WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – While the scoreboard at Truist Field was ultimately a pretty sight for Clemson on Saturday, it was anything but for one particular position group.
The Tigers allowed nearly 17 yards per completion against Wake Forest, continuing a trend early this season of struggling to slow down opposing offenses through the air. Clemson ranked 89th nationally in pass defense after giving up its share of explosive pass plays to Georgia Tech, Furman and Louisiana Tech.
Clemson did nothing to improve that ranking after Wake Forest got done picking on Clemson’s cornerbacks.
“It was really just one position that really got us in a bind all night,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Sam Hartman and his talented group of wideouts continually targeted the Tigers’ corners in Clemson’s double-overtime victory, and for good reason. The group came into the season with far less experience than the last one after losing their all-conference tandem of Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich. The depth took another hit Saturday with senior Sheridan Jones (stinger) and Malcolm Greene (undisclosed) unavailable, leaving the Tigers with just one available upperclassman, Fred Davis, at the position against the second-best passing attack in the ACC.
While Clemson defensive coordinator Wesley Goodwin said he tried to switch up coverages often, he often left his corners, including true freshmen Toriano Pride and Jeadyn Lukus, isolated on the outside. Wake countered by often throwing the ball up to its mix of speedy and big-bodied wideouts.
Hartman needed just 20 completions to rack up 337 passing yards, a season-high for him in his third game back from an offseason medical scare. Six of those completions went for touchdowns. Jahmal Banks was his favorite target, hauling in six receptions for 141 yards and two scores. A.T. Perry had four catches for 51 yards and a touchdown while both of Donavon Greene’s catches went for touchdowns.
Five pass-interference penalties only compounded the struggles for Clemson. At one point in the first half, Davis was beaten by Perry in man coverage and pulled his jersey from behind, opting for the flag rather than giving up an easy touchdown.
As frustrating as it was for Swinney and defensive coordinator Wesley Goodwin to watch, Swinney said many of the coverage breakdowns aren’t of the variety that can’t be fixed.
“We didn’t execute some calls,” Swinney said. “We busted on cover 2s (zone coverage). We didn’t press and bail like we’re supposed to. There were just a lot of things we’ve got to correct and can correct.”
Goodwin said Saturday’s game was the first time this season he’s asked the secondary to play more extensive man coverage. But with the amount of youth and inexperience the Tigers have at corner for the time being, he said that’s something he’ll need to re-evaluate.
“Most definitely,” Goodwin said. “We probably played a lot more zone the first few weeks, and obviously that may be give and take. I’m just trying to give them confidence that we can play (man coverage) and whatnot. Ultimately we want to be a press-man team, be aggressive and challenge receivers, and there’s growing pains with that, too.”
While there wasn’t much for the position group to celebrate considering the performance it turned in, sophomore Nate Wiggins came up with the most timely defensive play when he sagged off to follow Perry to the end zone on Wake Forest’s do-or-die fourth down in the second overtime, breaking up the pass to preserve the Tigers’ victory.
Goodwin said he was happy to at least see Wiggins end his day on a high after a day full of lows for the position.
“I’ve seen (former NFL All-Pro cornerback) Patrick Peterson get carved up for the first three quarters of a game and then go out there in the fourth quarter and lock somebody down,” Goodwin said. “If you do it long enough, you’re going to see guys have bad days in the secondary. But we’ve just got to stay the course and continue to grow every day.”
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