For the first time this season against an FBS opponent, Clemson hit the 200-200 split on offense.
That’s 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing. And with their win over Boston College on Saturday, the Tigers improved to a perfect 55-0 during Dabo Swinney’s tenure as head coach when achieving that type of balance.
But, like much of the season, Clemson left a lot more passing yards on the table, particularly with a running game finally doing its part in forcing a defense to adjust its coverage on the back end. The Tigers rolled up 231 rushing yards — their second-most of the season — which resulted in the Eagles occasionally dropping an extra defender or two into the box and playing man on the outside.
“Really hadn’t been able to do a lot in the passing game because we’ve seen a lot of drop eight because we weren’t really running the ball effectively,” Swinney said. “But we got it going the other night, and it created some opportunities in the pass game.”
Problem was, the Tigers weren’t able to take advantage of most of the shots it took down the field. And Clemson again wasn’t able to get many receivers going outside of Joseph Ngata and Justyn Ross, who have combined for nearly half of Clemson’s receptions this season (40 of 85).
Swinney said there’s a combination of reasons as to why the Tigers have been inconsistent through the air to this point. Not only have most defenses elected to drop more defenders into coverage given the Tigers’ struggles running the ball, Swinney said, but whether it’s quarterback D.J. Uiagalalei simply missing open throws down the field or receivers dropping the ones that are on target, Clemson also has rarely taken advantage of their opportunities down the field when they’ve been there.
Swinney said he can vividly recall four “easy plays” Saturday where receivers didn’t make them, including Ngata’s drop inside Boston College’s 5-yard line in the fourth quarter. He also remembered three specific throws that Uiagalelei missed, including an overthrow of Beaux Collins in the end zone in a one-on-one situation.
“So there’s seven or eight plays right there that are game-changing plays,” Swinney said. “They lead to first downs. Leads to big plays. Lead to momentum.
“Guys are open. So we’re either not catching it or we’re open and we don’t hit them.”
Uiagalelei finished 13 of 28 passing for 207 yards, but most of the passes he did complete were to Ngata, who had four catches for 111 yards. With Ross out for the most of the game after sustaining an early concussion, Ngata was again Uiagalelei’s go-to receiver with a team-high eight targets. The next-closest receiver was E.J. Williams with three catches on five targets.
But Ross wasn’t the only injury the Tigers had at the position, which is another issue Swinney said his team has had to deal with throughout the season. Frank Ladson (groin) and E.J. Williams, who was already dealing with a torn ligament in his thumb, were also hurting.
“It’s just been guys banged up,” Swinney said.
With Clemson still ranked 115th nationally in passing (176.8 yards per game), Swinney acknowledged the Tigers are still nowhere near where they would like to be through the air. But much like the rest of the offense, Swinney said there’s reason to believe the Tigers are close to putting it all together.
“Just keep going, man. Just keep hitting that same spot and working hard in practice,” Swinney said. “We have an incredible will to win on this team. We have to have that same type of will to improve, and we do. And if we continue to have that, we will get there.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!