The good, the bad and the ugly from Clemson's win over Wake Forest

The good, the bad and the ugly from Clemson's win over Wake Forest


The good, the bad and the ugly from Clemson's win over Wake Forest


Clemson got a complete performance from its offense and the one stop it needed to get out of Truist Field with a double-overtime win over Wake Forest on Saturday. With the victory, the Tigers (4-0, 2-0 ACC) stayed unbeaten and put themselves in the early driver’s seat in the Atlantic Division race, though there’s work to do before N.C. State visits Memorial Stadium next weekend.

Here’s the good, the bad and the ugly from the Tigers’ 51-45 victory:

The good

D.J. Uiagalelei continued his early renaissance tour with arguably his best performance since his true freshman season.

On a day when Clemson absolutely had to have it (more on that in a bit), Uiagalelei was dialed in as the Tigers’ quarterback led an offense that piled up season-highs in points and yards (559). He finished 26 of 41 passing for a season-high 371 yards and five touchdowns, the most of his career. Not since those 439 yards in a spot start at Notre Dame in 2020 had Uiagalelei eclipsed the 300-yard passing mark.

“Nobody deserves it more,” defensive end K.J. Henry said. “He deserves all the credit. As a team, we followed his lead (Saturday). No doubt about it. He led us to this win.”

And Uiagalelei was at his best when the Tigers needed him in the clutch. He went 9 of 14 for 221 yards on third down, including completions on his last five third-down attempts. They included both of Clemson’s touchdowns in overtime, which came on 21-yard connections first with Beaux Collins and then Davis Allen. Uiagalelei’s performance was critical in helping the Tigers convert 16 of 23 third downs, surpassing the previous single-game school record of 15 conversions against Western Carolina in 1983.

“D.J. was amazing,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “You just continue to see who he is.”

Speaking of Clemson’s pass-catchers, it was a much more consistent day from everyone involved.

Specifically, the tight ends made the most of as many targets as they’ve had in a while. Two of Allen’s four catches went for scores, making him the first Clemson tight end to catch multiple touchdowns in a game since Braden Galloway did it in 2020. Meanwhile, Jake Briningstool had a career-high 72 receiving yards on six grabs, including a 12-yard touchdown capping the Tigers’ first possession. Beaux Collins, who also had a touchdown catch in overtime, and Joseph Ngata combined for eight receptions while Brannon Spector showed good concentration on Clemson’s second score when the junior wideout made a juggling catch after the ball bounced off the hands of an undercutting Wake defensive back.

The offensive line also put together another solid performance, paving the way for Will Shipley’s 102-yard day on the ground and giving Uiagalelei plenty of time to find receivers downfield. The Demon Deacons got to Uiagalelei for just one sack.

Even when there wasn’t a ton of room to operate, Shipley ran determined to pick up some tough yards, none more important than his tying 1-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter where he powered through a couple of would-be tackles and maintained his balance long enough to stretch the ball over the goal line. That effort kept Clemson from having to possibly settle for a field goal in a game where every point was needed.

Clemson also wouldn’t have forced overtime without B.T. Potter’s 52-yard field goal late in the fourth quarter, which tied a career-long for the Tigers’ veteran placekicker.

The bad

Clemson had a much easier time with Wake Forest a season ago in large part because of the pressure it put on the Demon Deacons’ offense. On Saturday, there wasn’t nearly as much, which is becoming a bit of a trend for what was expected to be one of the country’s most disruptive front sevens coming into the season.

Clemson even got Bryan Bresee (recent death in family) and Tyler Davis (undisclosed injury) back on the interior of the defensive line. Yet Clemson got to Sam Hartman for just two sacks in regulation and recorded six tackles for loss. In last year’s meeting, those totals were eight and 10, respectively.

Defensive coordinator Wesley Goodwin said Wake followed the blueprints of Furman and Louisiana Tech at times in getting the ball out of Hartman’s hand quickly to mitigate the Tigers’ pressure up front. But there were also plenty of times where Hartman held the ball using the extended mesh point without any resistance, which helped Wake average 6.6 yards per play. The lack of pressure contributed to Clemson, which has just eight sacks through four games, not forcing a turnover for the first time this season.

The Tigers were also flagged for 10 penalties totaling 120 yards, the most for Clemson in nearly a decade (144 penalty yards in the 2014 Orange Bowl against Ohio State). Half of those come on pass-interference penalties in the secondary.

“Just really disappointed in that,” Swinney said of the penalties.

Speaking of the Tigers’ pass defense…

The ugly

Perhaps not enough was made of just how much talent and experience Clemson lost on the back end of the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense last season.

Because Saturday was as bad as it’s been for the Tigers’ new-look secondary in coverage.

The group is playing with three first-year starters with Andrew Booth, Mario Goodrich and Nolan Turner no longer around. And with no Sheridan Jones, Malcolm Greene or Andrew Mukuba on Saturday, the back end was even greener than usual. It showed time and time again as Hartman and his talented group of wideouts feasted on one-on-one matchups on the outside.

Clemson was down to Fred Davis, sophomore Nate Wiggins and true freshmen Toriano Pride and Jeadyn Lukus at corner, and the Demon Deacons picked on that group in particular. Goodwin said the Tigers dropped into more zone coverages later in the game, but with five of Hartman’s school-record six touchdown passes coming in regulation, most of the damage had been done before the adjustment was made. It did help the Tigers come up with the game-winner when Wiggins sank to break up Hartman’s fourth-down heave into the end zone in the second overtime, but Goodwin acknowledged he’s going to have to re-evaluate how often he asks the Tigers’ young defensive backs to play on an island going forward.

The passing yardage for Clemson’s opponents has gotten larger with each passing week. So have the chunk plays. Hartman averaged a whopping 16.9 yards per completion, needing just 20 of them to rack up 337 passing yards.

It dropped Clemson to 104th nationally in pass defense at 267.8 yards allowed per game, second-most in the ACC. The Tigers need answers in a hurry with another veteran quarterback, Devin Leary, coming to town in six days.

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