ORLANDO, Fla. — Considering the circumstances, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney gave both of his coordinators the highest possible grade in their play-calling debuts, even if both sides of the ball didn’t have nearly the same type of production.
“A-plus,” Swinney said following the Tigers’ Cheez-It Bowl win over Iowa State. “Because we just beat a good football team, and we had 30 scholarship players unavailable. I don’t know what else you can ask.”
While Wesley Goodwin’s defense stymied the Cyclones for most of the night, allowing just 270 total yards and one touchdown, the offense under newly minted coordinator Brandon Streeter capped its rollercoaster season by hitting another valley in the 20-13 victory, though the absence of more significant contributors didn’t help.
A receiving corps that’s been far from whole during the back half of the season got Joseph Ngata back for the bowl game and thought it would have E.J. Williams, too. But Williams was another scratch because of COVID-19 protocols. Meanwhile, interior offensive lineman Mason Trotter, who’d started seven games this season, was held out because of a violation of team rules, according to ESPN’s game broadcast.
Even with attrition that never really stopped all season because of injuries, COVID protocols or other undisclosed reasons, Clemson was still able to find some life late in the regular season, averaging more than 36 points over the last five games of Tony Elliott’s time as the play caller. Of course, Iowa State’s defense was stingier than any of those Clemson faced during that span (Florida State, Louisville, UConn, Wake Forest, South Carolina).
Streeter, who was promoted from quarterbacks coach once Elliott was named the head coach at Virginia earlier this month, took over just in time to game plan for an Iowa State defense ranked in the top 25 nationally in points and yards allowed. Clemson averaged just 4.5 yards per play and only reached the end zone once against the Cyclones.
Still, there was some new, effective flavor to the Tigers’ attack at times.
Clemson occasionally pushed the pace and got off 70 plays, just the sixth time all season the Tigers have run at least that many. There was also a new formation or two, including a two-back set where Kobe Pace or Will Shipley lined up directly behind quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei in the shotgun and the other back to the side of him. Streeter dialed up that formation a couple of times, including a misdirection delayed handoff to Shipley that turned into a 12-yard run touchdown run midway through the third quarter that gave Clemson its first two-score lead.
“He came in, he’s brought energy, and he’s done it his own way,” Uiagalelei said. “That’s the biggest thing, coming in after someone that leaves like Coach Elliott, someone that was an amazing coordinator after all these years that he’s been, you don’t want to be compared or you don’t want to kind of be like that same person. You want to be able to have your own identity. Coach Streeter has been doing that.”
There was also a two-minute drill that was largely well executed at the end of the first half that included two conversions on third-and-long to get Clemson to Iowa State’s 19-yard line, setting up a B.T. Potter field-goal attempt that was missed. But there were plenty of times like so many others this season where the nation’s 99th-ranked offense was stuck in neutral.
Clemson tried to pound away at Iowa State with Shipley, Pace and Uiagalelei but averaged just 3.2 yards per rush. And with three of their top four receivers out, the Tigers tried to attack the Cyclones horizontally rather than vertically when it went to the air.
Uiagalelei tied a season-high with 21 completions (on 33 attempts), but those totaled just 187 yards. Ngata, Clemson’s second-leading receiver from a yardage standpoint, didn’t have a catch in his first game in nearly two months. Uiagalelei’s longest completion covered just 19 yards.
And when Iowa State scored 10 unanswered points late in the second half to cut into its 17-point deficit and make things interesting, Clemson’s offense missed out on multiple opportunities to stretch the lead back out. The Tigers’ final three possessions netted just 32 yards on 10 plays, each ending in a punt that ultimately left it up to the defense to preserve Clemson’s eighth bowl in in the last 10 tries.
The next two months will allow the Tigers to heal up and get much closer to whole on that side of the ball heading into spring practice. But it’s safe to say there’s still plenty of work to do for the offense.
Players are confident their new coordinator is the right one for the job.
“Being moved up to the offensive coordinator job, I know he’s going to do an amazing job,” Uiagalelei said.
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