Clemson's passing game 'not where we need to be at all'

Clemson's passing game 'not where we need to be at all'

Football

Clemson's passing game 'not where we need to be at all'

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Clemson continues to show why its offensive strength is the running game, and not all of the reasons for that are good.

With an all-ACC running back in Will Shipley leading the way on the ground (1,092 yards), the Tigers have put together three straight games with at least 200 yards rushing. Clemson, which has reached the mark in four of its last five games, now ranks third in the ACC and 39th nationally in rushing (188.3 yards per game) heading into Saturday’s ACC title matchup with North Carolina.

Yet Clemson has had a hard time taking advantage of its success on the ground with a passing game that’s hardly been complementary of late.

“Disappointing the way we finished (the regular season),” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said of the passing game.

Things started out on a positive note for quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei and his receivers, who helped the Tigers throw for more than 247 yards on average through the first seven games. The highlight for the passing game was Uiagalelei’s 371-yard, five-touchdown performance that lifted Clemson to a double-overtime win at Wake Forest in late September.

But the Tigers have been trending in the opposite direction since passing for 203 yards and three touchdowns in a win at Florida State in mid-October. Clemson has hit the 200-yard passing mark just once in the five games since while Uiagalelei’s completion rate, which was better than 65% during the first half of the season, has dropped to 62%

Swinney spread the blame around for that, pointing to Clemson’s latest performance as an example.

The passing game seemingly bottomed out in the Tigers’ loss to South Carolina last week. Clemson set season-lows for passing yards (99) and completion percentage (27%) on a day in which Uiagalelei completed just eight passes.

Uiagalelei hasn’t shown the same level of accuracy he did early in the season, missing his share of open receivers. One of those misfired – a first-half overthrow of freshman receiver Antonio Williams down the sideline – might have gone for six had the two connected. On a later throw that was on the money deep down the field, though, Williams dropped it, which was an issue for an entire position group that’s lacked consistency for much of the season.

E.J. Williams had a critical drop on Clemson’s last possession near midfield and was immediately taken out of the game. Swinney said there was also a protection issue earlier in the game on a play that likely would’ve gone to a wide-open Jake Bringingstool for big yardage had Uiagalelei been able to get the pass off.

“We threw for 100 yards, but we’ve got Antonio for about a 40-yard gain, and we miss it,” Swinney said. “Then we hit him for a 40-yard gain, and we drop it. We’ve got Briny that’s going to go for about 40 or 50 and then we get hit on the protection. We drop two slants, and that’s probably another 20, 25 yards right there. And that’s 250. So we’re not executing the way we need to.”

Swinney said injuries out wide haven’t helped. Beaux Collins, who had five touchdown catches through the first five games, has missed two of the last three games with a separated shoulder. He returned against South Carolina and had a 59-yard catch in the second quarter but was injured again and will now have season-ending surgery.

It’s another blow for a passing game that could use all the help it can get.

“Up until Notre Dame, we were really doing a pretty good job,” Swinney said. “But a lack of production by a few people, some injuries and some missed opportunities. Not where we need to be at all.”

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