PITTSBURGH — It took just eight days for Dabo Swinney’s tune on his quarterback to change in the form of a tangible alteration.
After No. 24 Clemson’s escape against Syracuse on Oct. 15, the Tigers’ coach billed D.J. Uiagalelei’s performance as the best game he’d played all season. Uiagalelei turned in his highest completion percentage in nearly a month (61.7%) despite a handful of drops by his receivers and played turnover-free for a second straight game.
But things went from better to worse for Uiagalelei against No. 23 Pittsburgh. A season filled with inconsistencies for the sophomore signal caller reached a peak Saturday at Heinz Field, and after the Tigers’ first drive of the second half — one in which Uiagalelei helped the opposing team out rather than his own — Uiagalelei was standing on the sideline when the offense took the field for its ensuing possession.
Now the Tigers officially have a situation to figure out at quarterback going forward.
“I think everything is under evaluation at this point,” Swinney said.
Uiagalelei was benched for Taisun Phommachanh after he threw a pick-six that all but sealed the Tigers’ fate in a 27-17 loss to the Panthers (6-1, 3-0 ACC). Trailing 14-7 coming out of the half, Clemson (4-3, 3-2) had a promising drive going near midfield before Uiagalelei shoveled a pass straight into the arms of Pitt linebacker SirVocea Dennis, who broke through the middle of the line in front of running back Kobe Pace before racing 50 yards the other way for a touchdown that gave the Panthers their largest lead of the night.
“I was going out reading the (defensive) end and seeing him drop while I was pitching it,” Uiagalelei said. “And right after I released it, I see (Dennis) running through the gap right there. He just made a great play.”
Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said the Tigers were “just looking for a spark” when they turned to Phommachanh, but Swinney said there was a little more to the decision to switch things up. Uiagalelei had already thrown one pick in the red zone on Clemson’s second possession with Pitt cornerback Damarri Mathis dropped all over Justyn Ross and continued to throw into coverage Swinney said. Uiagalelei also fumbled a few plays before the pick-six, which would’ve been another turnover had Ajou Ajou not pounced on the loose ball.
Uiagalelei completed just nine of his first 20 passes.
“Right before the half, a ball probably should’ve been picked,” Swinney said. “Not the right coverage to throw the ball over there, and we kind of force the ball. And we come back with the pick-six, and I just felt like I needed to give Taisun a chance.”
Phommachanh immediately led Clemson to points. He completed his first pass to Ross for 14 yards on third-and-6 out near midfield and connected with running back Will Shipley on another third down to move the chains again, setting up B.T. Potter’s 42-yard field goal to cut Pitt’s lead to 21-10 late in the third quarter.
Pitt answered with back-to-back clock-milking drives that resulted in field goals to push its lead to 27-10 with just 9 minutes, 30 seconds to play, so Phommachanh only got two series before Clemson went back to Uiagalelei, the better passer of the two in the coaches’ view.
Uiagalelei led a five-play, 72-yard touchdown drive that he capped with a 6-yard run, though the Tigers got help from two penalties on Pitt during the possession. Uiagalelei completed just one pass on the drive and finished 12 of 25 for 128 yards through the air, the third time in four games that he’s completed less than half of his attempts.
“He could’ve sat over there and pouted, and he didn’t,” Swinney said. “He responded well and took us right down the field for a touchdown. It’s a 10-point game with 8 minutes to go, and if you don’t have the pick-six, it’s 20-17 and things are kind of different.”
But for a quarterback who began the day with the third-lowest completion percentage among ACC starting quarterbacks, issues with accuracy and decision-making have largely been there all season. Uiagalelei said he was “super excited” for Phommachanh to get his shot to lead the offense, but Uiagalelei is also a competitor.
Does he think he’s done enough at this point to hold on to his starting job?
“I think so, but I’ve just got to go out and earn it each and every week,” Uiagalelei said. ‘It doesn’t matter about my past. It doesn’t matter whatever I feel or what anybody else feels.
“No matter how bad you play or how good you play, each and every week is a new week to go out there. And you’ve got to go out there and show everybody why you deserve to play.”
Could the Tigers turn permanently to Phommachanh, who hasn’t been all that accurate either in his limited playing time? The third-year sophomore has completed just 46.1% of his 39 career attempts.
Might walk-on Hunter Helms, who played in three games last season and one so far this year, even get a look? Swinney didn’t rule out anything with seven days to evaluate before Florida State visits Memorial Stadium next week.
“We’ll go to practice and see who has the best practice,” Swinney said. “We’ll figure out who’s going to run out there first at every position and do everything we can to try to figure out a way to win a game.”
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