Clemson vs. Auburn: Game Grades, Analysis for Tigers vs. Tigers
It wasn't the resounding statement it wanted to make, but No. 2 Clemson came away from its trip to Jordan-Hare Stadium a winner after registering a closer-than-expected 19-13 win over Auburn.
The Clemson Tigers (1-0) remain a major factor in this year's College Football Playoff race, but questions emerged after their underwhelming performance Saturday night. The offense failed to establish a rhythm, but on the other side of the ball, their young defense stepped up in a tough environment and shut down Auburn's offense.
Gus Malzahn, on the other hand, could be staring down the barrel of a long season if his offense can't show some dramatic improvements. The defense showed up in a big way, but the Auburn Tigers (0-1) failed to show any consistency on offense, which spoiled their upset bid.
Here are the game grades from the showdown of the Tigers.
With Deshaun Watson and a host of weapons returning for Clemson, there was hype that Clemson would have the country's most explosive offense yet again this season.
The Tigers struggled in Jordan-Hare Stadium against a hostile environment and a game-ready Auburn defense. Watson was sluggish early, and even though the Tigers amassed 233 total yards in the first half, they only had 10 points at the break.
Watson completed just 55.9 percent of his passes for 248 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Lead running back Wayne Gallman put in a lot of work as he carried the ball 30 times, but he only averaged a hair over four yards per carry with a touchdown.
The unquestioned hero of the Clemson offense was wide receiver Mike Williams, who missed all of last season as he recovered from a neck injury. He showed no signs of rust against Auburn, hauling in a game-high nine receptions for 174 yards.
He was the highlight, but on the whole, Clemson was underwhelming offensively.
Auburn's offense was a complete mess on Saturday night, managing just 262 total yards against a good but young Clemson defense.
Nothing worked well as Gus Malzahn rotated between quarterbacks Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin. The running game was almost universally swallowed up by Clemson's front four. The Tigers finished the first half with exactly one net rushing yard. That is staggering inefficiency from an offense that clicked so well under Malzahn just a few short years ago.
There were flashes of production in the second half, which was the primary reason Auburn had a last-second shot to win it late in the fourth quarter. The Tigers amassed more than half of their total yards (132) in the fourth quarter, but time just ran out on Auburn and its upset bid.
Despite how disappointing the offense was, Clemson's defense was much better than anticipated against Auburn.
Most were expecting a significant drop-off with Shaq Lawson, Mackensie Alexander, T.J. Green, Travis Blanks and Jayron Kearse all off to the NFL. The unit still has a lot of star power with Carlos Watkins and Ben Boulware in the fold, but there were some growing pains expected as they replaced seven starters.
Those growing pains were non-existent against Auburn. Part of that was due to the opposing offense's general ineptitude, but Clemson deserves a lot of credit as well. Auburn's identity is built around its run offense, but it managed just 87 yards and averaged barely two yards per rush attempt against Clemson's surprisingly good front seven.
Defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence looks like a superstar in the making as well. The true freshman was constantly in Auburn's backfield and recorded a sack in his first collegiate game.
Auburn's defense was the surprise of the game and without question the most impressive unit on the field Saturday night.
It didn't get any help from its counterpart, but that doesn't diminish what it accomplished against Clemson. The last time we saw Deshaun Watson and Co., they were carving up Alabama's vaunted defense for 525 yards and 40 points. Despite many expecting Clemson to be even better this season, Auburn held it to its lowest point total in nearly two years.
Anchored by Carl Lawson, the defensive line looks like the real deal, and the secondary is in great hands with sophomore Carlton Davis in the fold.
All in all, it was a special performance from the Auburn defense, and it would have won the game for the Tigers if the offense was even halfway functional.
Dabo Swinney hasn't had much success in Jordan-Hare Stadium, so credit to him for coming away victorious, but this wasn't a great coaching performance on his part.
Despite the amazing night Mike Williams had, it took Clemson an entire quarter to identify the enormous mismatch it had against Auburn's secondary. Williams had just one catch in the first quarter before the Tigers targeted him five times (for five catches) in the second quarter.
But that was just a small factor in Clemson's inefficiency on offense against Auburn. The offensive line failed to open huge lanes in the running game as it averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. That kept the Tigers from finding a balance, which allowed Auburn to set the tone.
Perhaps the most questionable call for either coaching staff came late in the fourth quarter, though. Clemson had advanced the ball inside the red zone and faced a 4th-and-4 with less than 30 seconds to go. Up by six, a chip-shot field goal would've made it a two-possession game and sealed the game for Clemson. Instead, Dabo opted to go for it—and called a bizarre off-tackle run out of the I-formation that went nowhere.
That call gave Auburn hope, and it came dangerously close to pulling the upset as it got two Hail Mary attempts from inside Clemson's 40-yard line to end the game.
Clemson held on, of course, but it'll stumble down the stretch if Swinney struggles like that again.
It's tough when a team has three quarterbacks that fail to play or execute the offense at a high level.
Some of that falls on recruiting misses. Some of the blame lies with poor offseason preparation. But at what point do Gus Malzahn and the Auburn coaching staff need to make a call and stick with it?
That didn't happen against Clemson, and Auburn clearly suffered because of it. The offense never established any momentum or rhythm, and that inefficiency left the defense exposed for too long against Clemson's high-powered offense.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele put together an impressive game plan to contain Deshaun Watson. They held up well early, limiting Clemson to 10 first-half points. They were even better in the second half, but they couldn't get the stop they needed most when Watson threw a touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow that put Clemson up by 13.
Overall, though, it was a tough night for Auburn's staff.