This past Saturday was a roller coaster ride for our Tigers. Clemson found itself once again going back to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game after Syracuse fell to Pittsburgh early in the day. After a 1 year hiatus, Clemson is back atop the ACC Atlantic and looking to reassert its dominance over the conference as a whole as they prepare to face the perceived victor of the Coastal, UNC.
With UGA taking on Tennessee, and Bama facing a tough LSU team, it seemed inevitable that should Clemson take care of business against Notre Dame, they would position themselves well into the top 4 with only three home games against lesser opponents standing between them and an undefeated regular season. Everything was looking up for Clemson prior to kickoff.
Instead, they proceeded to lay an egg and get run out of the building against the Irish. It was one of the worst overall performances we’ve seen from the team in years. Every phase of the game had comical errors and miscues. It was frankly embarrassing and both the players and coaches need to take a LONG look in the mirror to try and figure out who and what they truly are.
Let’s see how the offense graded out: (Spoilers: Not well)
DJ did not play well in this game. Perhaps he was still gun-shy after being pulled against Syracuse but we were once again treated to the tentative and slow-reacting player that we saw last year. He was afraid to pull the trigger and took more than one bad sack from holding the ball too long. He had passes thrown off target and he didn’t seem to be reading the defense correctly. Some of this is due to the lack of production from the WR group, which we will get to, and a very poor offensive game plan.
It was encouraging to see him go back into the game after the disastrous series from Cade and put together drives that brought at least some points. We need DJ to return to where he was earlier in the year and we need it fast. We can probably just line up and win the next three games by running the ball, but that’s not going to win the ACC championship game or whatever bowl we go to.
Cade is just not ready yet. Putting him in against Syracuse was understandable because we needed a spark at the QB position where the rest of the offense was generally playing well and he wasn’t asked to do a lot. That was not the case against ND and putting him in when the coaches did was not a good decision. DJ wasn’t playing well but he was far from the sole reason the offense wasn’t working - that honor goes to the game plan and coaching staff.
Cade came in and did what he’s done in every game he’s played this year. He doesn’t trust his protection, is quick to leave the pocket, and puts the ball in jeopardy. His INT that lead to a TD essentially ended the game. Cade can be great but this was not the game he should have seen snaps in. It shows the staff was panicking at a time they shouldn’t have and they ended up putting the young player in a position where he couldn’t be successful.
The OL was a mixed bag once again. They gave up 4 sacks but DJ was holding the ball too long and the WRs were not getting separation. They gave DJ time to throw often enough to be successful, but again, the failure of DJ and the WRs to make plays meant it didn’t amount to anything. Blitz recognition and pick-up has been a struggle this year and that is on the QB and Putnam, who is starting at Center. When allowed to run, they opened some holes for Shipley and helped him average 5 yards a carry. Clemson should have done more of that in the 2nd half to at least slow the game down and try to protect the defense.
Shipley and Mafah did the best they could with what they were given. Clemson only ran the ball with the RBs fifteen times. Some of that is due to being down early but the Tigers were in a similar situation against Syracuse and still committed to running the ball and making sure Shipley in particular had over 20 rushes. Shipley ended the game averaging 5 yards a carry and for him to only have 12 rushing attempts is a failure by the coaching staff to help the struggling QB/WR combination. Clemson tried to get both RBs involved in the passing game to minimal success.
Notre Dame has a better run defense than Syracuse of course, but given the outcome, it’s impossible to not think about what could have happened had we continued to pound the rock. At the very least Clemson would have had 2 fewer INTs, the pick 6 wouldn’t have occurred, and it could have potentially kept the game close until DJ got his head on straight.
Davis Allen lead the team in both receptions and yards (7 for 60). He has been consistently excellent this year. Brinningstool was once again absent from making an impact on the game and I’m curious as to why. Aside from the RBs, the TEs are the only other position group that looked somewhat competent in this game. The middle of the field behind the blitzes was open and it was expected that the TEs would have a big impact on this game. That we didn’t attack with them early and often is a failure of the scheme.
This position is so far from the glory days of WRU that it’s almost depressing. Understand that at this point in the season the best receiving threats we have are our TEs and a true freshman in Antonio Williams, which is unacceptable. These WRs can’t create space - Notre Dame’s CBs were more physical and stuck to them like glue. Some of those sacks against DJ were coverage sacks due to having nowhere to go with the ball and when he had a chance, he lacked the faith that the WR would make a play, so he didn’t throw it.
Ngata caught a meaningless TD at the end of the game but prior to that was MIA. He disappears far too much in important games and was a miss on the recruiting trail. Beaux Collins started the game with back-to-back holding calls (though the 2nd was pretty weak), putting Clemson behind the chains and leading directly to the blocked punt for a TD. EJ Williams has all but disappeared from the team. Brannon Spector makes no impact when he is on the field.
The only cause for optimism at this position is Adam Randall coming off of a significant knee injury and Antonio Williams who is without a doubt the best WR on the team. Both of these players are true freshmen and should not have to be as heavily relied upon as they are. Thankfully the future is bright for both players but it’s a sad state of affairs that this is what the WR room has been reduced to.
I’m glad Dabo took full responsibility for this game because the failure falls squarely on both him and the offensive staff. This team was not ready to play which is especially baffling coming off an open date. The team had 2 weeks to prepare and the offensive game plan seemed to amount to “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks!” There was no commitment to run the ball even when it was working and there were no adjustments made to help DJ attack the defense ND was running. Pulling DJ for Cade and putting the freshman in such a precarious position showed desperation.
This is the worst performance from the staff this year and looked more like the early 2021 Clemson Tigers that had no discernable offensive identity until they decided to run the ball, come what may. This is the mindset we need for the next three weeks until DJ and the WRs find their chemistry and rhythm again.
The season is not over by any stretch of the imagination. All of our preseason goals are still on the table and we’ve actually already accomplished two of them (Win the opener, win the Division). We have seen great Clemson teams lose games and use them as motivation to end the year strong and win the conference (2016, 2017, and 2020). We’re going to learn a lot about both this team and this coaching staff in the next few weeks. Hopefully, they have the same mental fortitude that those past Clemson teams did and return to form.
What Grade do you give the Clemson Offense against ND?
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