Clemson’s offense has grown accustomed in recent years to going big, but the Tigers haven’t looked anything like their normal self on that side of the ball so far this season.
A closer look at the stats sheds some light as to why.
No. 7 Clemson (2-1, 1-0 ACC) has been one of the more explosive teams in the country over the last three seasons, averaging more than 40 points and 500 yards with Trevor Lawrence running the show. Through the first three games of this one, the Tigers are on pace for their lowest offensive production since 2017 when they averaged 33.3 points and 429.6 yards.
This year’s offense would kill for those numbers.
Clemson is averaging the fewest yards (322.7 per game) and scoring the second-fewest points in the ACC (22 per game) in large part because the chunk plays have been virtually non-existent. Out of the 14 teams in its league, nobody has fewer plays of at least 10 yards (32) and plays of at least 20 yards (eight) than Clemson, which is averaging just 4.8 yards per play.
That’s down from the 6.7 yards the Tigers averaged on each snap last season. Other areas Clemson has seen a precipitous dropoff from last season? 4.02 yards per rush (down from 4.49), 9.43 yards per completion (down from 12.8) and just 5.6 yards per pass attempt (down from 8.5), the latter being the lowest in the league.
It’s all played a part in the Tigers’ offense reaching the end zone just nine times so far, putting them on pace for 36 touchdowns over a full 12-game regular season. For comparison’s sake, that’s a little more than half of the 62 last year’s offense produced in the same number of games.
And the Tigers have had to work for most of those. Only five of Clemson’s scoring drives have been fewer than nine plays, and four of those came against FCS foe South Carolina State in the Tigers’ only comfortable win to this point. On one of those, they had to cover just 11 yards after a 51-yard punt return by Will Taylor set the offense up with a short field late in the first quarter.
Clemson’s average scoring drive against FBS competition this season has lasted 10 plays. The Tigers’ longest play to this point? A 44-yard completion to Joseph Ngata, which was a short pass he turned into a big gainer after the catch. Clemson’s longest run? 30 yards.
Yet there are a few reasons the Tigers aren’t panicking just yet.
“I can assure you we don’t stink,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’re going to be all right.”
Much like that 2017 season — Clemson’s first time dealing with life after Deshaun Watson and Wayne Gallman — the Tigers are starting over with personnel at key positions. D.J. Uiagalelei is going through his first full season as Lawrence’s successor at quarterback while the Tigers’ youth movement at running back has gotten even younger. Clemson started the season with senior Lyn-J Dixon, sophomore Kobe Pace and prized freshman Will Shipley as its collective replacement for Travis Etienne, the ACC’s all-time touchdown leader, but Dixon is headed to the transfer portal after having a limited role in the offense through three games.
Swinney confirmed Shipley will get his first career start Saturday at North Carolina State, but even when teams have dared Clemson to run the ball, there hasn’t been much room for Uiagalelei or the backs to operate behind an offensive line that’s been retooled. The group features two new starters, including true freshman Marcus Tate at left guard, and two other players (Matt Bockhorst going from guard to center and Jordan McFadden flipping from right tackle to left) repping at different positions than last season.
Even with Georgia Tech routinely choosing to drop most of its defenders into coverage last week, Clemson ran the ball just effectively enough to help the Tigers eke out a 14-8 win. Clemson ran it 41 times but averaged just 3.9 yards on those carries.
The lack of push up front has been a result of mental errors among the younger players at times just as much as anything physical. Missed assignments have left some defenders unaccounted for and ended plays before they ever really got a chance to get started.
Those are correctable mistakes, and the expectation is for those miscues to lessen in frequency as the line and backs get more experience working in unison.
“I think the explosives will come over time as we continue to find that cohesion up front, and the backs can improve as well with some of their tracking and their discipline,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “Shipley’s a freshman. Kobe’s not a freshman, but he hasn’t played a ton. So it’s going to take a little bit of time for all of those nuances to come together, but once it does, I’m excited about what the potential could be.”
The lack of explosive plays in the passing game have been the most jarring given that’s what carried Clemson’s offense last season even when the running game was average (75th nationally a season ago). A healthy Joseph Ngata, Frank Ladson Jr. and E.J. Williams are all back as is star wideout Justyn Ross after missing last season, making for a receiving corps that Swinney has referred to as perhaps the most talented group he’s had during his tenure as Clemson’s head coach.
But the defenses Clemson has faced so far have had something to do with dictating the Tigers’ offensive game plans. Clemson wanted to emphasize the running game anyway against S.C. State, but the Bulldogs encouraged that by backing off. Determined not to get pummeled through the air again, Georgia Tech exaggerated it even more last week after the Tigers ripped off chunk play after chunk play on their way to dropping 73 points on the Yellow Jackets’ home field in last year’s matchup.
And then there was the opener against Georgia, the nation’s top run defense two years running that made Clemson one-dimensional and rarely gave the Tigers an opportunity to push the ball down the field.
“I don’t think you’re going to see many people have a bunch of explosives against Georgia, No. 1,” Swinney said. “South Carolina State played everybody deep, and we just ran the ball. Took a couple of plays, played a couple quarters and called it a day. And we played a team last week that dropped eight and said run the ball. That’s what we did. And it was completely opposite of what they had shown and what we prepared for. Those are our three games. That’s what we’ve got.”
Still, there have been some chances missed in the passing game, even if they weren’t necessarily home-run hitters. Clemson has tried the intermediate-to-deep part of the middle of the field as well as a few back-shoulder throws on the outside, but those are the ones Uiagalelei, who’s completing 59% of his passes, has been the most inaccurate with to this point. He had his most efficient game against Tech by completing 18 of 25 passes for 126 yards, but Elliott and Swinney pointed out three of his seven incompletions were simply misses down the field, including a back-shoulder attempt that hit the back of Ngata’s shoe.
“Then we have a bang 8 throw on third down. We have a corner route on third-and-5,” Elliott said. “We’re having some opportunities.”
While Uiagalelei wouldn’t put all of those kinds of misfires on a lack of fundamentals — “some of it is I just flat out missed it,” he acknowledged — Elliott said he and quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter continue to emphasize footwork and balance on the longer throws with their young signal caller, which can be easier for quarterbacks like Uagalelei who have plus arm strength to let fall by the wayside.
Similar to the running game, though, Elliott said he’s confident it’s only a matter of time before some of the shot plays in the passing game start hitting as Uiagalelei, his receivers and his offensive line grow more comfortable with each other and play through the learning curve. Connecting on just one of those throws, he believes, could become contagious.
“We’ve got to find a way, especially with the down-the-field throws. We haven’t connected on one of those yet,” Elliott said. “I think once we do, then obviously D.J.’s confidence is going to grow in that. The receivers’ confidence is going to grow in that.”
Clemson’s first true road test of the season will come against a defense that’s been just as good as any of the others at keeping things in front of it. N.C. State, which has allowed just seven points in two home games, is only yielding 2.7 yards per rush and 5.4 yards per play.
It’s as good a time as any for some of those splash plays to start showing back up for the Tigers.