When it comes to Clemson’s offense, Tony Elliott no longer wonders if he’s going to hear some bad news. It’s more a matter of when.
That’s the kind of season it’s been for the Tigers and their offensive coordinator, who’s used to dialing up plays for a unit that puts up points and yards in bunches. Even with a breakthrough of sorts the last two games, Clemson has been on the opposite end of the spectrum this season. The Tigers are still last in the ACC in total offense (330.1 yards per game) and next to last in scoring (22.2 points per game).
Making things even tougher are the personnel hits that keep coming.
“This year, the biggest challenge is what’s the adversity?” Elliott said. “Now I think we’re getting to a point as an offense and as a team where it’s like, ‘OK, it’s not if but when’s it going to happen.’”
Clemson’s offense did its part to help the Tigers rally for a 30-24 win at Louisville over the weekend despite more attrition on that side of the ball. Whether it be injuries or COVID-19 protocols, it’s something that’s made it difficult for the group to establish any sort of continuity.
The Tigers started last week’s game with their sixth different starting combination along the offensive line with right guard Will Putnam (ankle) out again. By the time it was over, two other starters, running back Kobe Pace (concussion) and receiver Joseph Ngata (foot), had sustained injuries that kept them from finishing the game. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Ngata will miss at least a couple of games.
“That’s how it’s kind of been this season. OK, here comes the adversity,” Elliott said. “What is the adversity? OK, it’s your left guard is out. OK, we’ve got to move this guy over here. We’ve got to do this. So it’s just been more in between the series trying to just make sure I’m locked in on what the current situation is amidst the possible changes that just took place.”
Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei was added to the injury list after he sprained his right knee early in the second quarter. Fortunately for the Tigers, that’s not his plant leg, and it wasn’t severe enough to keep him out for long. Uiagalelei returned on Clemson’s next possession and put together one of his better performances of the season, throwing for a season-high 220 yards and accounting for three touchdowns with no turnovers.
His final touchdown was of the rushing variety when he hobbled into the end zone for an 8-yard score with less than 5 minutes remaining. It capped a nine-play, 57-yard march that served as the second go-ahead touchdown drive pieced together by the offense in the fourth quarter in as many weeks.
“I’m proud of the fact the guys found a way to win and believe they were going to win as opposed to playing not to lose,” Elliott said.
The group, Elliott believes, is playing with more confidence given the gradual improvement it continues to make. Clemson has finally cracked 20 regulation points against FBS competition in back-to-back games and is averaging 358 yards over its last five. The Tigers are 4-1 in those games.
Given all the moving parts the group has deal with to do it, Elliott said he’s particularly appreciative for the offense’s development despite how bleak things have looked at times.
“Everything happens for a reason. I truly believe that, and I believe this is program that is intended to help people and help bring change in certain situations,” Elliott said. “And obviously when we were having the tremendous amount of success, there was change that was taking place there. But I also believe that through adversity, change is going to be made.
“It’s been awesome to watch them be resilient and continue to fight and continue to believe, especially in a day and age where most people tell you it’s not worth it. I think we all know that at the end of the day, it is worth it. And it’s best thing for you to do is just keep battling through the adversity.”
Elliott said the players aren’t the only ones that have benefited from pushing through the struggle.
“It’s been good for all of us as coaches, too, because I think just for situational football, things have come up this season that we hadn’t seen in the last 10 years,” he said. “So it’s really good for us to sharpen our skills managing those game situations when you’ve got so many things that are going on.”
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