Clemson/Auburn Sunday Thoughts

 

First things first, Clemson won the em effin College Football Belt when the Tigers beat Auburn in Death Valley on Saturday.  Right now Dabo gets to yell, "To be the man, whooo, you got to beat the man!"  I still don't really know how good this football team is (we'll get to that later) but do know that we got the freaking belt!

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Before we go any further, this was game one of a tough three game stretch.  Clemson must, at minimum, win one of the next two for this to mean anything.  Is Clemson good enough to beat either or both FSU and/or Va Tech?  There are way too many questions out there now including Clemson's depth up front and the one everyone is asking, "How good is Auburn, really?"  We'll discuss this game first then look at the road ahead.

Today was a big win for several reasons.  First and foremost, we were on television which meant I didn't have to suffer through deal with ESPN3 or the Clemson Radio Network.  I'll say that I enjoyed Urban Myer's assessment of the football game.  He did a great job breaking down the game by technically describing items such as gap assignments on offense and coverage calls on defense in language that anyone could understand.  Myer and Spielman did a good job analyzing strategy and telling us how formations and personnel dictated gameplay.

Now, on to the gameplay of the Clemson Tigers...

The Clemson Tigers and Dabo Swinney have taken a lot of (just) criticism here so they deserve to be praised when praise is due.  Yesterday, Clemson took a punch in the mouth early on and fought back.  I thought we were done when Auburn punched it in for its third TD of the first half but our Tigers never gave up.  Clemson rattled off three consecutive touchdowns to finish off the half and tie up the football game after a rough start.  Pickens County's Pride gave up a mere 3 points in the second half while scoring 17 to easily pull away from the Tigers from Alabama. 

While I am pleased with the victory, I am not exactly sure how good Auburn really is or if it will serve as a springboard to success as Swinney discussed in the post-game interview.  We have a tough road in front of us and will know how good this team will really be two weeks from today.  For now, though, we'll stick to discussing the Barners.

I was impressed with the in-game adjustments.  Morris and the Clemson offense shifted to a more pass oriented attack (probably out of necessity) after getting down early.  This attack was aided when Tajh Boyd calmed down and got into a better passing rhythm.  It then turned into a track meet in which Clemson converted ten consecutive third down attempts and did not punt after the first period.  Kevin Steele made some nice adjustments, especially on the edge.  Clemson got after the Auburn quarterback and Trotter did not throw the ball as well after getting hit a couple times.  The fact that the Auburn Tigers were able to muster a mere three points after the 8-minute mark of the second quarter.

There is a lot of individual credit that needs to be given, and I'll start with the QB.  Boyd has evolved since the tire bowl and through the first three games.  He played a gutsy football game against Auburn, getting popped repeatedly and still delivering.  The play that sticks out in my mind here was an apparent blown up screen or a real miscommunication between the offensive line and everyone else half way through the second quarter.  Boyd stuck in the pocket and hit Jaron Brown in the middle of the defense.  Brown showed toughness as well, taking a serious lick and still holding onto the football.

He still has a few hitches, but has addressed the vast majority of the issues we addressed before the season.  Boyd had trouble getting the ball vertical deep enough for Sammy Watkins.  Sammy is extremely fast and it looks like it would be difficult to out-throw the track star.  There were a few bad reads as well, but overall the RS Soph had a monster game and illustrated that he has a more mature grasp on the offense and game in general.  Most importantly, you can tell he is a team leader who is not afraid to take a lick for the good of the team.  Tajh is ahead of where I expected him to be at this point.

Some of Boyd's success has to be attributed to his position coach and offensive coordinator Chad Morris.  Morris has assisted Boyd in correcting fundamental flaws and in understanding the new offense.  Most of all, Morris simplifies reads.  You probably noticed the progression yesterday in passing situations.  Tajh identified the half of the field that played into Clemson's favor, if necessary.  He then made a single read before throwing the ball.  The common read, outside of the defensive coverage call, involved the corner.  Clemson ran a lot of two man routes in which the proper throw was determined by what the corner did.  We ran mash combos and slant combo's all afternoon.  These strategies allowed Tajh to read the outside playside corner and make a decision accordingly.  Tajh did make a few bad decisions, but the good ones vastly outnumbered the bad ones. 

As mentioned earlier, the biggest passing issue I have is with the deep ball.  Speedster Watkins routinely beat his defender downfield but had to wait for the ball.  Boyd needs to work on either throwing the ball deeper or getting rid of it sooner to take advantage of Watkins' ridiculous speed.

Receiver play this season is a complete 180 from a year ago.  We have some very talented receivers who are hungry.  Best of all, the perimeter blocking has improved tremendously.  The talented freshmen have pushed everyone, forcing a guy like Jaron Brown to elevate his play and effort level.

Nuke picked up where he left off last season.  The first TD in this game showcased his desire to catch the ball.  DeAndre Hopkins had a bunch of catches in addition to that touchdown, but the most impressive item I saw was on Sammy Watkins' third quarter 19 yard receiving TD.  Nuke engaged his defender and drove him deep in the endzone, clearing the way for Watkins.  Overall our receiver blocking is much, much better than a year ago and Nuke is making it happen in an impressive fashion.  You know, if you've been here before, it takes a lot to impress us so this is a real accolade.

Sammy Watkins will be a great player at Clemson for at least three years; he is that good and will be a pro if he wants after his junior year.  I jumped on Dabo for pimping him very hard in the preseason and am corrected now.  Swinney was right because Watkins has delivered in spite of the expectation pressure placed on him.  Sammy is an impact player and one of the most important pieces of this offensive puzzle.  He has fantastic hands.  Received balls rarely come close to his body and he just doesn't drop anything.  On top of all this, Sammy is flat out fast and elusive.  Chad Morris has wasted no time getting him the ball for both rushing and receiving attempts.  Sammy Watkins has lived up to and surpassed the hype bestowed upon the freshman.

Mike Bellamy really scared me against Auburn.  There is no doubt he is a playmaker, especially if you can get him in space.  I also thought he ran hard on the interior when needed and he contributed with a first down converting catch out of the backfield.  What scares me is his loose ball carrying style.  I found myself screaming "Three points of contact, three points of contact" each time he carried the ball.  Auburn forced a fumble because of this and it has to be corrected.

Dwayne Allen really showed out yesterday.  Allen had some huge grabs and presented matchup problems for Auburn all day.  We know that, if used properly, Allen will be a big mismatch in the balance of this season's games.  Allen did a good job blocking as well.  DA is very, very talented and we were concerned about his unrealized potential.  Allen showed all of his talent and potential against Auburn and we're looking for more of the same as the season progresses.

Defensively we struggled early.  We did a very poor job setting the edge and Auburn killed us there.  I hope everyone noticed Auburn's buck sweep as they ran that play quite a few times with success.  Clemson's tackling, especially early, left a lot of room for improvement.  Clemson did adjust by getting the end upfield a little more quickly in an effort to better establish outside contain. 

Coty Sensabaugh got picked on a good bit all day but had the last laugh with a nice interception to halt what looked like a sure Auburn TD drive.  My game notes indicated a series of decent tackles by Coty but a couple big catches made against the Graduate level senior.  I am sure UNC and FSU will go after him after this football game.

Andre Branch had an up and down game Saturday.  Branch bit a couple times on the zone read, missed a few tackles, and didn't maintain outside contain early.  Branch isn't completely to blame for the read items, as there were gap exchange issues with WILL.  Some items were corrected as the game progressed and Clemson's defense held Auburn in check for over one half of football.

Brandon Thompson is the key to this defense.  He played well and Clemson, as the game moved forward, was able to get more and more pressure in the Auburn backfield.  Barrett Trotter was clearly affected by some of the shots he took from the Clemson defense and I believe these hard hits were a tremendous aid in slowing down the Auburn pass attack.

One thing I am confused about is Michael Dyer.  Dyer had a ton of rushing yards early but Auburn basically abandoned him during the middle of the game.  Dyer had 2 TDs on 16 carries and 150+ yards on the day yet Auburn refused to just feed him the rock.  It appeared as though they were committed to get McCalebb carries no matter what, and they did to the tune of 10 atts for 34 yards.  The first thing I thought of was the dynamic we had last season between Andre Ellington and Jamie Harper.  I don't know if that is necessarily the case but do know that Dyer was clearly Auburn's best weapon yesterday and Malzahn/Chizik mitigated this by having him stand on the sidelines.

I need to give a shout out to the special teams group.  I was somewhat concerned about our kick coverage teams and these groups did a nice job bottling up AU retrunmen.  Catman drilled a 38 yarder to ice the game and hit all five of his PATs.  Dawson Zimmerman gave us his typical excellent outing and averaged 46 yards per punt.

Moving forward...

Clemson has a lot to work on and play two good football teams over the course of the next two weeks.  I am concerned about the Clemson rush defense and our ability to contain on the edge.  Auburn dinged our Tigers for 237 yards and 2 TDs.  A couple of these carries were big, big gainers including Dyer's 52 yard touchdown scamper to open up the scoring.

I am also a little concerned about our defensive backfield.  Rashard Hall injured his knee against Troy and didn't look to be 100% yesterday.  Sensabaugh got picked on Saturday and Darius Robinson had at least one receiver get behind him but the opposition couldn't take advantage.  A stop and go in the first quarter resulted an Auburn TD.  We have some growing up to do all around and really need to develop depth at Safety.  Rashard Hall has to play through this injury because of this.  One last DB note, somebody needs to tell Jonathan Meeks that he has arms and can use them.  I am not sure I've seen Meeks wrap up a ball carrier, instead he looks like a Chris Benoit coming off the top ropes to make a tackle.  Everyone loves seeing the kill shot but no one likes the possibility of a missed tackle.

The interior of our offensive line is a huge concern.  We have repeatedly discussed how a huge portion of the running attack is based on A-gap to A-gap carries.  There was nothing in this area yesterday.  We're also concerned with the personnel on the inside portion of the line.  I didn't really see Dalton Freeman get movement on interior run plays yesterday.  McClain plays when he wants and kills drives when he isn't feeling it.  Both Mason Cloy and David Smith are dinged up and their participation levels moving forward are questionable due to injury.

The final concern is about the true quality of this win.  Dabo talked about this potentially being a springboard victory, and that would be really nice.  I am, however, skeptical of the Auburn's aptitude this season.  Last year they had two phenomenal players (Newton and Fairley) and a good group behind them.  Both superstars are gone as well as the majority of last season's starters, so this definitely is not the national championship team of a year ago.  Further, Auburn struggled to defeat Utah State and easily could have lost last week to Miss State and have given up boatloads of yards on defense.

I will not take the time here to comment extensively on Dabo's post-game antics but would suggest a simple handshake with the opponent's head man before finding Tony Schiavone to challenge the Ricky Steamboat to a cage match for the belt.

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