There D.J. Uiagalelei was. Still throwing passes.
There wasn’t any time left on the clock. No defense to try to crack. No fans watching his every move.
Around 12:30 a.m. Sunday, long after Boston College’s players and coaches as well as the 79,159 fans in attendance had filed out of Memorial Stadium following Clemson’s 19-13 win, Uiagalelei was back on the field throwing against air. With a student manager on the receiving end, Clemson’s quarterback repped some of the throws he had missed — throws that, if he’d connected on them, could have made for a much comfortable margin of victory.
A lot has been said about Uiagelelei’s rollercoaster start to his sophomore season, but no one can accuse Clemson’s quarterback of not caring or working. Still, Uiagalelei knows he can be better. Because even before he started that late-night throwing session, during his postgame interview with reporters, Uiagalelei admitted as much.
It left the Tigers’ quarterback, who’s often shouldered the blame for Clemson’s offensive woes even if it hasn’t always been warranted, talking about a hopeful performance from the unit he leads instead of a breakout one.
“Just got to continue to finish in the red zone and turn those field goals into touchdowns, but we took a huge step (Saturday),” Uiagalelei said.
Clemson only reached the end zone once Saturday night, but the offense’s performance was far from the slog it’s typically been this season. Through four games, the Tigers had the lowest yards per play in the ACC and ranked among the nation’s worst offenses in total yards. Clemson racked up 438 yards against Boston College — 143 more than its season average — and ripped off 6.4 yards per play. The only game in which it’s been higher? South Carolina State.
Perhaps the best news for the Tigers was most of that production came on the ground behind their retooled offensive line that underwent more alterations. With right guard Will Putnam (toe) unable to go, Matt Bockhorst slid over from center and Marcus Tate re-entered the starting lineup at left guard. The end result? An offense that began the day averaging less than 126 yards on the ground (99th out of 130 FBS teams) finished with 231 rushing yards, easily the most Clemson has rushed for against an FBS opponent this season.
A good chunk of that came on a 59-yard touchdown run by Kobe Pace — the Tigers’ longest play from scrimmage — but it wasn’t the only chunk play on the ground. Freshman Phil Mafah, getting his first career snaps with Will Shipley (leg injury) out and Lyn-J Dixon (transfer) no longer around, ripped off multiple runs of at least 10 yards, including a 28-yarder. Even Uiagalalei, who continues to be utilized more and more in the run game, had scampers of 14 and 15 yards.
It helped the Tigers make eight trips into Boston College territory. Two possessions after Pace’s scoring run early in the first quarter, Clemson put together a 10-play, 94-yard march that reached the Eagles’ 2. But the Tigers had to settle for a field goal that put them up 10-3 at the time.
B.T. Potter kicked three more field goals on drives that reached at least Boston College’s 25 before stalling out. And that was the Tigers’ biggest issue.
“We’ve got to finish some of the plays that are there,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve got several plays that we need to finish that, they’re there. And we’ve got to just continue to develop that chemistry and get it done.”
Boston College stoned a handful of goal-line runs before Potter booted that first kick through the uprights, but there were a handful of opportunities to put the ball in the end zone through the air against man coverage that Clemson hasn’t seen much this season. Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said Boston College likes to play that type of coverage with a high safety anyway, but the Tigers’ effectiveness on the ground lent itself to the Eagles dropping more defenders in the box and leaving their corners on an island with Clemson’s receivers.
Elliott dialed up some deep balls to try to take advantage of those matchups, and Uiagalelei’s receivers didn’t always help him out, particularly late in the fourth quarter when Joseph Ngata dropped a pass inside Boston College’s 5 a few plays before Potter kicked his final field goal to give Clemson the six-point advantage. But Uiagalelei had chances to connect with Ngata and Beaux Collins on a handful before that. He overthrew all of them.
“Playing quarterback, you’ve got to have an intensity to just be able to lock in,” Uiagalelei said. “You can’t worry about anything that’s going on around you. I thought I did a pretty good job (Saturday), but there are a couple of throws, I wish I had those back. One to Joe. A couple to Beaux. It’s all good though. Just need to keep learning.”
Uiagalelei finished 12 of 26 passing for 207 yards but was oh so close to putting more points on the board for the Tigers. Touch and accuracy on the longer passes has been an issue for him all season, and Swinney said the Tigers will have to start hitting on some of those if the offense is going to truly break through.
The Tigers have an extra week to work on it, and getting healthy would help. Clemson enters its open date with receivers Justyn Ross, Frank Ladson Jr., E.J. Williams and Will Taylor banged up to some extent. The same goes for tight ends Davis Allen and Braden Galloway. Swinney said Ross and Galloway both took blows to the head Saturday while Taylor sustained a knee injury, though Swinney didn’t know the severity of it afterward.
Clemson kept itself afloat in the ACC title race with Saturday’s win, but the Tigers will almost certainly need to put more points on the board against the rest of its schedule if it’s going to stay that way. Awaiting Clemson are back-to-back road games starting Oct. 15 at Syracuse, which has scored at least 24 points in four of its five games. The Tigers then head to Pittsburgh, which is scoring more points than anybody in the FBS (52.4 per game).
“We’re just in the process of refining all the details,” Elliott said. “And once we’re able to combine the details with the passion and fight, I think these guys are going to explode.”
Whether the Tigers can put it all together by then remains to be seen, but the offense Clemson trotted onto the field Saturday looked like a unit that’s getting closer to doing just that.