CLEMSON, S.C. – Chad Morris didn’t mince words this week.
The Clemson Tigers' high-powered, hurry-up, no-huddle offense simply is not performing at the level he expects.
Over the last two weeks, the Tigers have scored a grand total of 21 offensive points on three offensive touchdowns. Last week’s 51-14 loss to Florida State marked the first time in Morris’ Clemson tenure that the Tigers didn’t have an offensive play of 20-plus yards.
Entering Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game at Maryland, Clemson’s offensive numbers are down across the board from 2012.
The Tigers average 37 points per game (26th nationally), 487 yards of total offense per game (22nd nationally), 322.1 passing yards per game (17th nationally) and 165.4 rushing yards per game (67th nationally).
A year ago, Clemson averaged 41 points per game (sixth nationally), 512 yards of total offense (ninth nationally), 321.6 passing yards per game (roughly the same but 13th nationally) and 191.1 rushing yards per game (36th nationally).
Morris said his offense has been “consistently inconsistent.”
“We’re not playing well,” he said. “We’re not playing well at key positions. I’ll tell you, [senior left tackle] Brandon Thomas is playing really well. Extremely well. Dominating well. That’s good to see. But we’re consistently inconsistent right now. That’s the biggest thing I see over the past two weeks. We’ve got to get it fixed, we’ve got to get it right, and we will.”
Asked which players at key positions are playing well, Morris responded, “Well, Brandon Thomas is playing really well. There are 10 other positions out there that are not playing consistent right now.”
Unless the offense snaps out of its funk, Clemson is unlikely to reach or exceed the heights of 2012’s 11-2 season, which ended with a Chick-fil-A Bowl win over LSU.
So what must happen for the Tigers’ offense to regain its mojo? Here are a few key factors in clearing up the problems surrounding a talented, powerful group.
Run the ball with confidence
Entering this week, Clemson averages 26.4 yards fewer on the ground than it did a year ago. It averages 3.9 yards per rush attempt, down from 4.2 a year ago.
In fact, Clemson has met last season’s 191.8-yard average only once in its first seven games, piling up 197 yards in the season opener against Georgia. Since then, the run game has gone into a near-constant decline: 183 yards, 171, 166, 156, back up to 162 against Boston College and down to a season-low 123 against Florida State (the eighth-lowest single-game rushing total of Morris’ 32-game Clemson tenure).
The Tigers clearly miss Andre Ellington, who averaged 93 yards per game as the top tailback last fall: he’s now challenging for the Arizona Cardinals’ starting tailback job.
A year ago, Rod McDowell averaged 5.4 yards per carry as Ellington’s primary backup. This year? Five yards a carry and 63.7 yards per game.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd is running less—11.4 carries per game this fall as opposed to 14.2 a year ago—but also less effectively. He’s averaging 27.9 yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry after averaging 39.5 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry last fall.
Clemson has started the same offensive line for only three consecutive games. Thomas, left guard Kalon Davis, center Ryan Norton, right guard Tyler Shatley and right tackle Shaq Anthony started from Wake Forest through Boston College.
Thomas and Norton are Clemson’s only two linemen to start every game this season.
Davis and David Beasley have split starts at left guard, while Anthony and Gifford Timothy have done the same at right tackle.
A consistent starting five could build chemistry and perhaps open larger holes for Ellington, Boyd and backups Zac Brooks and D.J. Howard.
Getting more creative wouldn’t hurt, either. Two years ago, star wideout Sammy Watkins ran 32 times in 13 games for 231 yards, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. This fall, he’s carried the ball four times for eight yards. Giving him the ball on the edge with jet sweeps and handoffs could ignite Clemson’s ground game.
Get the little things right
Morris and coach Dabo Swinney both said the Tigers’ offense would go “back to basics” this week, noting the small mistakes that were made on a consistent basis and added up against the Seminoles.
“We’re going to major in the minors this week,” Swinney said. “Stands, starts and footwork. Treat them like they don’t know anything. That’s something we have to do to get consistency. We have guys who know a lot of football, and sometimes we take the little things for granted. The little things lead to the big things. When we get little things corrected, we can do big things.”
Swinney says Clemson’s intelligence “should be a competitive advantage, but we’re not playing intelligent right now.
“Let’s retool those guys, focus on basics,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of calculus and we need to go back and do some arithmetic, do the fundamentals on things.”
In Watkins’ eyes, correcting consistent, small mistakes will make a big difference.
“Every play someone’s busting and doing something opposite of what he’s supposed to. We get that solved in the meeting room, on the field,” he said. “Coach Morris did a great job (Monday). If he saw something wrong with a play, we started it all over. I think that is going to eliminate the problem.”
It stands to reason that if the Tigers are sharper overall, better offensive results should follow, starting with this week at Maryland.
Hold onto the ball
In Clemson’s first five games, the Tigers committed four turnovers. In the last two? Six.
Last week’s four-turnover effort was the most since a four-giveaway day against Virginia Tech on Oct. 20, 2012. Florida State converted each of the first two into touchdowns and what proved to be an insurmountable 17-0 first-quarter lead.
“We had the first play of the game, a nice first-down (actually a nine-yard gain), and we (tight end Stanton Seckinger) fumbled the ball and gave them a really short field,” Swinney said. “You can't do that. And then we come back and we have a busted assignment and literally just fumble the ball, they scoop it and score. (a 37-yard fumble return score by Mario Edwards, Jr.) And then we have two poor decisions as far as interceptions throwing the ball. It's just difficult.”
In addition, both of Boyd’s interceptions happened in Florida State territory (at the Seminoles’ 7- and 22-yard lines).
Clemson’s biggest problem isn’t moving the ball. It’s being smart with the ball when it does. Take better care of the ball, and more points should follow.
Find a consistent No. 2 receiver
Watkins has 44 catches for 650 yards and five touchdowns. He averages 92.9 yards and 6.3 receptions per game, both fourth among ACC receivers.
But Charone Peake’s season-ending torn ACL has badly hurt receiving depth: a true No.2 option to Watkins has yet to emerge.
Junior Adam Humphries has 25 catches for 331 yards and two scores, while fellow junior Martavis Bryant has 25 catches for 362 yards and three touchdowns. However, both have been inconsistent from game to game. Humphries had three catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns at Syracuse, but has three games with two catches for 20 yards and no touchdowns combined. Bryant has only one game with more than four receptions in seven tries.
If one could emerge as a true, consistent threat worthy of every-down respect from opposing secondaries, it would take pressure off Watkins, Boyd and the run game as well.
Get more consistency from Tajh Boyd
Boyd had one of the worst games of his career against Florida State, completing 17 of 37 passes for 156 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. It was the second-lowest yardage total of his career behind an 83-yard effort at South Carolina in November 2011.
Swinney said Boyd, like the rest of the offense, has to focus on the basics like footwork, his stance and the pre-snap process. He is confident Boyd won’t be down for long.
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Clemson sports information
“There’s no perfect people, no perfect coaches, no perfect player,” he said. “You don’t think Peyton Manning wanted to win (his return) in Indianapolis? I promise you Peyton wanted to win. That ballooned like our game did. I promise Peyton wasn’t pouting Monday. He’ll get better and win this week. That’s what great players do, respond like a champion.
“It happens to the best of the best and they respond. Tajh Boyd will respond. You can bet on that.”
Boyd is strongly focused on improvement, too.
“You’ve got to be accountable for your actions,” he said. “I’m studying more, practicing more to make sure I get it done.”
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained directly by the author.
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