Clemson’s offense is fresh off its best performance of the season, one that wasn’t exactly easy to see coming given the way the group has performed for most of the season and the attrition it continues to pile up.
The Tigers rolled up season-highs in points (48), total yards (543) and rushing yards (333) en route to their 21-point pasting of No. 10 Wake Forest last week to close out their home slate. With six wins in its last seven games, Clemson will try to carry that momentum over to its regular-season finale at in-state rival South Carolina on Saturday.
But Tony Elliott sensed that momentum building weeks ago for his group. Even though the offense mustered just 17 points and scored seven points for Pittsburgh on D.J. Uiagalelei’s pick-six to start the second half of that 10-point loss to the Panthers back on Oct. 23, that’s when Clemson’s offensive coordinator said he saw a shift in the mindset of a unit that’s been dealt one setback after another.
“(Our players) knew, ‘OK, we’re good enough to go get it done. We’ve just got to go make the plays,'” Elliott said. “We can’t say, ‘Oh well, this is what’s going to happen all season.’ They figured it out there.
“I think going into that game, their confidence was starting to rise. And then after that game, I felt like the guys they knew they were good enough, and we’ve just got to go to work, and everybody’s got to accept their responsibility for preparing to the best of their ability. And it’ll come together at some point.”
Clemson’s offense has been among the nation’s worst in most statistical categories all season but had taken some baby steps in the second half of the season. The unit drove the length of the field in the fourth quarter for go-ahead touchdowns in back-to-back weeks against Florida State and Louisville, cracking the 20-point mark in regulation in back-to-back games against FBS competition for the first time all season.
An improved running game helped, but injuries and transfers haven’t stopped, making continuity virtually impossible within the Tigers’ two-deep all season. Veteran offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst was lost for the season early in the game against Pitt, and the Tigers’ other starting guard, Will Putnam, sat two more games with an ankle injury after missing one earlier in the season with a different foot injury.
That’s contributed to Clemson starting seven different combinations along the offensive line this season. Then the Tigers’ top two running backs, Will Shipley and Kobe Pace, got banged up against Louisville. So did receiver Joseph Ngata (foot), and quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei finished that game despite spraining his right knee in the first half.
Clemson’s leading wideout, Justyn Ross, went down early against UConn, aggravating a stress fracture in his foot that may spell the end of his collegiate career. E.J. Williams then sustained a leg injury during the middle of the week that kept him out of last week’s game, and the bad luck continued when freshman receiver Troy Stellato hurt his heel during pregame warmups.
Wake Forest hasn’t been a good defensive team this season, but neither has UConn, which Clemson rolled past the previous week but didn’t necessarily look good doing it without its top three receivers, top two running backs, a starting offensive lineman and two banged-up quarterbacks. Backup Taisun Phommachanh dinged his shoulder early in that 44-7 win, one in which Uiagalelei completed less than half of his passes and didn’t get much help from a running game that generated just 3.1 yards per carry.
But freshman Beaux Collins, one of Clemson’s receivers who suddenly finds himself in a starting role with all the attrition at that position, said the offense had what he thought was its best week of practice leading up to the Wake Forest game.
“Everybody was locked in and during their job,” Collins said of the offense’s preparation. “There wasn’t many mistakes.”
Even with the Tigers adjusting their personnel and approach on the fly, it carried over to the game.
With a skeleton crew at receiver, Clemson frequently went with 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) and split tight end Davis Allen out wide more often than usual. Allen was Uiagalelei’s most frequent target in the passing game (eight targets) and led the team with six receptions for 53 yards and a touchdown, but Clemson also utilized those multiple tight-end sets in the running game, too.
The Tigers made a habit of attacking the Demon Deacons on the edge with outsize zone runs and pitches.
“We knew versus Wake Forest, they do so much twisting on the interior (of the defensive line),” Elliott said. “And they run their linebackers through the gaps really, really fast that they’re going to gap you out on your inside zone stuff. The best thing is to get them going sideways and then try to equalize the numbers.
The end result? A career-high 191 rushing yards for Pace, two 100-yard rushers in the same game for the first time in three years and 6.2 yards per carry. Clemson surpassed its previous season-high in rushing (242 against South Carolina State) by nearly 100 yards.
The Tigers are averaging 38 points over their last four games, 11.5 more than their season average.
“I think once the guys took on the mindset of we’re going to embrace the adversity and not ask why is it happening, I felt like we were able to take a step forward in terms of being able to be a little bit more multiple,” Elliott said. “Then also, at the same time, those guys could absorb a little bit more, and we could do a little bit more with those guys.
“Each week, we’ve got to figure out defensively what’s their philosophy, what’s their structure and then what gives us the best chance based off the personnel and the scheme we have.”
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