RALEIGH, N.C. — The start was promising.
Clemson, on the strength of perhaps the most accurate passes D.J. Uiagalelei has thrown beyond 10 yards to this point, silenced a crowd of 56,919 people inside Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday by taking a 7-0 lead on North Carolina State just two possessions in. Uiagalelei produced a couple of chunk plays — something that had been sorely lacking from the Tigers’ offense through three games — by sidestepping some pressure before hitting Joseph Ngata in stride near Clemson’s sideline for a 29-yard gain out near midfield.
Uiagalelei then bought himself some time by rolling to his right, eyed Justyn Ross cutting across the back of the end zone and unleashed a 32-yard dart that Ross hauled in, tapping a foot down before falling out of bounds. Yet there Clemson coach Dabo Swinney was, a little more than three hours later, answering questions about his starting quarterback and the offense he’s trying to operate.
“You’ve got to own it,” Swinney said. “That’s where we are right now.”
Where the seventh-ranked Tigers (2-2, 1-1 ACC) are currently is a situation where Swinney and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott find themselves questioning everything they’re doing on that side of the ball. Because, outside of another touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter aided by a 37-yard run by Uiagalelei, nothing worked in Clemson’s 27-21 loss in overtime, which is saying something considering this offense has spent most of the season in the kind of funk that hasn’t been seen at Clemson in quite some time.
The Tigers entered Saturday’s game ranked in the triple digits in most national statistical categories having scored just two touchdowns against FBS opponents. It took the Tigers almost another three quarters to score their second touchdown Saturday, and their last one came in overtime when offenses only have to cover 25 yards for a touchdown.
Other than that, Clemson’s offense was as bad as it’s been all season. For long stretches, it was worse.
Clemson followed its first scoring drive with a three-and-out. It started a span of six three-and-outs in eight possessions. The only two that didn’t end with a punt? An interception on a tipped ball and a kneeldown that ran out the first-half clock.
Clemson made a personnel change along an offensive line that’s had its share of issues mentally (missed blocking assignments) and physically (lack of push in the running game and trouble protecting Uiagalelei at times). Sophomore Paul Tchio started in place of true freshman Marcus Tate at left guard while Hunter Rayburn also rotated in there. Tate, who started the first three games, didn’t see the field.
It didn’t make much of a difference. Whether it was running or passing, Clemson’s offense looked virtually the same. Uiagalelei completed just eight more passes after a 4-of-7 start to finish 12 of 26 for 111 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, and establishing the line of scrimmage isn’t really a thing the offensive line has done at any point this season.
Uiagalelei once again didn’t have much help from a running game that produced just 8 yards in the first half, Clemson’s lowest rushing total in a half since mustering just 9 yards on the ground a few weeks ago in the first half of the opener against Georgia. Without Uiagalelei’s long scamper to set up the second touchdown Saturday, the Tigers would’ve finished with just 66 yards on 22 carries, or 3 yards per tote.
From its third possession of the first quarter to its first of the fourth, Clemson mustered just 35 yards of offense on 21 snaps, or 1.6 yards per play.
“I don’t recall a situation in particular like this,” Elliott said of his unit’s sustained struggles.
Things stalled out so bad that people who’ve been involved in the sport for a while even called into question the Tigers’ offensive scheme, which mixes spread concepts with a downhill running game. Heisman Trophy winner and former NFL quarterback Robert Griffin III, now a college football analyst for ESPN, called Clemson’s offense “archaic” during the network’s broadcast.
“Well, we run the zone, we run the counter, we run the power, and we’ve been an offense that’s been really, really good for a long, long time,” Swinney said. “But the criticism is warranted. That’s where we are, and that’s what we’ve displayed.”
After throwing out reasons why Clemson’s offense struggled so much in the first three weeks — Georgia is one of the country’s best defenses while Georgia Tech and even South Carolina State chose to take away the big play over the top by dropping most of its defenders into coverage, they tried to explain — Swinney and Elliott were done making excuses following another anemic showing from the offense Saturday. Elliott said the Tigers have to do some heavy scouting of themselves and figure out moving forward what the best plan of attack is based on scheme and personnel.
“We did some self-scout and tried to break a couple of tendencies (before the N.C. State game), but at the end of the day, it’s our job as coaches to make sure we put together a plan that best gives the kids an opportunity be successful,” Elliott said. “And then from there, they’ve got to do their part and go make the plays.”
As for Clemson’s quarterback situation, Swinney said he thought Uiagalelei gave the Tigers a chance to win with his performance Saturday but added that position won’t be immune to re-evaluation either, even if he sort of, kind of gave Uiagalelei a vote of confidence.
“At this point, at 2-2, you look at everything,” Swinney said. “There’s nothing that you don’t evaluate. But I think D.J. is our quarterback.”
Things won’t get any easier for Clemson with an unbeaten Boston College team set to visit Memorial Stadium next weekend. But there isn’t much that hasn’t been a chore for an offense that’s been working all season to figure out what its identity is going to be in the post-Trevor Lawrence era.
“We’ve got a bunch of good people involved, and we’ve got a lot of people involved that care,” Swinney said. “We’ll figure it out, but it’s disappointing for sure. We’re not very good right now, and that’s why we’re 2-2. It’s my job to get us better.”