PITTSBURGH — Not everything about Clemson’s offense was the same Saturday.
Early in the third quarter, the Tigers made a change at quarterback, replacing D.J. Uiagalelei with Taisun Phommachanh. The third-year sophomore led a scoring drive (ending in a field goal) on his first possession, but the switch to a signal caller known more for his running than his throwing lasted just two series.
That’s because No. 23 Pittsburgh kept extending its lead, going up by as many as 17 points early in the fourth quarter. And Clemson coach Dabo Swinney felt the Tigers (4-3, 3-2 ACC) needed their best passing option in the game since they needed to play catchup in a hurry.
It’s a position the 24th-ranked Tigers found themselves in, at least in part, because of an offense that largely looked the same, which is never a good thing given the way it’s operating.
“We are what we are right now,” Swinney said. “Very immature. Very young. An unconfident offense. That’s for sure.”
Pitt (6-1, 3-0) entered Saturday’s game ranked in the top 35 nationally in yards and points allowed, but Clemson’s offense once again did itself no favors in a 27-17 loss married by more self-inflicted miscues that kept the Tigers from ever finding a rhythm, a broken record for a unit that continues to rank toward the bottom of the FBS in most statistical categories.
Clemson was penalized just five times, an improvement for a team averaging more than seven coming in, but turnovers were an issue for Uiagalelei, which ultimately got him pulled early in the third quarter. SirVocea Dennis’ pick-six on an ill-advised shovel pass near midfield gave Pitt its largest lead at the time at 21-7, but it wasn’t Uiagalelei’s first mishap. Clemson had a prime opportunity for points on its second possession of the game when the Tigers drove inside Pitt’s 25-yard line, but Uiagalelei’s decision to throw it up to a blanketed Justyn Ross at the end of it was a costly one that resulted in his first pick.
As poorly as Uiagalelei played at times, though, the miscues weren’t limited to the sophomore quarterback.
Blocking continued to be hit or miss, even on the outside. At one point, Ajou Ajou drew the wrath of Swinney when he whiffed on a perimeter block on one of Clemson’s first possessions resulting in a negative play.
Injuries at receiver continued to force players like Ajou who haven’t played significant snaps into more prominent roles. With Joseph Ngata (COVID-19 protocols), Frank Ladson (groin) and E.J. Williams (knee) out, Ajou got his second straight start and caught a 36-yard pass to extend the Tigers’ first scoring drive, but he was also part of the drop issue that continues to plague the offense.
“That’s kind of been our story right now, the inability to have that continuity which is going to generate the confidence to build the consistently that we’re used to having on offense around here,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.
None of them came at a worse time than when the Tigers had a chance to extend their 7-0 lead early in the second quarter. Uiagalelei completed just nine of his first 20 passes as part of a 12-of-25 day through the air, but he put one on the money to running back Will Shipley, who had used his speed his beat his defender in man coverage over the middle. But Shipley, playing for the first time after sustaining a leg injury against North Carolina State on Sept. 25, couldn’t hold on.
Clemson eventually punted on that possession, and Pitt scored its first touchdown right after. The Panthers followed it up with another touchdown. Dennis’ 50-yard pick-six on Clemson’s opening possession of the second half made it a 21-0 run that put the Panthers well in control.
“We had some critical missed opportunities and drops that could’ve put that game away,” Swinney said. “That’s the frustrating thing about where we are. I thought Tony had a great plan. … We’ve just got to find some rhythm.”
It’s seemingly one step forward and two steps back on a weekly basis for an offense that’s still yet to crack the 20-point mark in regulation against an FBS opponent. Swinney dismissed the idea of staff changes as part of the solution, answering “absolutely not” when asked if he felt any were needed.
“We have a great staff that I believe in wholeheartedly,” Swinney said. “We’ve all got to do a better job starting with me.”
Swinney has never questioned the effort of his players, reiterating Saturday that they’re “trying hard.” But every position, he said, will be evaluated for an offense that’s having a hard time staying out of its own way.
“I think everything is under evaluation at this point at 4-3 with where we are,” Swinney said. “Everybody’s got to show up and earn it every single day, and we’ve just got to take it one day at a time.”
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