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QT’s Take: Clemson Wounds Exposed in Loss at Notre Dame

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NCAA Football: Clemson at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

I tried to take my time with this post because I didn’t want it to be a knee jerk reaction (like my Twitter feed was during the Notre Dame game). I feel like I have enough perspective now to talk about the game with more clarity (but I don’t think I will really feel better until a complete thrashing of FSU is relished).

The future is DJU

First, not enough praise has been lavished on DJ Uiagalelei. I told you all that his shoulder was banged up in the BC game and that is why he didn’t run all that much, but I didn’t know it was so bad that he had barely practiced in the lead up to the game. Baller. Hmm...why did ESPN recruiting services drop DJ to the 43rd overall player in the 2020 class, again (with an 86 overall rating...yikes)?? Why did the other services drop him behind a certain Bama QB commit despite DJ winning the high school battle between the two (I’m actually not that upset about that, but fun to rib the recruitniks)?

He threw lasers. Bullets. Beautiful deep ball after deep ball. He was behind in both games and didn’t flinch. He led a time-eating fourth quarter drive to go up a score that should have iced the game. He came back in the first overtime and scored immediately. Poise. Leadership. Accuracy. Heart. And he did that all while he was banged up. I am now officially excited to play UGA next season.

He also had to deal with an ETN fumble for a ND touchdown and a Rodgers fumble in plus territory. Can’t have that from your two star offensive players. I begin with that praise because I think it is important to remember how well he played when critiquing the running game.

Here is the harsh reality—Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne (add in here Deshaun Watson as well) have helped mask just how bad the rushing attack is at Clemson this season, especially against decent defenses. You have arguably the best QB in Clemson history and best RB in Clemson history and you can’t find a consistent rushing attack.

In the ND game DJ’s youth and inexperience added to the problem. He missed a few reads where he had better numbers flicking it out to the flats. He missed some rushing lanes on QB power. He could have kept on more zone read, RPO reads (it’s also possible the coaches wanted him running less and told him to give more to ETN regardless). The rushing attack was likely pared down and simplified for the game. Those are some factors to consider.

But this rushing attack has struggled all season. Even against Wake and Syracuse, the ball had to go to ETN on swing passes to get him in space because no one could move anyone up the A gap. The most disappointing part of re-watching the Notre Dame game was seeing all the missed assignments by the offensive line. Putnam losing leverage on this play. Bockhorst on the ground in another. And on the ground again. Stewart not getting the protection right and letting runners go free. RBs and TEs getting in on the missed assignment action. (PAUSE BUTTON: This Oline actually does a really good job of pass blocking, one of the better in recent years, but the run blocking is atrocious.) ETN couldn’t find a tiny crease. ETN almost has as many receiving yards as rushing yards.

What to do? Not a whole lot can be done—the lack of consistent recruiting across multiple cycles, with one Senior on the roster, is the dead horse I have been beating for years to no avail. You can’t have multiple classes with only two linemen per class. When Bockhorst went out Trotter came in and had some good moments. The problem is having Stewart, Trotter, and Putnam in at the same time makes you very light on the interior. Tchio has talent but is still developing. Vinson lost his functional strength with the knee injury. Johnson is still learning the position. Mayes has been injured. Walker Parks is the one player you could insert to shake up the line, but hopefully a lot more players can get some experience for the stretch run. Do you move McFadden inside and put Parks at RT? Can anyone apart from Stewart snap?

What you can do is scheme away from running in the interior, which is what Clemson has already been doing. The other obvious solution is relying on the QB run game (which is what Clemson was forced to do against Ohio State). The problem is teams know you can’t run up the interior and start keying in on the ETN plays that are obviously going to the flats. It would be nice to run more jet sweep action to burn crashing LBs and Safeties on occasion and to keep them more honest (this does not mean running this play to the boundary!!). This is where having TL, who is a bit more of a running threat, helps (but it shouldn’t be this bad). First down runs have been some of the least productive plays for Clemson all year. The team continues to live in third and long.

INITIATE CORNELL POWELL PRAISE.

You all thought I was joking when I said Powell was my breakout candidate for the year. The deep ball touchdown and the overtime TD were amazing, but Powell trying to will the team to victory on the screen play late in the fourth, carrying All-American Safety Hamilton to the goal-line, was one of the standout moments of the season. It should have been the game winner.

  • Clemson (head) coaching has had some moments this season. From the kick-six to the two-timeout missed extra point, there have been some head scratchers. The coaching on the final offensive possession with two minutes remaining also belongs in that discussion. The defense is gassed with tons of injuries and rather than go for the first down we try to run clock on two plays and then have a swing pass that goes out of bounds and ND saves their timeouts. Normally Dabo gets away with this (he has an amazing fourth quarter lead record), but this time saying, “Well, we are going to kick them the ball and see if they can go the length of the field,” came back to bite Clemson.
  • My only serious special teams gripe is with Dixon as a returner. Just fair catch it at this point. Dixon still runs too upright and isn’t explosive enough on returns. He had the one good return against Wake and not much else. Potter did his job!

DEFENSE

  • It wasn’t as bad as I initially thought. The team played much better against Notre Dame than against first-half BC. Yes—the team gave up a gap and Turner whiffed on a tackle that can’t happen, but apart from that score, Clemson limited ND to FG’s and didn’t break again until late in the game. That isn’t to say that ND wasn’t able to go up and down the field and convert key third downs, especially in the first half. Same problems exist with a lack of a consistent pass rush and a secondary that gives up contested catches. Book was on, but Clemson’s blitzes weren’t getting home and disrupting. The ND offensive line won upfront most of the night. Going max protect and taking shots, hitting the TE and slot, is the recipe offenses are going to make Clemson defend.
  • Now I know that Simpson missed a crucial third down stop on a shallow crosser on a third and long that would have been a huge stop late in the game, but played really well overall for his first start with over 70 snaps. He got pressure, held up in coverage, and played with explosiveness much of the game. Lots of improving to do but it was encouraging.
  • I hate to pin the game on one play or one player—it just isn’t fair—but with the secondary injuries piling up Thornton was in the game covering the slot with the game on the line. He used poor technique, lost leverage, and gave up the deep ball. Unfortunate, but it is the reality of our depth at Safety when Zanders went down and Turner did also really late in the game. The defense couldn’t come up with a stop on the goal-line and couldn’t defend much of anything in overtime. Safety play has been inconsistent all year.
  • Book late in the game started reverting back to the previous version of himself, abandoning progressions and just leaving the pocket. Jake Venables didn’t have a bad game but his inability to spy the QB was a glaring problem late. That isn’t all on him, that is partly scheme and the defensive call, and partly the defensive line not being able to get home and giving up those lanes. Against FSU’s mobile QB Travis and especially VT’s Hooker—that has got to get fixed.
  • I could nit pick at this all day. The summary is Oline play—assignment football, toughness, pushing the pile—must improve. Dline needs to create more havoc by themselves. Safety play has to get more consistent. Corners need to stay healthy and do a bit better. ETN can’t give TD’s to the other team.
  • Not much to say about FSU at this point. Still some talent on the Dline with Robinson and Kaindoh. Samuels and getting Nasirildeen back should help the secondary, but youth and inexperience and busts happen all over. The offense was super basic against NC State. The question is how healthy is Travis. How much can he do? The WR talent is depleted. The offensive line is playing better assignment football, but should get pushed around. Corbin is a decent RB. I have this game pegged right at 35 points under normal conditions—if Dabo wants TL to make a Heisman statement (and I think he should), then it could get uglier. Remembering the 51-14 knockout in DV, I want it to get uglier.