A win is a win. Any double digit win where a the game is only a ten point game for a little while is a good win. But this should be a wake up call to the team, coaches, and fans. Dabo has been saying this is likely his most talented roster, but this team hadn’t really been tested three games into the season. Welcome to the first taste of adversity, which can be very good for the trajectory of a team over the course of the year, but make no mistake—some guys got exposed. Definite rust coming off the open date and some unforced penalties like jumping offsides twice. Now the question is how will the team respond with a Miami team that, apart from Notre Dame, is the toughest challenge on the schedule.
From my reading, Clemson felt like they were going to easily handle UVA and backups would likely be playing a good bit. That did not happen.
If this was a measuring stick—how did the potential deficiencies on the team we identified before the season hold up?
- Depth on Offensive line. First team is all healthy but I was slightly worried about the interior of the line. UVA gave Clemson a lot of exotic looks, especially on first and second down. Bringing people unconventionally. Overall the offensive line held up really pretty well against the kitchen sink from UVA. Carman gave up one sack where he let his guy get around him, but most of the sacks were actually on Trevor not identifying late pressure. My biggest worry was the inability to run up the A gap consistently. They were stacking the box to a certain degree, but ETN wasn’t getting room for his normal 4 to 5 yards a carry in that interior. Not much push up the A gap and Clemson gave up multiple TFL’s.
- Safety. Yikes. Dabo said this was going to be his best secondary to date. So far—not so much. This is probably the biggest question mark on the team. Zanders had a rough night. He completely whiffed on two tackles, one that led to a score, and had some poor tackling and alignment issues. These were fundamental technique breakdowns. Turner had a solid game and multiple times was able to set the edge and had the interception. Charleston came in and was ok, but this is going to be a continual question for Venables.
- WR play/depth. Really liked what I saw from Brannon Spector (although on the reverse, I was kind of like—really, Spector is who we are using on this??). Amari Rodgers carried this group. ETN carried this group out of the backfield—keep going to that TL. Dixon with the unfortunate drop. Ladson had his best game and was the only player to catch something (wide open I would add) over the middle (which ONCE AGAIN completely was absent from the gameplan—no drags or TE seam or TE RPO in the middle, etc). He just needs more reps and experience to get more comfortable and confident Ngata is injured with an ab strain that is really limiting him. Powell just doesn’t have it against top competition. EJ Williams is still too small, but shows promise. Galloway needs to make his presence felt.
- DE and pass rush. This is still a concern. The Dline wasn’t able to consistently get off blocks against a big, experienced UVA Oline (in fairness, the only Oline that stacks up better than UVA is probably ND’s in the regular season). I haven’t seen that much trouble with an Oline in a long time (apart from OSU last year). Henry and Mascoll are slow off the line and can’t get home. Just inconsistent play from your starters. Mascoll did have one nice play later in the game when he broke from engaging with the Oline and made a tackle on the QB. When Murphy was in the game, he was getting double teamed (which is insane for a true freshman). Bresee made some nice plays with batted balls and sacks/pressures, but it is not great when you are relying on two true freshman this early. At the beginning of the game the Dline wasn’t staying in their rush lanes and letting the QB break contain and later they weren’t able to get home. Hopefully Tyler Davis and Justin Foster will return healthy and able to give the Dline a boost.
It wasn’t close to all bad though. Here are some positives that jumped out to me:
- Special teams were great. I am great great. I pushed for BT Potter in his recruitment and very happy to see him make two critical kicks in this game to continue to push the game out of reach. He nailed that 47 yarder. Good punts and kick returns overall with Dixon springing an important kick early.
- No turnovers.
- ETN made up for deficiencies in Tony Elliott’s play calling. Multiple times ETN just bailed out the offense. On a third and short that should have been dead behind the line of scrimmage in the red zone, ETN broke three tackles. Elliott basically concedes on a 3 and forever with a little screen that ETN breaks for 40 plus yards. If it wasn’t obvious before, it should be now—despite an all-world QB—in major games, the offense should flow through ETN. He is now in my mind the greatest RB in Clemson history. Ride him to the natty.
- Trevor had some electric passes. The dart to the endzone to Rodgers is enough to get him drafted in the first round alone. He had a few drops and some missed balls but no turnovers and no interceptions yet on the season. I still don’t understand why the middle of the field, especially as UVA was playing a bend, don’t break style of defense wasn’t exploited more on early downs.
- The offensive line was good on passing plays and handling most of UVA’s stunts and pressures. No major breakdowns, which is very important and good to see (that is not the norm!). Excellent on third and long. TL had plenty of time in the pocket. Really nice down the field completions.
- Ladson emerging as a potential weapon—a reliable weapon.
- I thought LB Baylon Spector (but both Spectors) played a really great game. Got tagged for a personal foul on an insta-slide that is just an effort play, but he was flying around and generally in position. I think he is an upgrade at the position from last year. Mike Jones Jr. made some nice plays in coverage.
- BOOOOTTHHH!!! My guy came down with a huge interception as UVA kept driving the length of the field. Give up that TD and this is a very close ball game.
Things to Address on Defense
- Open field tackling. More complete whiffs that I have seen from the secondary in a long time. Saw many guys trying to hit and not wrap up. Jones got caught twice hitting and not bringing guys down. Zanders had the most consequential whiffs. That needs to tighten up across the board, but especially in the secondary. Safety play was lacking overall—some alignment issues, some communication issues, poor technique with the ball in the air. Zanders got spun around far too many times, putting his back to the QB and the ball.
- QB contain. With Miami QB King coming up on the schedule, this is a major concern. Skalski was used at times as a spy for Armstrong and that had mixed results—he doesn’t have the range of a Simmons (which isn’t fair, no one does). Venables was moving the defensive end off the line as a stand up LB to help with containing the QB and also didn’t help with applying pressure. It is a sound concept for clogging up lanes, but made the DE’s tentative and they didn’t play all that well in space.
- DE’s getting better pass rush. Already talked about this above. Same problem as last year where DE’s aren’t getting home against better offensive lines. It is fine to dominate your marginal ACC Oline, but need to see more here.
- Physicality?? Virginia was the more physical team for a good bit of the game and especially as the game continued into the latter stages. First time I have seen Clemson players pushed backwards on defense in a long time. Good to see Goodrich back, but he needs to regain his conditioning and physicality, also got beat down the sideline on one.
- Locating the ball. I think this is specific to UVA, as they try and hide their RBs and QB behind the giant offensive line, but our Dline and LBs at times were having a hard time locating the football. Hats off to UVA OC Robert Anae (full disclosure, I have met him before and knew some of his family growing up). He had some great play design that completely fooled our Defensive staff. The play at the goal-line for a TD with the TE leaking out and the fourth down jet handoff were great play calls. Tip the hat to Anae.
- 4th down conversions. Yikes. The spots UVA was getting all night were...ahem...very generous, especially on third down, but fourth and short was a nightmare for the Clemson Dline. Bad short yardage trend and something BV defenses have not allowed in the past.
Things to Address on Offense
- Interior OLine running lanes. I agree with Dabo that Oline did a good job overall but got to fix the interior running. The response to that is—well, they are loading the box, but if that is the case then with our speed outside running lanes should be open. A pitch play. Sticking with some jet sweep motion more than once a game. If you are rattling off yards on the outside, then it loosens up the middle. I didn’t see much cohesion in the offensive game plan and UVA mixing odd and even fronts doesn’t excuse this.
- Too many negative yardage plays.
- Not enough usage of the middle of the field.
- Loved the copy of the Chiefs play to Galloway. Other than that we were too vanilla for a team as talented as UVA.
- Powell...sigh...Galloway also with a drop.
- I feel like I am bagging on Elliott too much here, so I will stop but the offense doesn’t have an identity yet, which is fine, but Miami’s D, especially their Dline is likely the best Clemson will see in the regular season. They have lots of speed on the field. Unleash the wrinkles.
Just a few words. This is going to be a legit matchup. I don’t think Miami is as good as there first two games showed. They have Dline talent and have brought in quality transfers (DE J. Phillips, S Bubba Bolden, QB King, etc). King is a threat to run, but doesn’t love to run—he wants to pass first. WR’s are pretty average and tend to drop some balls. The Miami TE is a serious threat and should be treated as a WR, along with RB’s out of the backfield. Got to cover the flats and effectively spy the QB. Their Offensive Line still isn’t great, but the offense is getting the ball out much faster. They will also play with tempo. Should be a great matchup!
Win and advance.