While the bye week builds suspense for a primetime affair with Notre Dame next weekend (I will not survive), it also offers the opportunity to reflect on the first three games of the season. This year was extremely hard to predict given the Tigers' outstanding talent level on one hand and the lack of depth at crucial positions on the other. Our aggregate win total reflected this at exactly 9 wins, which most here would consider a disappointment.
The first two contests told us very little, and Louisville predictably provided mixed reviews; but not in the manner we expected. With established stars at quarterback and receiver, another questionable offensive line, and a rebuilding defense, the widely held view here and throughout the Clemson media was that Deshaun Watson, Mike Williams, and Artavis Scott must carry the team through the season while the rest of the roster built experience. Against Louisville, however, a dominant defense and a steady running game carried Watson and company to victory.
In the long run, this is extremely good news. Clemson's air attack is a known commodity and even Watson is not above the occasional average performance. That the running game and defense came through when the quarterback and receivers fell short of our standard means this team could gel into a formidable force by season's end.
However, with Notre Dame and Georgia Tech looming, the short term is decidedly less optimistic. We must hope Watson's middling Louisville performance was an aberration, because it is still unlikely the defense is deep or experienced enough to carry Clemson against ND and GT the way it did against a very poor Louisville offense.
Bill Connelly is the best in the business for advanced statistics in college football. Please review his Clemson profile for legitimately meaningful data and rankings. Some numbers shocked me, but they support what I saw on the field. How many expected only a top 50 offense yet a top 10 defense?
It is not completely fair to judge Watson's conventional statistics through the first 3 games (consult Bill's statistics, seriously). He played 2 halves against Wofford and App State, then looked average (poor by his standards) against a Louisville defense which took away the explosive play. Note the loss of Mike Williams hurt more than most expected, particularly in this game. Even when we look past Watson's numbers, the eye test shows a quarterback who is not as comfortable as he was last year. A completely new offensive line, new coordinators, and a new QB coach were bound to exhibit growing pains, but the assumption was that Watson is so good, it won't matter. We find out in the coming weeks, and I expect a huge performance against ND.
Wayne Gallman grew up before our eyes this month and developed into a bonafide workhorse. To see him run through Louisville and carry the majority of the offensive effort was beautiful and sorely needed. Truly there is not much more to say:
Courtesy: ACC Digital Network
Behind Gallman, we find problems. CJ Davidson continues to take the 2nd string snaps despite little production. Zac Brooks looked much improved in his limited action, and Tyshon Dye is a reliable, tough runner. Brooks and Dye deserve all of the snaps when Gallman rests, and we must hope the coaches have seen enough from Davidson to relegate him like they did with DJ Howard a year ago -- the senior gets his chance, then gives way to youth when outperformed.
I considered this position our greatest strength in the preseason, but the receiver group has collectively underperformed. The loss of Mike Williams not only took the vertical threat away from this offense, but also its most reliable receiver. With only a handful of exceptions, it seems the only use for the field receiver (Scott and McCloud) is to catch screens or jet sweeps. Charone Peake appears overwhelmed in Williams' boundary position, and the much-maligned Germone Hopper stepped into Peake's former role as the starter at slot receiver -- meaning Clemson downgraded at boundary and slot. Peake needs to return to the slot, while Trevion Thompson and Deon Cain take the snaps at boundary until Williams returns.
Jordan Leggett already matched last year's touchdown output (1) with his score last Thursday. His blocking effort improved even if the results are not consistent. Garrett Williams is likely the future at the position, but it is quite an indictment on the incumbent tight ends that a true freshman already earned serious playing time when six were on scholarship before him. Still, this group looks better than a year ago (nowhere to go but up) and already helped win the game on the ground against Louisville.
In all, this looks like an improved unit. The lack of depth is scary. SCARY. But I cannot understate the performance against Louisville -- to find 200 rushing yards against one of the best front 7's on the schedule is a huge accomplishment for a potentially budding group. Coach Swinney was right to point out all 5 starters did not start last year. Pass protection has been decent, and we must live with a few busts considering the lack of experience. To our great surprise, Clemson currently ranks 16th in adjusted line yards (!!!) compared to 101st last year.
Expectations for the DL were low simply because nobody believed Clemson could replicate the production from one of the best lines in school history in 2014. Early returns are better than anyone outside of the coaching staff possibly expected or dreamed, and even a lack of depth has yet to inhibit the production of this young defensive line. Clemson replaced almost the entire two deep, yet rank 1st in the country in adjusted line yards. No matter the opponent, this is dominant, winning football. However much it costs to keep Venables, Hobby, and Brooks -- pay them. This unit's production to date is undoubtedly the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the young season, and will determine the outcomes against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.
Ben Boulware wreaks pure havoc. Were he half a step faster he could have 5 or 6 sacks by now. Still, his impact is felt across the defense if not seen on the stat sheet. B.J. Goodson doesn't get the same attention as Boulware but is a solid player. Given the lack of experienced depth it is crucial Boulware and Goodson stay healthy -- Venables needs them on the field every snap in the next two games.
Established stars Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse are absolute studs and likely in NFL this time next year. Enjoy watching them while you can. Kearse is the most versatile and important member of the defense. Ballhawk in coverage, ferocious tackler, alley filler, block shedder, and speed demon. Venables drops him to linebacker and blitzes him frequently with Boulware in the 3rd down "dime of doom" and it is glorious. It's safe to say I have a QuackingTiger-like mancrush on Kearse. TJ Green gave up two deep plays already this year but his skill-set is undeniable -- he will only continue to improve.
Cordrea Tankersley's performance against Louisville eased one of my only doubts with this years secondary: who will cover whomever Alexander doesn't cover? Tank was fantastic against Louisville all night. The biggest concern with the secondary is at nickel. Travis Blanks is serviceable but we miss Korrin Wiggins because now Ryan Carter backs up Blanks. Carter is a firecracker but Louisville picked on him -- you know Notre Dame and FSU too.
Greg Huegel (fellow Blythewood High soccer alum) nailed two crucial field goals at Louisville and is 4-5 overall. Andy Teasdall punted Louisville inside the 20 four times but his last punt would have been blocked if the Louisville player displayed the slightest awareness. Clemson can rely on Artavis Scott to field punts cleanly.
Everything else? Stomach ulcer. Kick and punt returns are essentially nonexistent. Kick return coverage created an unnecessarily dramatic finish against Louisville. Only 4 of 21 kickoffs this season were touchbacks. Don't expect Lakip to offer more distance on kickoffs now that he is a member of the team again, either. For a team with never-ending coverage issues, touchbacks are crucial. If not for Huegel's made field goals, special teams cost Clemson a victory last week -- and still likely will without colossal improvement.
Clemson faces its toughest test of the entire season next weekend. I gave a 69% (nice) chance of victory in the preseason, but now I do not know what to expect. Notre Dame torched GT with their backup QB and RB. The problems against Louisville shook me, and in a series of knee-jerk reaction tweets I said that this will mark the first time since the 2010 South Carolina game that I walk into Death Valley expecting to lose a home game. Now I'm on the fence. Notre Dame struggled on the road at Virginia, injuries lowered their ceiling, and Clemson's unexpectedly strong defense can slow them enough for Watson to get things moving.
This game will not make or break the season. Clemson is 1-0 in conference play, which Coach Swinney will tell you is all that matters. But if this Clemson team wants to even sniff the playoff, if it want to showcase the power of the Clemson brand to the national audience, if it wants to be as good as we think it can be...Notre Dame is a must-win.
Next week, dbbm and I will tag team a joint film study with the lads at ND blog One Foot Down. Prepare yourselves for #banter.