Sitting here 1-0, after finally getting a big win in Atlanta, a house of horrors for this program for a long time, feels pretty darn good. Sure the players and coaches have changed since the 2008 drubbing at the hands of Alabama, the Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Auburn, and the multiple losses in Bobby Dodd Stadium. But, with this win, this team knows it can go into Atlanta and finally get a win, something it has whiffed on doing time and time again.
More than getting the Atlanta monkey off its back, Clemson was finally able to put the Orange Bowl loss behind them. When you get obliterated as badly as Clemson did in Miami, it's going to be the talk of the college football world, until you give them a reason to talk about something else. Saturday, Dabo and company did exactly that. I have no doubt Dabo used the Orange Bowl as motivation for this team in the offseason and in August camp, and it showed Saturday night.
An extremely sour taste had been lingering in the mouths of Clemson fans since the Orange Bowl eight months ago, but their palates were cleansed when the Tigers beat Auburn 26-19 on Saturday night at the Georgia Dome. Before the win, Clemson was 2-5 all-time in games at the Georgia Dome. Any win to start the year is good, but it’s especially good when it comes against an SEC opponent, the best conference in the nation.
For me, the biggest shock Saturday night, was the play of the offensive line. We knew that Ellington, when healthy, can be the explosive back that makes this offense go, and we also know that it's not going to click until the line is doing their job. Saturday they did just that. This was a very good Auburn defensive line that Clemson faced, and in run protection, Caldwell's crew made it look silly at times. For months and months we've stressed that this offense isn't going to reach its full potential without the line opening holes in the middle. This offense is predicated upon it. With all the bells and whistles that Chad Morris has in his back pocket, it's still comes down to run blocking up front. (great stuff here).
Clemson used a fast-paced, hurry-up offense to tire Auburn's defense. They relied on the athleticism of both quarterback Tajh Boyd and running back Andre Ellington. Clemson's line was able to provide holes for the backs to run through, and, outside of a couple of great jumps by Auburn's defensive line, they also pass-blocked very well. If Clemson can continually put together sustainable drives like this one, their offense will be a lot of fun to watch again this year, especially when Sammy Watkins returns.
Something clicked in the Georgia Dome. Without the services of Sammy Watkins, and with a tight end and receiving corps that was dropping ball after ball, running the football was how this team was going to win on Saturday, and that's exactly what happened. Raise your hand if you thought this team would amass a whopping 320 yards on the ground on Saturday, while breaking in a new left guard, a new right guard, and a new right tackle? Not me, not by a long shot. Glad to be proven wrong. It's about time a Clemson line ran a team over. If they can continue to open up holes like they did on Saturday, this offense could be scary good, especially when you throw #2 back into the mix and fix the drops at WR.
On this night, however, the basketball league broke through. Clemson and Boyd did the deed. (And let’s not forget running back Andre Ellington, who rushed for 231 yards.) "A big-time gutsy win," Swinney called it, not exactly underselling the moment. But why should he? On its fifth try, an ACC team beat an SEC opponent in the Kickoff Classic. Just this once, the almighty SEC wasn’t quite so mighty.
It's been hammered home at this point, but on the defensive side of the ball, there were certainly a mix of positives and negatives. The long touchdown in the first quarter was bad. We cannot continue to have breakdowns in the secondary like that as the season unfolds, because a veteran quarterback is going to tear that unit to shreds. After that, the defense settled in a little bit, giving up no more touchdowns over the course of the game. The defense really stepped up late, which is encouraging. Auburn's last two drives stalled, one with a punt, and the other to end the game. We weren't able to trust this defense at all last year (except when we played Virginia Tech) so it was certainly nice to see Venable's squad hold a team to under 20 points.
There were plenty of mistakes Swinney and first-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables will highlight on tape before moving forward. But they also won’t be able to ignore how a group that gave up 28 points or more in seven of its’ final eight games last year forced Auburn to settle for field goals over touchdowns.
This team now turns its attention to Ball State (great team preview here). Ball State returns just four starters on defense on a team that went 6-6 in the MAC last year. The two biggest things we are going to need to get corrected this week are the drops by the wideouts and the breakdowns in the secondary. Ball State won't be a pushover, but if Dabo can hammer home those two things this week, Clemson should be 2-0 after next weekend. It would be nice to get guys like DJ Reader, Carlos Watkins, and Travis Blanks in the mix as well, guys that this team could have to rely on as the season progresses.
That's all for now folks. Enjoy your Labor Day and the Georgia Tech/Virginia Tech game on tap for tonight in Blacksburg. Paul Johnson vs. a Bud Foster defense that had all offseason to prepare for the triple option (which has worked out well for teams in the past) should provide for some good football.