Clemson’s offense ran 99 plays Saturday. The Tigers totaled 476 yards on those snaps with 347 of those coming through the air, a season-high. Clemson also scored more points than it has against any FBS opponent all season and cruised to a 44-7 victory over Connecticut inside a sun-splashed Memorial Stadium.
So it was a good day for the offense, right?
That’s not exactly the right adjective.
The final numbers, particularly for a group that’s struggled to find any consistent footing throughout the season, certainly look good for a Power Five roster littered with four- and five-star recruits going up against one that can only dream about that kind of talent. On the surface, it looked like another step in the right direction for an offense that had reached the 20-point mark in regulation against back-to-back FBS foes for the first time all season.
But looks, as they say, can be deceiving.
“Really the story of the day was missed plays,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “So many missed opportunities for just very easy plays. So that was a little disappointing.”
It was a struggle for most of the afternoon for the first- and second-teamers, who found the end zone just three times as injuries continue to mount. Leading rusher Will Shipley and Kobe Pace were both held out as a precaution. Offensive lineman Will Putnam (ankle) missed his second straight game. And Justyn Ross permanently joined fellow injured wideout Joseph Ngata on the sideline during the first half after going down with a foot injury.
Then there’s quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, who’s dealing with an injury of his own. Uiagalelei sported a brace to support the right knee he sprained the previous week at Louisville, but that didn’t explain everything to the kind of performance that reverted back to the erratic ones he put on display during the first half of the season.
Uiagalelei had a season-high in passing yards (247), but he completed just 47% of his passes with a touchdown and an interception, his seventh of the season. A handful of drops didn’t help, but those misfires that were so frequent through Clemson’s first eight games reared their ugly head. At one point, Uiagalelei threw eight straight incompletions and finished the first half 17 of 37.
“He’s been great in practice. He was awesome all week,” Swinney said. “Just was very inaccurate in the first quarter and a half. Just very, very inaccurate. But it wasn’t that way in practice all week.”
Taisun Phommachanh came in early in the second quarter and helped lead Clemson’s first touchdown drive, completing a 33-yard pass to Dacari Collins in the process. But Phommachanh never re-entered the game, and not because his coaches didn’t want to put him back in.
Offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said there were conversations about letting Phommachanh take over the offense for the rest of the half, but the Tigers’ backup was added to the injury list when he banged up his shoulder at some point during that possession. Swinney said after the game he’s hopeful it’s nothing serious.
“Taisun came in there and gave us a spark, so there would’ve been a lot more opportunity for Taisun had he been available in the first half but also, too, in the second half as we started to let guys play,” Elliott said.
That’s part of the reason why Uiagalelei attempted a season-high 44 passes on one healthy knee. Swinney said UConn invited more passes with its one-high safety look that often left man coverage on the outside, but Uiagalelei also started the second half despite throwing a touchdown pass to Beaux Collins late in the first half that extended Clemson’s lead to three touchdowns at the break. He wasn’t relieved by walk-ons Hunter Helms and Billy Wiles until late in the third quarter.
Elliott said there was no thought of turning to Helms at any point in the first half. Swinney said he didn’t think about it to start the third quarter either.
“We needed to get control of the game,” Swinney said. “And we felt like we had control of the game. We just wanted to finish with a little bit more precision there, and I thought it was good for D.J. just kind of working his way out.”
Clemson’s quarterbacks also combined to put the ball in the air 57 times because the Tigers couldn’t consistently run the ball against the nation’s 111th-ranked run defense. Clemson had been better on the ground of late, averaging 165 rushing yards over the last five games, but the Tigers mustered just 129 yards on 42 carries, or barely 3 yards per tote.
“It wasn’t what I was expecting,” Elliott said. “Give credit to UConn. They did a good job and had a good plan. They had a couple of weeks to prepare. They tried to stop our prominent runs, the inside zone, and we tried to get to some outside stuff.
“Overall I want to watch the tape and kind of see what happened. Just weren’t consistent enough.”
Clemson also converted just 5 of 22 third downs, leading to a season-high in fourth-down attempts. The Tigers converted five of its six fourth downs, including three on their first scoring drive. Wiles’ 25-yard touchdown pass to freshman tight end Jake Briningstool in garbage time put some makeup on the final score.
“No concern,” Elliott said. “Just an opportunity for us to make sure we reset and focus. Get some guys back and ready to go. Challenge some guys from a leadership standpoint. Great learning opportunity. What the guys have shown this year is that they respond. They rebound. So we won’t bigger than what it really is.”
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