Coming into Friday night’s game against Syracuse, Clemson (4-2, 3-1 ACC) thought it was going to be able to run the ball effectively. Unfortunately, multiple factors prevented that from being the case in the Tigers’ 17-14 win.
While there isn’t any finger-pointing being done, there doesn’t need to be. Clemson’s problems start and end up front.
Clemson finished Friday’s contest with 116 rushing yards on 37 carries, averaging just 3.1 yards per touch. Kobe Pace led the way with 76 yards on 14 carries and a touchdown, while Phil Mafah, D.J. Uiagalelei and Taisun Phommachanh combined for just 58 yards on 21 carries.
Prior to Friday’s game, Syracuse was ranked No. 31 in the FBS in run defense, allowing 113.8 rushing yards per game. Clemson was looking to exploit that, but the Tigers were unable to avoid shooting themselves in the foot. Yes, there were personnel issues, but Clemson struggled on basic execution up front yet again, which is something that’s clearly wearing on the team’s offensive coordinator.
“I thought we were going to be able to run the ball, but we also cut some drives short too,” Tony Elliott said postgame. “We had a good drive coming out, snapped the ball over [Uigalelei’s] head and we lost 17 yards, now we’re playing catch up. That’s an opportunity right there to keep that drive growing. You’re gonna have an opportunity to pick up maybe 30-40 more yards rushing. And again, the biggest thing for us, is we gotta get out of our own way.”
“The numbers are not where they are, is a reflection of one guy over here having a holding penalty,” he added. “Then, we have a false start. Then, you have a guy who doesn’t execute his block the right way, forces the running back to stop his feet before he gets to the line of scrimmage. It’s just one thing after another. It’s not one guy in particular, but it just seems that at the most inopportune time, we’re having that one breakdown, which gets us out of rhythm, and therefore we’re not able to sustain drives, which is going to lead to the outcome or the production that people are used to for this offense.”
The Tigers, unfortunately, didn’t learn until about 10 a.m. Friday that they would be without Hunter Rayburn, who wound up entering the team’s COVID-protocol.
“It wasn’t a ton,” Elliott said when asked if Rayburn’s absence disrupted the offensive line. “I think the thing that disrupted us more than anything was just the penalties and the missed plays. A couple of missed blocks on the perimeter, we had a holding call on the big screen play to the tight end [Davis Allen] there. So, just those things probably disputed us more than Rayburn going into protocol this morning.”
Rayburn did an admirable job of filling in at center with Will Putnam sidelined during Clemson’s 19-13 win over Boston College back on Saturday, Oct. 2. He was expected to start at center with Putnam being re-inserted at right guard and Matt Bockhorst shifting over to left guard.
But, Clemson failed to catch a break. It was yet again another blow to a team that had 14 unavailable scholarship players Friday night, including Rayburn.
That gave way to Mason Trotter making his first career start. After fracturing his hand before the start of the season, Trotter had to fight his way back from injury.
He was unable to snap the ball with his hand clubbed up, but that changed Friday night. Getting his first game experience at the center position, Trotter’s right hand was heavily wrapped up, but he was ready to go and filled in for Rayburn.
“Fortunately for Mason, he had an opportunity to snap throughout the week,” Elliott said. “We had an option there with Bockhorst going back to center, but felt like the best thing to do was give Mason Trotter an opportunity and outside of his [bad] snap, I felt like Mason did a solid job of coming in and being ready with the next man up.”
Trotter, Bockhorst and Jordan McFadden were the only offensive lineman who played every snap Friday. The Tigers were substituting linemen in and out Friday and had a quick hook when doing so.
There were instances when Bockhorst played both left and right guard, Marcus Tate came in at right guard and Mitchell Mayes saw some time at right tackle. Not an ideal situation for a unit that was looking to build off its best performance of the season, which came nearly two weeks ago.
“Definitely, making sure that there’s accountability at every position,” Elliott said when asked about the shuffling upfront. “I guess the easiest thing to see is if a wideout drops a ball or has a bad play, you can see when a substitution is made. A lot of times you might miss it on the offensive line. We knew going into the game that we were going to have to shuffle some people around. Obviously, the plan was different than when we woke up this morning and then it changed, so we wanted to keep an eye on the situation.
“I thought they did a good job in establishing the line of scrimmage in the run game, but feel like we have to do a better job from a protection standpoint. There were a couple of 1-on-1s that we lost, that I thought we had a better matchup…I thought in the run game, they did some really good things, but in the pass game we have to do a better job protecting our quarterback.”