The time has come for Clemson to wrap up its regular season with its annual rivalry tilt against South Carolina. That will happen Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
But first, it’s Thanksgiving. So in the spirit of the season, here are five things the Tigers should be thankful for this season with some meaningful games still to play.
Improved quarterback play
There’s no reason to act like D.J. Uiagalelei has been perfect this season. That’s far from the truth.
But Clemson enters this week’s game still in the College Football Playoff mix (though in need of some help to get there) at least in part because he’s been better overall.
The primary reason Clemson was already out of the playoff picture this time last year was because he simply wasn’t good enough. It was a rough first outing against eventual national champion Georgia, and Uiagalelei (and, frankly, the rest of the offense) had a hard time recovering. Uiagalelei threw more picks than touchdown passes, and his completion rate hovered around a pedestrian 55%.
But Uiagalelei’s completion rate is nearly 10 percentage points higher than it was last year. He’s flipped his touchdown passes-to-interception ratio (21 to six) from last season and has accounted for nearly three times as many touchdowns (27) as turnovers (10) overall. He’s also been a newfound threat on the ground, using his legs to run for nearly 500 yards and six scores this season.
That doesn’t mean Clemson has always gotten what it needs from him. He’s been temporarily benched twice and has had at least one turnover in four straight games, which has kept Clemson’s offense from putting together that elusive complete game. The running game has been there to help when Uiagalelei struggles, but the Tigers will need more from him if they plan on winning the ACC championship and a playoff game, albeit that’s putting the cart well before the horse at this point.
But if you’re Clemson, you have to be thankful the quarterback play isn’t where it used to be.
Continuity up front
Speaking of the running game, the Tigers own the nation’s No. 46 rushing offense. It’s much closer to the kind of production Clemson had during most of the Travis Etienne era.
Clemson averaged at least 194 rushing yards from 2017-19. The previous two years, the Tigers’ per-game average dipped to 153.8 (2020) and 167.9 (2021). This season, the Tigers are rushing for 183 yards per game.
With Uiagalelei, Will Shipley and Phil Mafah, Clemson is taking more of a committee approach to getting it done on the ground this season. But an offensive line that’s stayed largely intact deserves a lot of credit as well.
Veterans Jordan McFadden, Will Putnam and Walker Parks joined sophomore Marcus Tate and true freshman Blake Miller as the starters up front in the opener against Georgia Tech. That’s been the starting five in all but one game to this point (Parks was held out of the Louisville game while in concussion protocol but has since returned).
Compare that to last season when a combination of mass attrition and a lack of production resulted in season-long musical chairs. The Tigers started eight different combinations on the offensive line in those 13 games. Not coincidentally, the offense finished outside the top 50 nationally in every major statistical category.
The line was hit with some permanent attrition last week when Tate went down against Miami with a knee injury that will require surgery. Mitchell Mayes will fill in at left guard for the rest of the season. It’s not ideal, but the core of a much improved group remains intact and playing at a high level.
1-2 punch at tight end
Perhaps Antonio Williams deserves a spot on this list somewhere. The true freshman has been a dynamic infusion of young talent into Clemson’s offense with a team-high 48 receptions.
But he’s the only receiver with more than 27 catches this season. It hasn’t helped that Beaux Collins (shoulder) has been on the shelf the last couple of games, but the consistency from the receiving corps has been hard to come by this season.
If not for the production the Tigers have gotten out of their tight ends, it might be worse.
Davis Allen and Jake Briningstool have been more than just safety valves for Uiagalelei this season. Featured often in the passing game, the duo has accounted for nearly a quarter (22.4%) of Clemson’s receptions. Allen is having a career year in what may very well be his final season in a Clemson uniform with 32 catches, second-most on the team.
Meanwhile, 20% of Briningstool’s catches have gone for touchdowns (4). Allen also caught his fourth touchdown of the season last week against Miami, making for the first time in program history that Clemson has had multiple tight ends with at least four touchdown receptions in the same season.
Given the matchup problems they can cause for opposing defenses – Allen goes 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds while Briningstool comes in at 6-6 and 240 pounds – the argument can be made that both should be targeted even more, particularly in the middle of the field. But they’ve helped provide a much-needed boost to a passing game that’s been rather pedestrian (228 passing yards per game).
The question was posed almost immediately once James Skalski and Baylon Spector exhausted their eligibility after last season: How is Clemson going to replace that kind of production at linebacker?
Skalski and Spector, more affectionately known as the Bruise Brothers during their time at Clemson, were veteran leaders at the second level of the defense that had the talent to go with it. They were multi-year starters who were at or near the top of the Tigers’ tackles list during that time.
That’s where this year’s group of linebackers finds itself, too.
The second level has been arguably the most consistent part of the defense, a strong statement considering all the talent and experience Clemson returned along a defensive line that’s been good but not always great this season. Jeremiah Trotter Jr., Trenton Simpson and Barrett Carter are three of Clemson’s four leading tacklers, combining for 181 stops heading into the weekend.
Much was expected of Simpson as the lone returning starter among the group, but Trotter and Carter have started fulfilling their potential as former blue-chip recruits. Trotter has been a revelation as Skalski’s replacement in the middle with 65 tackles (second-most on the team) and six tackles for loss. Carter, meanwhile, has been used in a variety of ways at the Sam/nickel position. He’s second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and has four sacks and five pass breakups.
Simpson is a next-level talent that’s been steady at Will for most of the season (62 tackles), but the group has shown over the last couple of weeks just how versatile and athletic it is. When Simpson had to miss the Louisville game two weeks ago because of an ankle injury, Carter moved inside in his absence and responded with a career game.
Clemson has elected to keep Carter inside and move Simpson back to Sam for the time being. Regardless of where they’ve lined up, though, the linebackers have produced at a level that’s dissuaded any doubt about what’s next at the position.
The Syracuse penalty
Let’s revisit the Tigers’ game against Syracuse in mid-October, just a couple of weeks before that ugly loss at Notre Dame.
It was a sloppy one for Clemson, which found itself trailing the Orange 21-7 at one point and facing an 11-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter thanks in large part to a season-high four turnovers. Three of those were committed by Uiagalelei, who was benched midway through the third quarter for true freshman Cade Klubnik.
Klubnik’s first series wasn’t going well. He looked like a freshman on a second-down sack that came after he bailed from the pocket early and tried to unsuccessfully scramble away from Syracuse’s defense, setting up a third-and-25 at Clemson’s 43-yard line with time running out on the third quarter.
With Syracuse dropping eight into coverage, Clemson was going to have to punt again as Klubnik scrambled toward the sideline well short of the line to gain. Klubnik took another lick from Syracuse defensive lineman Elijah Fuentes-Cundiff. This time, it happened when Klubnik was already a couple of yards out of bounds.
That drew a penalty for a late hit, and it gave Clemson a fresh set of downs. The Tigers ended that drive in the end zone, giving them the momentum they needed for a thrilling 27-21 victory.
Could Clemson still have rallied without the benefit of that good fortune? Sure. The Tigers (who had a season-high 293 rushing yards that day) moved the ball consistently when they actually held onto it.
But Phil Mafah didn’t score the capper on that penalty-aided drive until more than a minute into the fourth quarter. If Clemson ends up punting on that possession, Syracuse might score again. At a minimum, the Orange milk a couple of more minutes off the clock before punting it back to Clemson, which would’ve had a little more than half a quarter left needing to score twice. In that scenario, the Tigers might have been forced to abandon the run quicker than they would’ve liked and start pitching it around with a young quarterback that hadn’t been thrown into that kind of do-or-die situation all season.
Who knows how things play out in that scenario? But one thing is certain: If Clemson is able to win out and wiggle its way back into the CFP, Dabo Swinney should add Syracuse to his list of Christmas card recipients.
Don’t miss Cyber Week Deals at Dear Old Clemson’s online store. Deals will run through midnight Monday.
- Footballs signed by the Clemson 2022 class discounted by 30%.
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