There is plenty of soul searching to do for the now 9-2 Clemson Tigers.
The Tigers have not looked the same since their loss against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in Atalanta and have lost two of their last three games, the newest of which includes the 37-13 whipping by the NC State Wolfpack, who received their first win over the Tigers in almost a decade.
The offense struggled to run the ball, and quarterback Tajh Boyd struggled to get any kind of rhythm in the passing game. The offense committed four turnovers, several of which were deep in their own territory, and consistently gave the Wolfpack a short field to work with.
The defense started off the game with quick stops, but the offense, for one of the first few times this season, failed to produce and get the defense off the field, and as the game wore on, the defense ran out of gas from constantly being on the field. Also, poor tackling continues to be an issue for this ball club.
We shall now look at the disappointing performance of the Tigers, what went wrong and how they can bounce back when they travel to Columbia, S.C. for their in-state battle against the South Carolina Gamecocks.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd is currently on a downward trend week to week, and the trend continued against NC State.
While Boyd threw for 238 yards, he threw two interceptions, had a fumble and threw no touchdowns. He is struggling reading the defenses in Morris' zone read plays and struggling against different coverages thrown at him. For the first time, his inexperience at reading the different mixes of coverages teams are throwing at him is showing.
He is also becoming diagnosed with BFGS: Brett Favre Gunslinger Syndrome, a case where the quarterback is so confident in his arm that he is forcing the throws in small windows that he should not make.
Boyd must overcome his BFGS and learn to take what the defenses give him and utilize the weapons not named Sammy Watkins that he still has at his disposal. He must learn to be more patient in reading the defense and maintain better ball security.
The Clemson running back corps is perhaps among the thinnest on the offensive side of the ball next to the offensive line.
Clemson managed only 34 rushing yards against the NC State Wolfpack and failed to hold onto the football, with freshman Mike Bellamy continuing to have issues holding onto the football despite the numerous chances the coaching staff is giving him, especially with the ball in traffic.
Andre Ellington continued to struggle on the ground, and his health is still in question. The fact that the majority of Clemson's four scholarship backs are freshmen and have little experience does little to help or improve the current status of the running game.
While poor run blocking by the offensive line can be part of the answer, the running backs have struggled these last few weeks with Ellington's health in question every week. The talented yet raw freshmen backs like DJ Howard are still not yet ready for a bigger role, and the running back corps has perhaps the most to work for, next to the offensive line.
The wide reciving corps did what they were asked to do without Sammy Watkins, who was held out of the game with a sprained shoulder, and can't be blamed for the loss, as they were productive enough to help win the game had the Tigers been able to take care of the football deep in their own territory.
The consistently forgotten man known as Deandre Hopkins was the leading man for the Tigers, leading the team in reception yards with 124 yards, followed by tight end Brandon Ford with 77 yards. True freshman Adam Humphries, who started in place of Sammy Watkins, was third in receiving with 48 yards, and was productive in place of Watkins. Yet, the receiving corps missed the speed presence that Watkins brings on the field, and the bad play of Tajh Boyd and the inability to take care of the football overshadows the productive receiving corps without the aid of a Sammy Watkins.
If anything, with the actually productive receiving corps, the biggest loss for this Clemson offense was left tackle Philip Price, a former walk-on and converted tight end.
Back-up Brandon Thomas started in his place, yet it seemed as though the entire line felt the loss of Philip Price. Thomas failed to hold up as the back up left tackle, committing a key holding penalty and sending Clemson deep into their own territory, which in turn led to a Clemson turnover and completely changed the flow of the game.
Thomas looked out of place at left tackle, and a stain on Boyd's green jersey showed why he is a more natural guard.
The run blocking has been the biggest issue for this group. This unit has struggled all season at opening holes for the running backs and are getting no kind of push at the point of attack. Their pass protection has declined on Boyd's blind spot, which NC State happily exploited all game long.
The Clemson defensive line has struggled to create pressure on the quarterback all season.
The line play has been up and down all season, and while they have their moments, they fail to create any kind of consistent pressure to make the quarterback uncomfortable. They are missing the key piece of their defense that has made them a top 25 defense for the last three years.
A big part of this is attributed to the amount of youth they have on the defensive line; past the four main starters, there is an influx of inexperience and untested youth that have to be tested to see if they have what it takes to make Clemson's front four one of the best in the ACC once again. Against NC State, as the game wore on, the defensive line gave out and failed to produce any kind of push and pass rush against NC State quarterback Mike Glennon.
The Achilles heel of the defense continues to be the play of the Clemson linebackers. The linebacking corps continues to lack the instincts needed to make plays, and with a young defensive line, the linebackers are being counted on more to help make plays and prevent runs from reaching the second level and getting into the open field and into the secondary.
Middle linebacker Corico Hawkins has been inconsistent all season, and he, along with the rest of the front seven, has trouble learning to shed blockers and just tackle period. The most consistent linebacker has been Johnathan Willard, who is perhaps the only linebacker that should continue to hold on to his starting spot.
Clemson needs to improve the consistency at the linebacker position, especially at middle linebacker, where talented freshman Stephone Anthony needs to have more snaps from week to week. With Hawkins' inconsistent play and Anthony's upside, it may be in defensive coordinator Kevin Steele's efforts to put Anthony in full time at middle linebacker.
The Clemson secondary has had its ups and downs, with, as was the case with the defensive line, a number of both freshmen and young yet inexperienced players outside of the main starters. With the move of junior Xavier Brewer to safety, red-shirt freshman Bashuad Breeland is the starter opposite senior Coty Sensbaugh.
While the secondary did not allow over 500 passing yards, NC State quarterback Mike Glennon threw three touchdown passes, and the secondary failed to record an interception or make any kind of impact in the passing game. This group is growing and will be tested thoroughly for its last three games.
Special teams did not lose the game from the Tigers and scored most of their 13 points. Chandler Cantanzaro was 2-for-2 on field goals, and Dawson Zimmerman was very consistent in his punts, as he saw the field a lot more than he needed to see it.
The return game was clearly missing Sammy Watkins, as he is the most natural kick returner on the field, and the need for speed was evident on every NC State kickoff.
The Tigers did not go a good job either in play calling or in making the adjustments needed to slow down the Wolfpack offense, which suddenly gained life against the Tigers, but is likely to become just as mediocre next week (see Maryland quarterback CJ Brown).
The Tigers always have the knack of letting less talented and less capable teams somehow performing well in areas they should not be performing well in. NC State was among the lowest in terms of offensive production, and they somehow mustered almost 400 total yards of offense.
Clemson must solve these problems quickly if they hope to beat in-state rival South Carolina and have a legitimate shot at winning the ACC Championship and get back to early and midseason form, especially on offense.
The Tigers have been going on a downward slop ever since the loss at Georgia Tech. The Tigers have lost that spark on offense, and Tajh Boyd has not had that early season swagger and confidence that drove that offense to wins over Florida State. Auburn, and Virginia Tech.
The running game can't find holes, and Bellamy can no longer be trusted to hold on to the football, especially in traffic. The defense must get off the field on third down, and the lines on both sides of the ball must get more push upfront.
The Tigers have the speed and the athletic ability to face anyone they come against. It's making good use of that speed and not allowing the opposing team to use that speed against draws and screens. Not over-running plays on defense and tackling fundamentally will allow this defense to improve its play and give the offense an opportunity to put points on the board.
On offense, Boyd must learn to be patient, take what a defense gives him and hold on to the football. The offensive line is clearly missing Philip Price at left tackle, and Brandon Thomas belongs at left guard. Price was the bigger loss than Sammy Watkins, by the look of the NC State game, and the Tigers must improve their line play these last few weeks lest this season slip away from them.