Clemson’s offense began the season on an upward trajectory.
The Tigers started things with 41 points in their opening win against Georgia Tech, more than they scored against any FBS opponent during last season’s yearlong struggle. A few weeks later, in its ACC opener, Clemson exploded for 51 points and more than 550 yards in a double-overtime over a then-ranked Wake Forest team on the road.
But it’s been a steady decline since that reached a low in an anemic showing against Notre Dame over the weekend. Clemson mustered just 3.3 yards a play through the first three quarters of its 35-14 loss, and its only points came in garbage time after the Fighting Irish already had a four-touchdown lead.
With a season-low 281 yards, it was the fourth time in five games that the Tigers have failed to surpass 370 total yards. Their scoring average has dipped from more than 41 points to 27.2 during that span, and the Tigers have been held to one score or less in six of their last eight quarters.
“Right now, we’re a very average offense,” passing-game coordinator Kyle Richardson said. “And we’re average at all positions.”
Richardson, who also coaches tight ends, said he can’t pinpoint why the offense has suddenly hit a wall, though there have certainly been some glaring contributing factors starting with the quarterback play.
After a hot start that saw him account for 21 touchdowns and just three turnovers through the first seven games, D.J. Uiagalelei has nearly as many turnovers (4) as touchdowns (5) over the last three. He’s been pulled from the last two games, but freshman Cade Klubnik, who threw a pick on his only pass attempt against Notre Dame, hasn’t fared much better in limited action.
Their struggles have contributed to a minus-5 turnover margin for the Tigers over the last two games, a stark contrast from the first half of the season when Clemson turned it over just five times.
“The narrative early in the year was they’re great at the turnover margin and protecting the football,” Richardson said. “The last two weeks, that’s not been the case.”
But Richardson refused to lay all of the blame at the feet of Clemson’s triggermen. Clemson’s primary rotation of receivers (Beaux Collins, Joseph Ngata, Antonio Williams, E.J. Williams, Adam Randall, Brannon Spector) has combined for just 21 receptions over the last three games while the running game has been hit or miss for much of the season.
“There’s a couple of balls that have been very catchable that are not caught, and it’s a different ballgame. That comes from the receiver room and the tight end room,” Richardson said. “Then there are a couple of plays where we’ve handed it off to (Will) Shipley or (Phil) Mafah and we are one block away and it looks like it’s there and we get a shoestring tackle based off of one block. … That’s where we are right now.”
As for how the group gets out of the rut it suddenly finds itself in, Richardson started with a baby-steps sentiment that was eerily similar to one coaches and players voiced in the preseason: Build confidence and go from there.
“We played kind of free there for a while, and I don’t know what’s happened to kind of trigger it back to where you can just tell we’re kind of hesitant,” he said. “And I’m not just talking about quarterback. I’m talking about a lot of areas. We’re just kind of hesitant. Man, just let it loose.
“It’s across the board, and we’ve just got to get that back and get back to being consistent.”
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