Clemson made easy work of Connecticut on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly from the Tigers’ 44-7 win:
It wasn’t exactly the stiffest level of competition, but the defense dominated an inferior offense the way it should with a bounceback performance that doubled as the Tigers’ most suffocating of the season.
A week after Louisville ran all over Clemson, UConn never got going. It helped the Huskies didn’t have a dual-threat quarterback like Malik Cunningham, but nothing worked for UConn, which was no match for the Tigers’ talent and physicality, particularly up front.
Clemson lived in the backfield with nine tackles for loss and six sacks. UConn finished with minus-17 rushing yards and, at one point in the second half, was in the minus-40s. It was the fifth-lowest rushing total for an opponent in Clemson’s history.
Because Clemson kept UConn in long-yardage downs or behind the chains for most of the day, the Huskies finished with just 99 yards of offense and went 0 for 14 on third down. The Huskies’ offense reached Clemson’s side of midfield once in 16 possessions, and the closest UConn came to sniffing the end zone was after Brian Brewton returned a kickoff 76 yards late in the fourth quarter to put the Huskies at Clemson’s 12-yard line after a personal foul.
Even with reserves in the game at that point, the Tigers eventually turned UConn over on downs. Clemson did that three other times, too, holding the Huskies to a combined 0 of 18 on third and fourth downs. The Tigers added two turnovers for good measure.
Offensively, Clemson posted a season-high in passing yards (347) among the four quarterbacks who played. Freshman receiver Dacari Collins stepped in for the injured Joseph Ngata and Justyn Ross on the outside and had his best game in a Clemson uniform to this point, catching six passes for 97 yards in three quarters. Another freshman, tight end Jake Briningstool, made an acrobatic 25-yard catch late in the fourth quarter for his first career touchdown.
Special teams also contributed to the win in a big way. B.T. Potter continued to show those three missed field goals against Florida State a couple of weeks back was more of an aberration, going a perfect 7-for-7 on his kicks. He was 3 of 3 on field goals, including a pair of 49-yarders. Senior receiver Will Swinney, who doubles as the Tigers’ holder, executed a fake field goal late in the first quarter when he darted 6 yards through the middle of UConn’s defense for Clemson’s first touchdown.
D.J. Uiagalelei had his good moments, including a beautifully placed 32-yard touchdown toss to Beaux Collins just before the half. But the latest performance from Clemson’s quarterback was far more reminiscent of his more inaccurate ones in the first half of the season.
Uiagalelei went 21 of 44 passing for his third-lowest completion percentage of the season. Drops were also an issue for the first time in a few weeks, but most of the incompletions were simply misfires, some of which didn’t come close to their intended target. Many of Uiagalelei’s passes sailed high, including one to Collins near the goal line in the first half that almost certainly would’ve been a touchdown.
Accuracy was a real struggle early for Uiagalelei, who had a stretch in the first half where he had just five completions in 18 attempts and missed on eight straight throws at one point. Uiagalelei, who wasn’t made available for interviews afterward, played with a brace on his sprained right knee, but Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the injury didn’t affect Uiagalelei during the week of practice.
“Looked great (in practice),” Swinney said. “Just some missed plays, and there were a couple of plays we need to make for him. Kind of just off our hands and things that kind of get you in rhythm as well that we didn’t make. Just inaccurate early, but he battled through it.”
Even with one healthy knee, Uiagalelei attempted more passes than he had in any game in all season. Part of it was the way UConn chose to defend Clemson, Swinney said, but some of it was because backup Taisun Phommachanh hurt his shoulder during the only drive he played, keeping Uiagalelei in the game for longer stretches than the Tigers would’ve liked.
And none of Clemson’s quarterbacks got much help from a running game that missing several key pieces. Running backs Will Shipley and Kobe Pace were held out as a precaution while offensive lineman Will Putnam missed his second straight game with an ankle injury, and the Tigers averaged just 3.1 yards on their 42 carries against the nation’s No. 111 rush defense. Senior Darien Rencher, playing his second game of the season, fumbled at the goal line early in the fourth quarter, adding to a choppy performance after the offense had made some strides the previous two weeks.
As well as the other aspects of the special-teams unit performed, Clemson’s kickoff coverage team was a mess from the start. Before Brewton had that long return late in the game, he had an even longer one on the game’s opening kickoff.
He even dropped the ball near the goal line, but the Huskies’ freshman running back picked it up and then took off toward the sideline, where there were no purple jerseys to be found. Brewton went 99 yards untouched to the house, shocking Clemson and most of the fans in attendance, and averaged 63 yards on his three kick returns.
“Poor technique right there,” Swinney said of the coverage on the opening kickoff. “Next thing you know, that ball is outside and we’ve got a bunch of guys caught up inside. And that kid is a good player. He’s fast, and we saw that on tape. But just a bad play.”
And it’s a broken record at this point, but Phommachanh was among the injuries added to a list that continues to grow by the week. Ross’ afternoon ended three catches in after he injured his left foot. He watched most of the game on crutches with a boot. Reserve linebacker Sergio Allen was carted off with an undisclosed injury. Defensive end Xavier Thomas’ day was cut short because of a hamstring.
James Skalski was also dinged up at one point, but Swinney said afterward the senior linebacker is fine. Whether that’s the case for the others remains to be seen, but further attrition isn’t what the Tigers need with ACC leader Wake Forest coming to town next weekend for a game that could still decide who gets to represent the Atlantic Division in next month’s conference title game.
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