Clemson’s loss to North Carolina State was stunning in more ways than one.
It’s not that the Tigers had looked anything close to invincible through their first three games despite carrying a top-10 ranking into Carter-Finley Stadium. In fact, with an opening loss to Georgia, a snoozer against FCS opponent South Carolina State and a close call against Georgia Tech, it was quite the opposite.
On Saturday, though, it was about how it happened. Shocking that the offense continues to look like a shell of its former self. Shocking that, because of the offense’s inability to sustain drives, N.C. State possessed the ball for nearly 42 minutes of game time and nearly doubled the Tigers in plays (96-49). Shocking that the game even required extra time after Wolfpack kicker Christopher Dunn, who was 3 of 4 on field goals coming into the game, missed three of them, including a pair in the fourth quarter.
And shocking because the end result — a 27-21 win for N.C. State in double overtime — has Clemson in a situation the Tigers aren’t at all used to.
The loss was Clemson’s second before the end of September, something the Tigers haven’t experienced since 2014. And a program that began the season with aspirations of getting back to the College Football Playoff and atoning for its poor showing in that Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State is left to deal with the harsh reality that those are almost certainly gone just four games into the season, which figures to be another shock to Clemson’s system given the Tigers have been a part of the CFP for six consecutive seasons.
“Things happen. Guys get hurt, and you get some heartbreak along the way,” Swinney said. “But the expectation is for us to be the best we can be. That has not changed and that’s not going to change. In order for us to do that, we’ve got to get locked in, flush this and learn from it and go win a game this week. That’s what we’ve got the opportunity to do. That’s all we can focus on.”
That 2014 season was also the last time Clemson didn’t win the ACC championship, but extending that streak is no guarantee for the Tigers this season. Not with an offense that’s having a hard time scoring (21.8 points per game), can’t run the ball (126.2 yards per game) and is generally struggling to create any consistent rhythm while still looking for an identity. And a defense the Tigers have leaned on so heavily early in the season is battered and bruised with star defensive lineman Bryan Bresee and veteran linebacker James Skalski, the hero of Clemson’s goal-line stand against Georgia Tech, being added to the injury list Saturday.
Taking all of that into account, there aren’t any gimmes left on the schedule. Clemson returns home against an unbeaten Boston College team this week and still has trips to Pittsburgh and Syracuse looming. Louisville, Florida State and Wake Forest, another unbeaten, will also visit Memorial Stadium. Oh, and there’s that rivalry game against South Carolina on the road to conclude the regular season.
But say Clemson does start putting it together on offense. That will require the offensive line to improve immensely both in technique and physicality and quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei to find some sort of rhythm to his game whether that be with his arm, his legs or a combination of the two. It’s also up to Swinney and his coaching staff to start tailoring offensive game plans to the unit’s strengths, whatever they think those might be at this point, and putting players in better positions to be successful.
But say the Tigers do find some answers on that side of the ball — at least enough to help a defense that’s walking wounded — and goes on to again win a conference that’s still plenty watered down. The best the Tigers can do with that now is a New Year’s Six bowl.
It’s a much lower ceiling than Clemson is used to in terms of what it can accomplish. Is it enough incentive for a team that’s grown accustomed to so much more?
“I think it’s just reminding them, the coaches and everybody in the program what our program is built on, and that’s belief,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “And the only people that are going to get us out of this situation is us. It’s going to take us believing, unifying and coming together and not letting the outside world, the outside voices, divide us because we know it’s going to come obviously. And rightfully so. We haven’t done our best on the field.”
Swinney put it matter of factly after Saturday’s game when he said Clemson has a lot of work to do, but he’s never questioned the effort his team has put forth this season. Few if any people have.
Rarely has anyone questioned Swinney’s ability to motivate his team either. For the first time in a long time, that may be as important as any part of his job description this week and beyond.
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!