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Clemson’s Struggles On Offense Are Slightly Frustrating

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NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

It is fair to say that Clemson fans are not exactly happy with the performance of Clemson’s offense in 2017. Even though there was an expectation the offense would take a step back, the performance against teams with inferior talent has been disappointing and sometimes frightful. Clemson’s offense struggled to victories against Boston College and Wake Forest before finally succumbing to Syracuse.

But what is the exact cause of the problem? We’ve talked X’s and O’s, health of the QB, and a variety of other problems. But before we go to far we wanted to take a look at the actual offensive production. Not what we think is happening, but what is actually happening.

To do that we compared the 2017 schedule to the games Clemson played in 2016. We are lucky because outside of the game against Kent State, Clemson played every other opponent on their 2017 schedule in 2016. This allowed us to do a direct comparison of performances in these games.

Rather than just compare the first 7 games of the season between each team I wanted to look at common opponents in P5 games so I removed the Kent State and Troy results. I prefer common opponents because although the point in the year and stakes of the game can affect performance, the level of the opponent is likely to be similar between season where as you could get an FSU type team one year and BC level the next. Below is the chart looking at the 2016 offense under Deshaun Watson.

2016 Clemson Offense

2016 Season Plays Passes Passes/Play Yards/Attempt Comp % Pass TDs INTs Rushes Rushes/Play Yards/Rush Rush TDs QB Rushes QB Rushes/Play QB Yards/Rush QB TDs Pts 3rd Down Attempts 3rd Down Conversions
2016 Season Plays Passes Passes/Play Yards/Attempt Comp % Pass TDs INTs Rushes Rushes/Play Yards/Rush Rush TDs QB Rushes QB Rushes/Play QB Yards/Rush QB TDs Pts 3rd Down Attempts 3rd Down Conversions
Auburn 78 34 0.44 7.3 55.9 1 1 44 0.56 3.43 1 11 0.14 1.91 0 19 17 6
Louisville 62 31 0.5 9.9 64.5 5 3 31 0.5 6.48 1 14 0.23 6.5 0 42 9 4
Virginia Tech 75 34 0.45 8.5 67.6 3 1 41 0.55 4.44 3 17 0.23 5 2 42 11 6
Boston College 61 25 0.41 10.8 60 4 0 35 0.57 6.57 3 9 0.15 3.67 0 56 12 6
Wake Forest 75 33 0.44 6.1 69.7 1 0 42 0.56 6.05 4 7 0.09 6.71 2 35 15 7
Syracuse 84 16 0.19 10.6 81.3 2 0 44 0.52 4.43 2 7 0.08 5.57 1 54 15 8
Avg Per Game 72.5 28.83 0.4 8.87 66.5 2.67 0.83 39.5 0.54 5.23 2.33 10.83 0.15 4.89 0.83 41.33 13.17 6.17

A note here, because I wanted to look at QB play, all passing and QB rushing numbers are for Kelly Bryant and Deshaun Watson respectively. This is why if you add the rushing attempts and pass attempts together it will sometimes be under the total number of plays for the game.

2017 Clemson Offense

2017 Season Plays Passes Passes/Play Yards/Attempt Comp % Pass TDs INTs Rushes Rushes/Play Yards/Rush Rush TDs QB Rushes QB Rushes/Play QB Yards/Rush QB TDs Pts Pts/Play 3rd Down Attempts 3rd Down Conversions
2017 Season Plays Passes Passes/Play Yards/Attempt Comp % Pass TDs INTs Rushes Rushes/Play Yards/Rush Rush TDs QB Rushes QB Rushes/Play QB Yards/Rush QB TDs Pts Pts/Play 3rd Down Attempts 3rd Down Conversions
Auburn 67 29 0.43 6.2 65.5 0 0 36 0.54 2.67 2 19 0.28 3.11 2 14 0.21 16 9
Louisville 81 32 0.4 9.9 68.8 1 0 48 0.59 6.19 4 18 0.22 1.44 2 47 0.58 17 9
Boston College 84 26 0.31 5.4 65.4 0 2 58 0.69 5.9 5 22 0.26 4.82 2 34 0.4 16 8
Virginia Tech 64 21 0.33 8.9 57.1 1 0 43 0.67 3.4 2 19 0.3 4.95 0 31 0.48 16 6
Wake Forest 89 29 0.33 6.9 72.4 1 1 48 0.54 3.96 2 12 0.13 3.25 0 28 0.31 19 9
Syracuse 57 17 0.3 6.8 70.6 0 0 25 0.44 4.52 0 4 0.07 -2 0 24 0.42 11 2
Avg Per Game 73.67 25.67 0.35 7.35 66.63 0.5 0.5 43 0.58 4.44 2.5 15.67 0.21 2.6 1 29.67 0.4 15.83 7.17

This next chart is the averages for each category combined and a difference calculated. If the difference is negative then the 2017 season has been higher than the 2016 season in that category. If the difference is positive then the 2016 season was better for that stat.

Season Comparison

Season Plays Passes Passes/Play Yards/Attempt Comp % Pass TDs INTS Rushes Rushes/Play Yards/Rush Rush TDs QB Rushes QB Rushes/Play QB Yards/Rush QB TDs Pts Pts/Play 3rd Down Attempts 3rd Down Conversions 3rd Down %
Season Plays Passes Passes/Play Yards/Attempt Comp % Pass TDs INTS Rushes Rushes/Play Yards/Rush Rush TDs QB Rushes QB Rushes/Play QB Yards/Rush QB TDs Pts Pts/Play 3rd Down Attempts 3rd Down Conversions 3rd Down %
2016 72.5 28.83 0.4 8.87 66.5 2.67 0.83 39.5 0.54 5.23 2.33 10.83 0.15 4.89 0.83 41.3 0.58 13.17 6.17 46.85
2017 73.67 25.67 0.35 7.35 66.63 0.5 0.5 43 0.58 4.44 2.5 15.67 0.21 2.6 1 29.67 0.4 15.83 7.17 45.29
Difference -1.17 3.16 0.05 1.52 -0.13 2.17 0.33 -3.5 -0.04 0.79 -0.17 -4.84 -0.06 2.29 -0.17 11.63 0.18 -2.66 -1 1.56

As you can, a lot of things are pretty close when we compare the years. Obviously the big difference is points. 10 points is a lot. If you add 10 points to even just the games against BC, Wake, and Syracuse you’d have an undefeated Clemson and pretty much no talk about Clemson’s offense. Even 5 points would probably do that.

I’ve also added a pass/play, rushes/play, qb rushes/play, and pts/play number to each chart. The idea here was to try and smooth out things like the QB getting yanked early, injuries, etc. The big takeaway is that for every 100 plays Clemson runs, they are scoring 18 fewer points this year compared to 2016. That’s a lot and it is the difference between being undefeated and cruising against teams and being 6-1 and having some sort of existential crisis if you ask the fanbase.

And if you look at the points per play number and calculate the number of points scored per game based on Clemson’s average snap total you see Clemson is down nearly 13 points a game. Add just 10 points to each game Clemson has played and the picture is very different

So the question is what is the cause of the problems. And despite Kelly Bryant being thought of as a better runner, the running and passing game show problems. The big issue in the passing game is that the yards per attempt are down despite Clemson’s completion percentage being up. The likely culprit here is the screen game.

The 2017 Clemson offense doesn’t have much of a screen game for a variety of reasons and it shows. Last year, and the year before, Clemson had a lot of success with the screen game breaking off 10+ yard runs from easy completions. That isn’t happening this year. The lack of a TE also helps reduce the offensive output. Too often, for opposing defenses, Jordan Leggett would float over the middle for a rather easy completion. We haven’t seen that this year.

But the rushing game, in particular the QB rushing game, is where things are different. Conventional wisdom is that Kelly Bryant is a better runner than Watson. And he’s certainly more physical and more willing to run. But he’s not as effective as Watson. Bryant is running the ball about 4 more times per game than Watson did, but Watson nearly doubled up on Bryant’s yards per rush. The rushing TDs per game are also similar.

Personally my thought is that the OL is worse this year in all aspects. And our RB blocking doesn’t help. Pass and run blocking has caused problems. Add in a bad screen game and the lack of a TE and it all causes a lot of problems for Clemson’s offense. Obviously a great QB can mitigate these problems, but that guy is playing for the Texans right now. Until Clemson can improve their blocking, we’ll likely continue to see similar struggles on offense, even if Clemson were to play different QBs.