Clemson finally cracked the 20-point mark in regulation against an FBS opponent Saturday against Florida State, staying above .500 on the season in the process. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly from the Tigers’ 30-20 win.
Following Jermaine Johnson’s strip, scoop and score that put FSU up 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter, it was easy to assume the worst for Clemson given the way the offense has performed for most of this season.
But instead of defense or special teams bailing the Tigers out, it was the offense that answered the ball when it had to. Clemson got some assistance with pass interference and a personal foul on Florida State on its next-to-last possession, but the Tigers still marched 58 yards in just three plays and took the lead on a 21-yard run by Will Shipley that’s got to be at the beginning of his collegiate highlight reel.
Clemson moved the ball pretty consistently (377 total yards; eight drives ending in FSU territory) thanks in large part to a running game that’s starting to find its groove. Shipley’s touchdown run was part of of a 128-yard day for him, a season-high. Fellow freshman Phil Mafah ripped off Clemson’s longest play from scrimmage all season (63-yard run). And the Tigers finished with 188 rushing yards despite not having their leading rusher, Kobe Pace, who’s in COVID-19 protocols.
Meanwhile, Clemson never let the nation’s 13th-best rushing attack coming in get going. FSU began the day averaging more than 230 yards on the ground, and its 6.91 yards per rush in October were tops in the country. FSU finished with just 65 yards on 34 carries.
Maybe most impressive of all for the Tigers was containing a fast, slippery quarterback like Jordan Travis, who had minus-4 yards on 16 carries. Most of those stats were a result of six sacks, a season-high for Clemson. Myles Murphy was particularly active for the defense up front, tallying two of those sacks and also blocking an extra-point attempt after FSU’s first touchdown.
Joseph Ngata and E.J. Williams returned at receiver, but Justyn Ross was D.J. Uiagalelei’s go-to target Saturday. Ross, who’s had an up-and-down season in his first season back from spinal fusion surgery, appeared to be as engaged as he’s been all season, making some contested catches en route to six receptions for 85 yards, both game-highs. Punter Will Spiers was also a weapon on special teams with a 51.5-yard average, which included a 56-yarder in the final 30 seconds that pinned the Seminoles at their own 9-yard line with no timeouts.
Dabo Swinney’s decision to briefly bench D.J. Uiagalelei during the second half against Pitt a week earlier led to a competition between Uiagalelei and backup Taisun Phommachanh during practice last week. Swinney said he decided to stick with Uiagalelei as the starter based on what he’d seen from the sophomore during those practices.
While Uiagalelei didn’t play bad, per se — he finished 19 of 31 for 189 yards with a well-placed ball to Davis Allen on a fade for an 11-yard score in the first half — the decision-making is still suspect at times. Like when Clemson was facing third-and-13 from its own 13 while clinging to a 17-13 lead midway through the third quarter. Uiagalelei looked for Joseph Ngata on the outside but forced the pass into double coverage. It was also underthrown and easily intercepted, giving the Seminoles a prime chance to take the lead that was thwarted by the defense.
Clemson led by the same margin early in the fourth quarter while facing second-and-8 from FSU’s 39. The Tigers dialed up a screen that the Seminoles had sniffed out, forcing Uiagalelei to hold on to the ball. Instead of eating it, Uiagalalei threw late to Williams, who was hit as he caught the ball and fumbled.
“It was kind of a screwed-up deal,” Swinney said. “Maybe we just throw that in the ground and let’s live for second-and-10. but he’s trying to make a play. And E.J.’s just got to hang on to it.”
Clemson also had trouble extending its lead at times because of an uncharacteristically off day from senior kicker B.T. Potter, who missed three of his four field goals after entering the game having missed just one kick all season.
It also wasn’t the most clean game on defense in the penalty department. Clemson was only flagged six times, but four of those were offsides penalties in the first half, including a couple during FSU’s first touchdown drive late in the first quarter.
“It’s embarrassing. A total lack of discipline in those moments,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “At times this year, that’s who we’ve been where we’re charged up and we’re excited, but you’ve got to have more than that. You’ve got to be poised and disciplined.”
Clemson’s three turnovers tied a season-high. And for the second straight week, one of them led directly to points for the opposition. That can’t keep happening if the Tigers hope to keep the wins coming in November.
“We’ve got to get a rabbit’s foot or something because we’ve got to turn those tides,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We’ve scored too many points this season or the other team. We don’t want to give it bigger life than what it is, but we’ve just got to focus in on the fundamentals.”
Meanwhile, injuries continue to pile up, particularly up front. Mason Trotter was the latest offensive lineman to get banged up as the sophomore wasn’t able to finish the third straight game he started at center. Guard Will Putnam, who dealt with a foot injury earlier in the season that forced him to miss a game, had to leave at one point, but he did return.
Mafah was limited to just nine carries after watching the fourth quarter from the sideline, where he was spotted limping.
Swinney didn’t have an update any those players’ statuses after the game, though he said he’s hopeful Mafah’s injury isn’t too serious. It would certainly help Clemson’s cause if none of them fell in that category at positions where depth is already becoming dire.
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