Seriously y’all, what happened?
It’s like I have a standing date with a reoccurring nightmare every Saturday. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Hiring Garrett Riley, the reigning Broyles award winner fresh off a trip to the CFP Final was supposed to make football fun again. I also write for Kansas State and did an in-depth preview of the TCU offense for the Big 12 Championship Game. It was an exciting offense to break down, and it looked like Clemson had the personnel to run it.
Boy I was wrong.
Clemson sitting at 4-3 with one of the most frustrating offenses in the history of college football. They dominate inside the 20’s and...then...well...I’m not sure there’s a word in the English language that conveys the horror of Clemson’s red zone offense. I’m sure the Germans have something sufficiently descriptive but I promised my Clemson German teacher I’d never use the German language again if he let me graduate.
In an effort to suss out where I went wrong in my evaluation of Clemson’s offensive potential this season, I went back to TCU. Riley had it figured out with the Horned Frogs, surely Clemson has sufficient talent to make it happen as well?
My first mistake was over estimating Clemson’s talent. TCU was a 3 man offense last season. Max Duggan was the tough as nails super senior quarterback, Keondre Miller was the workhorse running back with breakaway speed. and Quentin Johnston was the stud boundary receiver in the vein of Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins.
A big part of the problem looks like this:
Max Duggan > Cade Klubnik
Quentin Johnston > Beaux Collins
Keontae Miller > Will Shipley
TCU Offensive Line > Clemson Offensive Line
It’s tough to decide if there is a bigger gap between Duggan and Klubnik or Johnston and Collins. Johnston is the better player, but Duggan made the TCU offense work. I thought Cade would provide a reasonable facsimile of Duggan’s dual threat ability, but I didn’t take one thing into consideration.
Max Duggan is infinitley tougher than Cade. They’re about the same size. TCU listed Max at 6’2”, 210 and Cade is listed at 6’2”, 205, but Duggan is missing the self preservation section of his brain, while Cade’s is highly evolved. Riley solved many of his goal line and short yardage issues by putting the ball in Duggan’s hands and letting him to launch his body forward. That’s simply not an option with Cade. QB power and the QB sneak is in Riley’s playbook, but he doesn’t run them at Clemson. That was a huge part of his short yardage package at TCU.
Even more than short yardage running, what separates Cade from Duggan is wide receiver talent. There is no comparison between Quentin Johnston and Beaux Collins. Granted, Collins isn’t the #1 receiver for Clemson, but last season Riley leaned heavily on the 6’4”, 215 pound Johnston on the outside. The Tigers made their bones throwing it down the field to 6’3” - 6’4” frisbee catching dogs in the past, but haven’t had a true boundary receiver since Sophomore Justyn Ross. TCU’s run game allowed Riley to get Johnston in one-on-one coverage, and Johnston turned 50/50 balls into 90/10 balls. All Max had to do was launch it down the field and he had a shot at making a big play. Beaux’s the only player close on Clemson’s roster, and contested deep shots are more like 30/70 weighted towards the defense when they’re aimed at him. Remember the second play of the game against Miami, instead of Collins dropping the ball and getting 15 yards for interference; Johnston goes up, gets the ball and keeps running. Playing quarterback is much easier when your receivers do some of the work for you.
The closest position group, talent-wise, is running back, but Miller has the extra gear both Shipley and Mafah don’t possess. When he breaks away, he’s gone. When Clemson backs break away, they immediately start looking behind them because they know they’re getting walked down from behind. One way to fix red zone issues is scoring from outside the red zone. How many times have Clemson backs been tackled from behind inside the 5? Miller averaged 6.2 yards a carry on 224 carries and teammate Emari Demarcado averaged 5.6 yards on 121 carries. Throw in Duggan’s 3.1 yards per carry average (sacks make it impossible to judge a QBs running ability) and 9 touchdowns and together TCU’s 3 headed running monster put up 2,503 yards on 482 carries for a robust 5.2 yards a carry and 32 touchdowns.
This season, through 8 games, Shipley, Klubnik and Mafah have 942 rushing yards on 233 carries, averaging 4 yards a tote, and have put the ball in the end zone 10 times. I’m not a huge “on pace” guy, but Clemson’s offense is on pace to rush for 1884 yards, on 466 carries, score 20 touchdowns this season. The “dirt raid” hasn’t lived up to expectations and I don’t think it’s because Miller is significantly better than Mafah or Shipley. Instead, Miller had a significantly better line than the Clemson backs and just a touch more speed.
Riley had better, more experienced players, at key spots with TCU. He’s dealing with over-hyped, under developed players at Clemson, and it shows on the box score. When the going got tough at TCU, Riley leaned on Duggan to make plays with his legs and arm. When the going gets tough at Clemson, Riley has to hope his quarterback stops running backwards long enough to get the ball over the line of scrimmage.
I thought it would be interesting to compare 2022 TCU’s Big 3 and 2023 Clemson’s Big 3. The comparison answered, “it’s tough to decide if there is a bigger gap between Duggan and Klubnik or Johnston and Collins.”
After looking at the stats, it’s clear that the Johnston and Collins shouldn’t even be in the same conversation, and that’s one of the major reasons (as well as terrible offensive line play) the Clemson offense lacks juice on the outside. Plug an actual boundary receiver into this offense, and it looks more like what TCU put on the field in 2022 and less like a straight to video college football version of The Bad News Bears.
Duggan, Miller, and Johnston
#13 TCU - 43 - #8 Oklahoma State - 40 - 2 OTs
Duggan - 23/40 - 286 Yards - 2 TDs - 11 Carries - 57 Yards - TD
Miller - 104 Yards - 22 attempts - 2 TDs.
Johnston - 8 receptions - 180 yards - 1 TD.
Oklahoma State took a 24 - 13 into halftime before TCU’s big 3 roared back in the second half. Duggan hung tough and made plays, Miller broke a couple big runs, and Johnston was uncoverable. Duggan, Miller and Johnston accounted for 6 touchdowns in this game.
When things get tough, teams that can rely on their star players to play like stars tend to win the day. TCU’s “big 3” showed up and showed out when the spotlight was at its brightest last season.
#18 Texas - 10 - #4 TCU - 17
Duggan - 19/29 - 124 Yards - 1 TD - 10 carries - -41 yards
Miller - 21 carries, 138 Yards - 1 TD
Quentin Johnston - 3 Receptions - 66 Yards - 1 TD
Two solid offenses got into a defensive struggle in this one. TCU scored two touchdowns. The first came on a 75 yard touchdown by Miller in the 3rd quarter. That was followed by a 31 yard Johnston touchdown reception. Again, when things got tough for the Horned Frog, Lincoln Riley knew who was getting the ball. I don’t see that at Clemson.
#3 TCU - 28 - #13 Kansas State - 31 - 1 OT
Duggan - 18/36 - 251 yards - 1 TD - 1 INT - 15 Carries - 110 yards - 1 TD
Miller - 17 carries - 83 yards - 1 TD
Quentin Johnston - 4 receptions - 139 Yards
The Horned Frogs lost the Big 12 Championship, but Max Duggan left it all on the field. After struggling to get the passing game going outside of deep shots to Johnston, Duggan tightened up his chin strap, bit down on his mouth guard, and started running the ball. The Wildcats beat him up in this one, but even though he was slow getting up on occasion, he always got up.
They didn’t win this one, but they did enough to ensure a trip to the CFP, and it was all on their core group of stars.
#3 TCU - 51 - #2 Michigan - 45
Duggan - 14/29 - 225 yards, 2 TDs - 2 INTs - 15 Carries - 57 Yards - 2 TDs
Miller - 8 carries, 57 yards (injured early in the game)
Demercado - 17 carries - 150 Yards - 1 TD (in relief of Miller)
Johnston - 6 Receptions - 163 Yards - 1 TD
The Horned Frogs needed to crack 50 against a supposed stout Wolverine defense and managed exactly that, putting up 51 despite Miller going down after 8 carries. The Horn Frog’s back-up running back stepped up and contributed a buck fifty on the ground to help push TCU into the National Championship game on the strength of Garrett Riley’s offense.
I’m not sure this Clemson team puts up more than 14 points against the same Michigan defense.
First off, it’s tough to figure out Clemson’s “big 3”. I went with Klubnik, Shipley, and Collins because they best replicate what Riley had at TCU.
#9 Clemson - 7 @ Duke - 28
Cade Klubnik - 27/43 - 209 Yards - 1 TD - 1 INT - 12 Carries - 34 Yards - 0 TDs
Will Shipley - 16 carries - 114 Yards - 0 TDs - 6 Receptions - 29 Yards - 1 TD
Beaux Collins - 5 Receptions - 50 Yards - 0 TDs
Clemson’s “Big 3” put up some empty stats in the opener, but only contributed 7 points to the cause. Contrast that to TCU in one of their “big games”. Even against Texas, where they only scored 17 points, their “Big 3” put up 14 points. Shipley’s stat line looks nice, but only accounted for 7 points.
Klubnik wasn’t particularly accurate and couldn’t break anything deep in the passing game or use his alleged 21 MPH speed to break a big run. To compound matters, he coughed up the ball twice.
Finally Beaux Collins caught 5, 10 yard passes and immediately fell down. He was fine before and during the catch, but gave Clemson nothing afterwards.
Clemson - 24 - #4 Florida State - 31 - 1 OT
Cade Klubnik - 25/38 - 283 Yards - 1 TD - 13 Carries - 10 Yards - 1 TD
Will Shipley - 18 Carries - 67 Yards - 1 TD - 4 Receptions - 29 Yards - 1 TD
Beaux Collins - 4 Receptions - 29 Yards
Not a bad game from the Clemson offense but two issues kept them out of the win column. First, Cade matched his two touchdowns with 2 turnovers, including a scoop and score by the Noles. Collins provided nothing in the deep passing game. He had a long of 12 yards. Freshman Tyler Brown once again outshone the veteran receiver, putting up 5 receptions for 84 yards, but couldn’t find the end zone either.
Clemson - 31 @ Syracuse - 14
Cade Klubnik - 23/37 - 263 Yards - 2 TDs - 8 carries - -1 yards
Will Shipley - 18 Carries - 61 Yards - 1 TD - 2 Receptions - 0 yards
Beaux Collins - 2 Receptions - 63 Yards - 1 TD
This is a little weird because I’ve got Collins as the #1 receiver, but freshman Tyler Brown went of for 9 catches and 153 yards in this one. Still Collins comes through with a touchdown and an explosive play (47 yards) in this one (granted he was wide open, but did run a nice double move).
Shipley couldn’t get going most of the day, only averaging 3.4 yards a carry, but he managed to get into the end zone and that’s how football is scored!
This was also Cade’s best passing game against a team with a pulse. He made a play in the red zone on a scramble to get Stellato a touchdown and hit Collins in stride for the early wide open touchdown. He still didn’t run much, but kept the chains moving, allowing Clemson to dominate what looked like a tough game on paper.
I thought this game would be the blueprint for Clemson moving forward.
It was not.
Clemson 20 - @ Miami - 28 - 2 OTs
Cade Klubnik - 314 Yards - 2 TD’s - 1 INT - 14 Carries - -27 Yards
Will Shipley - 15 carries - 44 Yards - 0 Receptions
Beaux Collins - 2 Receptions - 29 Yards
Dirt raid my ass. The running game was awful against Miami. 34 carries for 31 yards (granted the sacks thing hurts) is comically bad. Shipley averaged 2.9 yards a carry, Mafah averaged 2.8. Klubnik was running for his life (mostly backwards) all game, and then decided to go rouge on 4th down in overtime and keep the ball on of going with the designed hand-off. Turns out he’s not in high school anymore and the guy chasing him wasn’t a 16 year old with pimples and a learners permit. We all know how that play ended.
Clemson’s offensive line is trash. You know what, I take that back trash can be useful. If you burn it, you create heat. I would like to make a formal apology to trash for comparing it with Clemson’s offensive line. A line that paved the way for 31 rushing yards and allowed 5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss is significantly worse than trash.
Despite bad offensive line play, Shipley brought nothing to the table other than his goal line fumble that took 6 off the board for the Tigers. It was another game where he spent most of the game running directly into the back of his blockers. Whenever Riley wants to slow down Clemson’s momentum, he follows a big play up with a Shipley 2 yard run on first down. That might be the most reliable play in Clemson’s arsenal this year. Granted, it’s awful and makes me say swear words in front of my child, but reliable none-the-less.
Collins was a non-factor as well. Riley designed an early shot play for him, got the match-up he wanted, and Collins got out muscled by the defensive back (should have been PI, and would have been if Collins worked harder for the ball) and couldn’t bring in the pass despite getting his hands on the ball. It’s a catch Quentin Johnston makes 8/10 times and a catch Beaux makes 2/10 times.
Hit that pass, get the early momentum and maybe things look different for the Tigers.
Let’s Do the Math
Max Duggan vs 4 Ranked Opponents
Yards - 886
Passing TDs - 5
Interceptions - 3
Rushing Yards - 183
Rushing Touchdowns - 4
Fumbles Lost - 1
Cade Klubnik vs 1 Ranked and 3 Unranked Opponents
Yards - 1069
Passing TDs - 6
Interceptions - 2
Rushing Yards - 16
Rushing Touchdowns - 2
Fumbles Lost - 2
I was surprised to see how closely these two match-up in terms of production. Cade’s got the passing yards, touchdown, and interception edge over Duggan. Max comes back in the running game, doubling up Cade in touchdowns and coughing the ball up one less time.
Will Shipley vs 1 Ranked and 3 Unranked Opponents
Yards - 1069
Carries - 68
Yards - 286
YP/C - 4.2
Touchdowns - 3
Long - 21
Receptions - 12
Yards - 67
Touchdowns - 4
Keandre Miller vs 4 Ranked Opponents
Carries - 68
Yards - 381
Y/PC - 5.6
Touchdowns - 5
Long - 75 Yards
Receptions - 5
Yards - 36
TDs - 0
This worked out like I expected. Miller is the better runner and Shipley is better as a receiver out of the backfield. Keep in mind, Miller is a significantly better runner. Miller missed most of the Michigan game. His backup put up 150 yards. You’ve got to think Miller has similar success and add another 100 yards and 10-15 carries to his total.
Still, in terms of total touchdowns, Shipley is up 7 to 5. Miller is more efficient and more explosive, but Shipley finds the end zone both through the air and on the ground. I like Miller’s explosive running more than Shipley’s steady catching in Miller’s offense, but there’s not a huge gap between these two in terms of production.
Receptions - 13
Yards - 171
Yards Per Reception - 13
Yards Per Game - 42
Touchdowns - 2
Top Clemson Receiver in Game
Receptions - 26
Yards - 419
Yards Per Reception - 16
Yards Per Game - 104
Touchdowns - 2
Receptions - 21
Yards - 548
Yards Per Receptions - 26
Yards Per Game - 137
Touchdowns - 3
I think this answers the question.
While quarterback and running back are similar between 2022 TCU and 2023 Clemson, there is a huge gap between Quentin Johnston and Beaux Collins. Since Collins looks more like a #1 boundary receiver than but doesn’t play like a #1 boundary receiver I went ahead a gave y’all the leading receiver for all 4 games (Williams, Brown, Brown, Bringingstool) and even that group doesn’t stand up to Johnston last season.
It’s wild to see the Tigers lacking at wide receiver after Dabo built his early program around the wide receiver position. Clemson can’t replicate TCUs offense from last year, in part, because they’ve got nothing at the boundary receiver position. Duggan was able to shot-put balls to Johnston and then sit back and watch him work. Cade doesn’t have that luxury.
Collins struggles with contested catches, and struggles even more after the catch. Cole Turner was supposed to provide down field ability, but he didn’t make it through the Florida Atlantic game and is out for the season. In the one game he was healthy for, he had 2 catches for 20 yards against Duke. I thought Adam Randall might step up and be “that dude” but I was once again suckered by a certain Mr. Christopher Swinney into thinking he was elite. I haven’t seen anything to indicate he’s much more than 3rd or 4th option. Hopefully he pulls a Cornell Powell and figures things out later in his career, because Clemson could really use what he (on theory) offers (fast and physical).
As it stands now,
TCU vs 4 Ranked Opponents
Points - 139
Clemson vs 1 Ranked and 3 Unranked Opponents
Points - 82
TCU’s Garrett Riley offense has a 57 point lead on the Tigers, and have a significantly harder strength of schedule. The Horned Frogs failed to score more than 20 points in 3 out of 16 games and were 2-1 in those games. Clemson has failed to score more than 20 points in 3 out of 7 games so far this season. They’re 1-2 in those games.
One of two things must be true.
Garrett Riley made a deal with the devil to make the CFP Championship and doesn’t know how to run an offense
Clemson’s personnel doesn’t fit with his offense.
I’ll take the second proposition.
Specifically, Clemson lacks the physical boundary receiver capable of making contested catches down the field. Duggan didn’t throw for a ton of yards but when he completed passes in big games, they went to Johnston, and they went a long way. Whenever TCU needed a play in the passing game, Riley would dial up a deep shot, and Johnston would find a way to get on the end of it, regardless of the coverage.
Who does Cade look to for a big play?
Shipley only goes up to 4th gear and leads the nation in getting tackled by the last defender (I made that stat up). Collins doesn’t reliably win jump balls and he’s not getting you anything after the catch unless he’s wide open. That leaves Cade throwing to his collection of slot receivers. A much tougher job than chucking it deep. I’m hopeful that Bringingstool steps up after the Miami game and becomes the physical down field threat Riley needs to make this things work, but he’s not providing much after the catch either. I do think he’s better at attacking the ball (small sample size) in the air than Collins, or at least gives more consistent effort.
Sometimes football is simple. Garrett Riley needs a top level receiver to make this work (he had current K.C. Chief Rashee Rice at SMU) and he doesn’t have that this year. He’s got a few young guys with solid potential (Tyler Brown, Antonio Williams) but they’re not consistent and Williams gets hurt every time he steps on the field, but outside of that, a bunch of meh.
Riley has to figure out a way to generate explosive plays without an explosive running back or a #1 receiver. He has to figure out how to get the ball in the end zone with a frail quarterback and the softest offensive line in my Clemson viewing history. Add a premier boundary receiver like 5* 2024 recruit Bryant Wesco to the mix, and maybe the Tigers will have something in 2024.
Until then, we’ve got another 5 games (and a possible bonus 6th game if Clemson can figure out a way to win 3 more games) to suffer through. As a Clemson fan this feels weird to say, but I’m sorta tired of watching this team. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still going to watch, but outside of the Syracuse game, it’s been a painful, frustrating slog.