Another week. Another tough loss. For those keeping score at home, that's three straight losses, including two in conference play. The once promising season is slowly slipping away from the Clemson Tigers. Unless Clemson wins out during the rest of their conference schedule, it's hard to imagine a scenario where a team with three conference losses can win their division. Of course, it's not unprecedented considering what happened in 2008 when the top team in each division had three losses. However, that's not something that Tiger fans should count on. From here on out, it's must win and hope for a little help if there's to be any chance of defending the ACC Atlantic Division crown.
Today's game was a really painful loss for Clemson fans everywhere. The Auburn loss was heartbreaking, but at least Clemson played a really tough game against a quality opponent on the road and took them into overtime. The Miami game was atrocious, but that could have been considered the typical game each year where Clemson simply makes too many mistakes to win. The UNC game today was where it was supposed to turn around. Today was the day that Clemson was to go on their usual winning streak and eventually challenge for the division crown going into November. However, today's 21-16 loss to the Tarheels leaves a huge question mark about whether Clemson can recover.
In a game where most of the stats came out in Clemson's favor, it was mental breakdowns once again that doomed the Tigers. Clemson had 305 total yards compared to 255 yards for the Heels. Clemson had more passing yards than Carolina. Clemson had the same number of rushing yards as UNC but averaged more yards per carry. Clemson didn't turn the ball over. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they came up second on the most important number: the scoreboard.
This wasn't a game where Clemson didn't have opportunities. UNC was 4-for-4 on fourth down conversions. That's simply not acceptable for a defense. On three separate occasions, defensive penalties on third down gave the Tarheels first downs. On Carolina's final TD drive, they were facing a 4th and nine, but an offsides penalty gave them another opportunity, and of course the Heels converted on the next play. That drive alone is a microcosm for the season in some ways: play tough for a majority of the plays but have breakdowns on the most important plays of the game.
There were some improvements from the Tigers in this game. Kyle Parker was more accurate, although he did fail to see at least two wide open receivers and overthrew another in the endzone on third down, resulting in a missed field goal. The receivers had a much better day. Although there were still a few dropped passes, this was by far their best performance of the year. It was good to see young guys like "Nuke" Hopkins and Jaron Brown get a chance to compete.
Ultimately, this loss belongs to the coaching staff. The players didn't come out with nearly the same intensity they had against Auburn three weeks ago. Sure they battled back to make it a close game in the end, but it was too little too late. Clemson's strength is their offensive line and running game. UNC has a great pass defense but has been susceptible against the run. With this matchup, why throw 39 passes compared to only 27 runs? Andre Ellington was the leading rusher in the ACC in both yards per game and rushing TD. There's no excuse for him to only get 12 carries. Jamie Harper is a good running back, but Ellington is clearly the more productive of the two. Why after a momentum changing 15-yard run by Ellington does Harper come in for the next few plays? If you've got a player with a hot hand feed him the ball. Outside of his TD run, Harper clearly wasn't having one of his better days, but Clemson kept feeding him the ball. I don't want to be too hard on Harper. At times, he is a tremendous threat, but you've got to give it to the back in the groove.
It took Clemson's coaches four games before they finally decided to go with the young receivers. It was clear to many fans that was a decision that should have been made after the Auburn game. Harper continues to get the same number of carries as Ellington even when Andre is outperforming him. The defense once again had a mental mistake that left Johnny White wide open on a wheel route for a pivotal 51-yard score. The coaches keep saying that these things can be fixed, but how long is it going to take? I'm not quite to the point where I'm calling for anyone's head, but things need to change in a hurry. Clemson's coaches owe an apology to the players and fans after today's debacle. No more excuses. It's time for them to start performing. Coaches demand excellence from their players. It's only fair that the fans demand excellence from their coaches.
Hopefully, Clemson can win out and with a little help, somehow manage to win the division. Clemson has at least one thing going for them: Their two conference losses were to opponents in the coastal division. Clemson has to beat every ACC opponent from here on out along with every other division opponent losing two games. It's not unprecedented. But it's starting to look unlikely.