Can Clemson's running game build on breakout performance?

Can Clemson's running game build on breakout performance?

Football

Can Clemson's running game build on breakout performance?

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Clemson didn’t look like the same team running the ball against Boston College that it’s been for much of the season.

That’s good news for the Tigers.

After weeks of going virtually nowhere on the ground (not counting its meeting with a physically overmatched FCS opponent in South Carolina State), No. 25 Clemson (3-2, 2-1 ACC) finally found some consistency in the running game against the Eagles. The end result was the Tigers’ second 200-yard rushing game of the season.

After averaging 87.6 yards per game on the ground against its first three FBS opponents, the Tigers racked up 231 yards in their win over Boston College, which was allowing just 99.7 rushing yards coming in, a stat that ranked in the top 25 nationally. The S.C. State game (242) is the only one in which Clemson has rushed for more.

“We stopped the run and got the run game going,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It was definitely the difference in the game.”

Clemson has dealt with attrition at running back throughout the season. First, it was senior Lyn-J Dixon deciding to leave the program three games in. Then freshman Will Shipley sustained a lower leg injury late against North Carolina State that will keep him out multiple games, but it was hard to tell against Boston College.

Kobe Pace had a career-high 125 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown that doubled as Clemson’s longest play from scrimmage this season. True freshman Phil Mafah got his first collegiate snaps because of that attrition and ripped off 58 yards on just eight carries. The Tigers averaged 5.8 yards per tote, easily the most against a team not named S.C. State.

Clemson will try to build on that performance its next time out Friday at Syracuse (3-3, 0-2). But to get a better idea of how the Tigers may try to go about doing that, it’s important to understand what led to the breakthrough against Boston College.

The first part of the equation isn’t complicated, Swinney said. The Tigers’ retooled offensive line tried a couple of different starting combinations through the first four weeks of the season and went with a third against the Eagles out of necessity. It was also the most effective one to date.

With right guard Will Putnam (toe) injured, the Tigers slid Matt Bockhorst over and inserted Hunter Rayburn into the starting lineup at center. Freshman Marcus Tate also got another start at left guard after being replaced by Paul Tchio there a week earlier. 

It’s a group that’s struggled with sheer physicality as well as blocking assignments and communication at times with so many moving parts, but Swinney said none of that was an issue against the Eagles.

“The offensive line really played well,” Swinney said. “We didn’t have the critical errors. We didn’t have miscommunication. We weren’t turning guys that were supposed to be blocked loose. We really communicated well, targeted well and were very physical.”

Mafah echoed his coach’s sentiment when asked why he felt like the running game was more effective than it’s been for much of the season.

“As a team, we’ve just been talking about just really imposing our will on our opponent,” Mafah said. “Dabo is always talking about in practice that we need to bring that to the game field, and I just feel like the o-linemen and the offense, we just came with that intensity. I felt like the offensive line did a great job (last week), so I give a lot of props to them, (offensive line) coach (Robbie) Caldwell and our coaches for allowing us the opportunity to get that open.”

Clemson also made a point to get the backs out on the perimeter with stretch plays, pitches and options. Mafah’s longest run — a 26-yarder late in the first half — came on one of those stretch plays where he ran through an opening off tackle and wasn’t met by a Boston College defender until he was more than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage.

Mafah broke a couple of would-be tackles to help turn it into one of Clemson’s longest runs of the night, but Swinney said attacking the Eagles on the edge wasn’t necessarily about how Boston College was defending the Tigers. The stretch has been a staple of Clemson’s playbook this season, but Swinney again pointed to the group up front for the primary difference in its effectiveness this time around.

“We run the inside zone and the outside zone, but we just blocked it better the other night,” Swinney said. “When you block it well, good things happen. And we ran it well. Ran the right tracks. Again, we were able to get in rhythm and, all of a sudden, you start playing some complementary football as far as how you can complement plays and get in a rhythm as far as calling the plays.”

And, more heavily than he’s been all season, Clemson also got D.J. Uiagalelei involved in the running game again. The Tigers’ 6-foot-4, 247-pound quarterback had a season-high 12 carries for 50 yards, most of those coming on designed runs between the tackles. The Tigers also ran their share of zone reads, where Uiagalelei has the option to hand off or keep the ball based on how the defensive line plays it. Swinney said there were a couple of times where Uiagalelei could’ve likely picked up even more yards on the ground had he pulled the ball, but he largely made the right decisions to hand off to Pace and Mafah in those situations, Swinney added.

The Tigers’ success on the ground forced Boston College to commit an extra defender or two to the box and play more man coverage than Clemson has seen this season. Uiagalelei didn’t connect on any of those throws deep down the field, something Swinney said has to start happening if Clemson is going to make defenses pay for playing that way, but it’s largely up to the running game to keep giving the Tigers one-on-one matchups on the outside.

“We had to prove we can run the ball, and when you can do that, then you open things up in the passing game,” Swinney said.

As for which lineup the Tigers go with on the offensive line against Syracuse, that’s something that continues to be evaluated, Swinney said. Part of that depends on if Putnam is able to give it a go against the Orange, another defense ranked in the top 35 nationally in rushing yards allowed (114 per game). 

If so, Clemson could move Bockhorst back to left guard, where he played last season, and keep Rayburn at center. Another option would be to stick with the same lineup as last week if Putnam has to miss another game. 

Ultimately, the Tigers need the running game to continue doing its part if the offense is going to maximize its potential over the final seven games and help keep Clemson in the ACC title race.

“If the defense wants to give us a box to run on all day, we’ve got to do our best to run against it,” Rayburn said. “If they want to play a little light coverage and let us throw the ball, then let’s throw it. We’ve got to be ready for whatever defense we play and just take what they give us.”

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