I’ll start on the most positive note possible.
Everything is still ahead for this team. Everything.
Go undefeated and you have the best loss on your resume of any team in the country—the first game of the season, at a neutral stadium, top 5 matchup. The rest of Clemson’s schedule is super charmin soft (UConn lost to Holy Cross, yikes), but the SEC probably gets two teams, Ohio State, and then you need to beat out Oklahoma/Texas or maybe Notre Dame. When the playoff expands, this won’t even be a big deal (how crazy is that...).
Despite everything that went wrong, Clemson had a chance to punch it in from the 5 yard line and needed just a 4th down conversion to tie the game. Clemson isn’t that far away from beating Georgia.
If you don’t want to read something critical—this ain’t the post for you...
Was that a Mad Scientist, Tommy Bowden era offense, or a Tommy West era offense?
We need to quickly give UGA credit for their top notch defensive effort. That will be one of, if not the best, rush defenses in the country. In some ways, I can try and trick myself into being happy about this loss, in a flush the impurities from the system kind of way. This game makes startlingly clear the deficiencies that have crept into this program that manifested in the loss to Ohio State and now to Georgia. This wasn’t a loss to put squarely on DJ or the Oline or Elliott and the offensive braintrust (although I will definitely point out those three major problems)—this was also a program loss. The program needs to check its ego and make some changes to remain at the top of college football.
Going into the game I posted that I thought the interior offensive line would struggle and it would present problems for DJ, who isn’t the most mobile QB and looked like he was wearing cement blocks on his feet for much of the night. I didn’t think there would be much of a running game (2 yards!), but UGA didn’t get much pressure on the QB last year or get many sacks and they replaced their entire secondary. But it was much worse than I thought.
It was a problem across all position groups. Wide receivers didn’t get separation and showed no speed at all. Guys were running the wrong routes (or the same route). Running backs were going down on first contact, not blocking. QB was missing reads, not going through progressions, wasn’t stepping up in the pocket, wasn’t using his legs or escaping, wasn’t interested in running at all! TEs were getting manhandled at the point of attack, dropped balls, and didn’t get open. Bockhorst was having trouble snapping, McFadden wasn’t great at LT, Tate wasn’t ready, Putnam not strong enough, etc. It was a cluster where everyone deserves blame (but more so the offensive coaches).
- Roster Management—you didn’t think I was going to let this opportunity to beat the dead horse go by, right? Clemson is currently operating with something like 8 walk-ons on scholarship. EIGHT. It is the responsibility of the headman to get the team as close to full capacity with P5 scholarship players as possible. Covid has made that tricky but in the TRANSFER ERA you really shouldn’t have a class under 20. If you aren’t going to do that (and I get it, you want one player in and one player out and don’t want to plan for attrition)—there is a solution. You can fill in the gaps with top level talent from the transfer portal.
I’m not saying you need more than 3-5 players a year, and I would only want a plug and play player who could challenge for immediate playing time (and plenty of really good players reached out to Clemson this past season). If you have a hole on the roster you are putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage by ignoring the portal (and NO putting Danny P on the case is not a solution). Now, Dabo hates this and will not do it, won’t adapt, and has even (to his credit) tried to make it a differentiating point to the program in recruiting (come to Clemson—we won’t replace you!). Every team in the P5 is embracing transfers—every team. Bama, Ohio State, UGA, Oklahoma—they all do it and don’t lose their culture or the ability to win. Bama even took an elite receiver from Ohio State! Transfers are no longer cancers that destroy a locker room—this is the regular order of college football.
Would Clemson have been better if they added Vol turned Bama LB Henry To’oto’o or pursued UGA TE Brock Bowers instead of being ‘full’ (and Bowers was interested in Clemson—he was my top TE last year if you remember)? Did you know Clemson is considering taking zero DTs this class and staying with only two Olineman? Why—because the roster is apparently ‘full’ although year in and year out there are plenty of walk-on scholarships doled out. Hubris.
Would it change things all that much if we went around telling recruits we are the team in college football that uses the transfer portal the LEAST and not shoot ourselves in the foot for no reason by never taking a transfer? I’ll stop for now but Clemson really needs to adapt here...
2. Stagnant Offensive scheme
Chad Morris brought the smashmouth HUNH to Clemson. We were all very grateful. He brought tempo, he brought a mobile QB, and he took chances and shots down the field. ScElliott took the reigns and with generational talent at QB (Deshaun Watson) and the maturation of #WRU, won a championship. It didn’t work out with Kelly B, but the generational talent of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne led Clemson to another title and a blowout of Bama.
But defenses started to catch up. The question that kept creeping in here at STS was whether or not Elliott could continue to innovate and push the offense forward. ScElliott used DW and the fake pitch toss to embarrass Ohio State and many thought that Elliott was actually holding back his cards and the evil genius would come out in the big games and playoffs. We have found out that narrative was wrong (the fake toss, for ex, was a play Elliott found but kind of stumbled into success with). In recent years the middle of the field doesn’t exist, no tempo, and no offensive identity.
The tough question is whether or not Elliott has been coasting by with a mediocre scheme but really good QB and RB talent. I really thought we would see a refreshed scheme after the beat down from Ohio State, but two rushing yards later after rushing for nothing against Ohio State? Perhaps the Oline just couldn’t hold up against UGA and the progress is still coming but I saw one offensive play where I said, that looks creative—that was it (and it was the misdirection handoff to Ross and I was scratching my head wondering why that went to Ross when he doesn’t have the speed to run that effectively). Things need to change and fast.
I thought going into the game that without Pickens, Clemson could handle JT Daniels and control UGA, but that they would get some yards on the ground. I didn’t see only giving up 3 points. And that was done without two of the starters and Tyler Davis, perhaps your most important player against UGA. Well done Brent Venables.
My only real gripes are some questionable personnel decisions. First on the UGA FG drive there were some subs that let UGA march down the field. I know we were trying to keep everyone fresh but in such a close game it cost us. If Justin Mascoll is going to be put on skates by a tight end ten yards down the field or consistently blown up, I’m not sure what he is showing in practice. The second (and final) gripe is the DE choice at the most critical moment of the game. You have to stop the run and get the ball back and you go with Mascoll and Henry who give up contain and first downs and you lose the game. Not sure what Lemanski Hall (or whoever put them in) was thinking. Poor, inexperienced personnel decisions.
Everything else was a freaking masterpiece. I’m not sure how good UGA really is on offense, to be clear, but Clemson contained them while the offense did nothing but give up a pick six. Spector’s interception that went minus 9 yards for the offense might have been the most depressing moment in a night of depressing moments.
But these are positives!
- Andrew Mukuba. What a debut. Dabo was waffling about taking another DB and Mukuba who he hadn’t met and who turns out to be your starting Safety day one? Yes—he started at Safety. I said before the game “One to tuck in the back pocket. Mukuba. Yes, Carter will be great but Mukuba might be surprise value player. Marcus Tate on offense is the newcomer to watch. If Bock is center(which will happen), then Tate w/big role in run game.” Mukuba was solid. In position, came up in run support, and didn’t bust. He is going to play a lot more because Zanders came in for a couple plays and tackled with his shoulder and unfortunately seemed to reinjure the same shoulder. Mukuba was ready for the moment, despite not being on campus all that long.
- Booth. He locked down his side of the field. He was lightning fast in run support, breaking on the ball in the flat. You almost want him on the field side because he is so good in the open field but he was a first rounder against UGA. You didn’t hear his name all that much, but that was because Daniels wanted nothing to do with his side of the field.
- Goodrich played well overall too. He made a good number of tackles and didn’t get burned. It was the most physical I have seen him play. He can still do more, but he held his own. Jones came in and had a bad PI and Davis was getting pushed around too much.
- I hope Bresee is alright. After the injury, he came back in the game but it seems to be a shoulder injury. At moments he was dominant and Clemson will need his presence. Myles Murphy also showed up, as did Xavier Thomas.
- Despite having to play Payton Page and Jefferies, the DT position was able to hold its own for much of the game. UGA lost their Guard Ratledge, which helped but I liked what I saw from Tre Williams and Ruke. Williams jumps out of his gap assignment at times, but he is disruptive. Ruke got pushed around some but showed he belonged.
- LBs filled gaps and covered pretty well. UGA found success underneath with the TE Bowers and they tried to target the LBs but Spector got the interception and they weren’t a liability like in the past.
- Special teams were outstanding. 12th year punter Spiers played really well and Potter made his kicks. I don’t hate Will Taylor returning punts, showed some burst—he absolutely got hit late out of bounds...(sec refs!).
- Will Shipley broke a tackle and showed he could be a potential weapon.
- Dixon goes into the game and is like—’A’ gap run...lolololol...I’m bouncing this for the biggest run of the night. Veteran move (ie anticipating the oline sucking...).
- Ngata was the only WR doing anything. Good to see him play an entire game healthy and not taking himself out.
SOME NOT SO GOOD
I’ve said a bunch above but want to hit a few major points:
- Do we even have RPOs in our offense anymore?? Why did that get taken out almost completely? Were we afraid to run DJ because we haven’t recruited a backup QB (I understand that but still, he has zero interest in scrambling or fighting for any yards).
- The playcalling at some of the most crucial points in the game was bad. Not anticipating the blitz, not using DJ’s legs (they must just be protecting him), and a lack of execution.
- I’m not sure what the gameplan was even remotely. This offense has ZERO identity. I see interior runs that never work, some slow developing screen plays that don’t work, no one ever getting open, and no creativity.
- Very first play of the game, no identification of the blitzing LB who runs free up the middle. Second play, DJ has time (could have hit Shipley on a wheel) but throws it into Dlineman. Third play, three man rush, and McFadden gets his lunch stolen by UGA’s Smith—no one open. Just sloppy execution all night long.
- If you watch Bama last year, this year, or Sark at Texas, the scheme is opening up space for playmakers all over the field. Part of that is an offensive line that gives the QB time and allows WRs to run routes, but it is easy football, easy reads.
- The offense got bailed out a few times with questionable PI calls on UGA. #WRU can’t get open. This has been a reoccurring theme for the past couple of years. Not enough speed on the field, the scheme is too predictable (and if the defense is ‘stacking the box’ and ‘taking away the run’ it should be man to man with favorable matchups everywhere or the middle of the field wide open, no?).
- I’ve held off on judgment with Pace. I wasn’t high on his recruitment, and have just held my tongue as he was anointed as the next great back and Mellusi was passed over. I’m still going to wait but I’m not sure why he started at this point (granted, no one was going to get many yards in that game).
- The offensive line, specifically the interior of the offensive line, continues to struggle. Bock is the best bet at Center, but it wasn’t pretty. Tchio came in and had some good snaps as Tate started to struggle more and more (he still needs to play, however).
- This isn’t going to be popular but Justyn Ross needs to play harder. Folks forget he had a rough 2019/Sophomore season with some dropped balls and poor body language at times. He needs to help out DJ and always fight through for balls. He gave up on the interception and was throwing up his hands too much for an alpha talent.
- Braden Galloway drops one of the most crucial balls of the game. Just can’t happen. He isn’t physical enough in the run game and doesn’t have the big game mentality. This isn’t the first time he couldn’t make a key catch. But Davis Allen can’t hold a block on a CB that would have sprung Frank Ladsen for a long gain, if not a score. Frustrating lack of production and blocking from TEs (a continual theme).
- Not exactly fair to single out a player on defense but this is what I am talking about with Mascoll:
JAMAREE pic.twitter.com/4WP900vUwU— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) September 5, 2021
- DJ struggled but the season rests on his confidence and ability to progress. There is no one behind him and no one who is going to take over (yeah, Puma is not playing and even if he was healthy he isn’t ready). Got to build him back up these next three weeks.