Entering Saturday’s much-anticipated season opener at Georgia, Clemson had questions about how it would replace Tajh Boyd in Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
With good reason: Boyd (who was cut by the New York Jets Saturday) owns every significant career program passing record. He is the ACC’s all-time passing touchdown leader and No. 2 in career passing yards behind N.C. State’s Philip Rivers.
Clemson coaches expressed confidence in senior quarterback Cole Stoudt, who had spent his first three seasons on campus as Boyd’s backup. But the No. 16 Tigers’ 45-21 loss at No. 12 Georgia makes it clear: The Tigers haven’t answered their quarterback questions yet, and it’s not clear if they can do so with Stoudt under center.
Stoudt got off to a very strong start, leading Clemson to paydirt on his first drive. But he peaked in the first half and wore down after halftime. Following a 21-21 tie at the break, the Tigers were shut out while managing just 15 yards and no first downs in the second half.
Highly touted freshman quarterback DeShaun Watson—who accounted for more than 17,000 yards of total offense at Gainesville (Georgia) High, just down the road from Sanford Stadium—struggled in the second half but flashed his potential in his first collegiate series.
Clemson coaches said Watson would play against the Bulldogs, and he entered following three consecutive Stoudt-led three-and-outs.
He was very impressive, leading a quick six-play, 78-yard touchdown drive that ended with a 30-yard touchdown laser to junior wide receiver Charone Peake.
But Watson yielded to Stoudt on the next drive—and Stoudt led a touchdown drive of his own, a 10-play, 53-yard excursion that finished with C.J. Davidson’s one-yard touchdown run.
Clemson wouldn’t see the end zone again. The Bulldogs defense (which had questions of its own under first-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt) wore the Tigers down in the second half. In seven drives, Clemson’s offense gained a total of 15 yards.
While UGA junior tailback Todd Gurley (198 rushing yards, four total touchdowns) was impressive, the Tigers defense was worn down by the offense’s utter inefficiency. Clemson started only one of its seven second-half possessions beyond its own 17, and UGA started only two of its nine second-half possessions inside its own 33, with a pair in Clemson territory.
Stoudt completed 15 of 28 passes for 130 yards with no touchdowns and an interception. Watson was 2-of-4 with 59 yards and a touchdown.
It’s fair to wonder how much Clemson missed NFL draft picks Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant as well as 1,000-yard rusher Rod McDowell. And the offensive line didn’t do the offense any favors after halftime, while the running game was so-so—Davidson led Clemson with 66 yards on 13 carries.
Clemson has some time to think about its quarterback situation with a showdown at Florida State still three weeks away. (South Carolina State visits next week, followed by an off-week Sept. 13.)
But if Chad Morris wants to find out what he has with Watson, an extended look might not be a bad idea. If Stoudt’s upside in the offense is what he displayed Saturday, Clemson has little to lose.