter back from last season and seven defensive linemen that had started at least one game coming into this season.
The offense? Well…
“Got a true sophomore right tackle,” Swinney said. “We’ve got a new center. We’ve got new backs. Got a new quarterback. Got a true freshman left guard. Just learning and just gaining experience as we go.”
Swinney repeated the obvious when he referred to this year’s unit as “a work in progress.” While he admitted the 2016 team had a few more veteran pieces, including quarterback Deshaun Watson, Swinney likened that team — the last one that started a freshman (Sean Pollard) on the offensive line before this season — to his current team in terms of its developmental state.
“And we won a national championship that year,” Swinney said.
In terms of production, though, there are few parallels.
So far, this Clemson offense looks nothing like that one or the explosive juggernaut it was a season ago when the Tigers ranked in the top 10 nationally in total yards, passing yards and scoring. It was always going to be difficult for Clemson to match that level of production with Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne no longer around, but the Tigers aren’t even in the same ballpark, ranking no better than 101st in the FBS in those three categories through three games.
Clemson is averaging just 4.8 yards per play, which is also a precipitous dropoff from the 6.7 it averaged a season ago. In fact, the Tigers have the fewest plays of 10 or more yards (32) in the ACC so far this season. Ditto for plays of at least 20 yards (eight).
“It’s going to bust open one of these games,” quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei said. “It’s going to bust open, and we’re going to keep rolling. We’ve got to keep the course and keep going back into practice every week, stay patient and just not press. I think that’s the main thing.”
On Saturday, Swinney said he saw his offense grow up a bit even if the stats or scoreboard didn’t necessarily reflect it. Clemson had just 284 yards of offense but also only had three true possessions in the second half because of the work the unit did in finally sustaining some drives that milked the clock. Two of them covered 12 plays apiece, but only one ended in points.
Inconsistency with his accuracy and touch on deeper routes is a mechanical issue Uiagalelei is still fighting. But with Tech electing to drop seven or eight defenders into coverage for much of the game in an attempt to prevent Clemson from connecting over the top, Clemson used the sophomore quarterback in the running game more than it has all season (eight carries for 46 yards).
That’s also where Uiagalelei showed some of his experience — or lack thereof — in his fifth career start when he extended the ball with one hand at the end of a third-down run inside Tech’s 20-yard line. The end result was a fumble that’s happening far too often for Swinney’s comfort.
Freshman running back Will Shipley, who got the bulk of the workload Saturday, scored Clemson’s two touchdowns but also muffed a punt and fumbled in the shadow of his own goal line after that late stand by the defense, which was nearly disastrous. Clemson recovered the loose ball in the end zone, resulting in a safety for Tech rather than a touchdown.
Clemson has already fumbled 11 times. Somehow, the Tigers have only lost two of them. And perhaps the most frustrating part for Swinney is those kinds of miscues happening in games have rarely shown up in practice.
“I’m seeing so many good things (in practice), but then all of a sudden you get in the game and you’ve got a bunch of young guys and it’s very different,” he said. “We’ve got to not let one mistake lead to two more.”
For an offensive line still working to build cohesion — the group includes two first-year starters (sophomore tackle Walker Parks and freshman guard Marcus Tate) and two players at new positions (Matt Bockhorst at center and Jordan McFadden at left tackle) — Swinney said more self-inflicted mistakes such as penalties and missed blocking assignments are the unit’s biggest issues. And even with less defenders in the box given Tech’s sagging approach Saturday, the line struggled to get consistent push up front as Clemson leaning heavily on the ground game.
The Tigers averaged just 3.9 yards per carry, which could be a blueprint for Clemson’s remaining opponents. If they can corral the Tigers’ run game with just four or five defenders at the line of scrimmage, too, what’s to stop them from taking the same approach?
“You best believe we’ll work on that because we’ll see it again for sure,” Swinney said. “But we’ll be a little better prepared.”
If the first three games have proven anything (other than Clemson’s defense being one of the nation’s elite), it’s that it’s going to take some time for the retooled offense to mature. Problem is, if the Tigers are serious about achieving the rest of their goals, they need it to happen sooner rather than later.
And there’s really only one way to go about trying to get that done.
“Just keep playing,” Swinney said. “Go back to work. Practice. Study. Everybody goes through that.
”We don’t have a lot of growing pains on defense, but we did the last couple of years to get to where we are. It’s just kind of the nature of who we are right now (offensively).”
Any chance Clemson has of playing in its seventh straight College Football Playoff starts with the Tigers running the table the rest of the way. But the Tigers have to win another ACC championship first, which, based on their first showing against a league foe, doesn’t look like the stone cold lock many perceived it to be heading into the season.
Things won’t get any easier with a trip to North Carolina State awaiting the Tigers on Saturday. It will be the first true road game for Clemson this season against a Wolfpack defense (10.3 points allowed per game, 2.7 yards allowed per rush) that’s been even more stingy than the one it just faced. And as suffocating as Clemson’s defense has been so far, the group will likely give up a touchdown at some point and need the offense’s help, too.
“We’ll have to play our best game, and we’re a long way away from playing our best game to this point,” Swinney said. “But hopefully this will be the week we put it all together.”
How much the offense is able to improve from where it is now will go a long way toward determining that Saturday and beyond.
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!