Hello, folks! We are back with our weekly position group reviews as we dive into Clemson’s first ACC win of the season against Syracuse in Upstate New York on Saturday. The Tigers were able to bounce back from the loss against FSU and put together a strong performance. Let’s get into it and leave your thoughts in the comment section!
Quarterback - 9
The Tiger signal caller Cade Klubnik had his best performance of the season as he continues to build confidence and impress more in each outing. Klubnik was 23-37 for 263 yards with 2 TDs and no interceptions on the day. He made several impressive throws on the move on big 3rd downs and found ways to keep drives going. If you have watched any Clemson game the last two years, you have to love the way the young quarterback is taking command of the offense and becoming a leader. We are watching Klubnik become a star before our eyes.
Running Backs - 7
The running backs had a fairly subdued – for their standards – day at the office as the combination of Mafah and Shipley only combined for 104 yds. Mafah had the best run of the day in the 4th quarter when he busted loose on a counter play for a 32-yard touchdown. It probably could have been a TD from the 95-yard line he was in so much space. Mafah continued to lead in yards per carry as well, as he averaged 5.4 ypc as opposed to Shipley’s 3.4 ypc. The difference between the two seems to be vision and patience, as Shipley runs with his head down and bulldozes up the middle. Shipley is our best fighter on the team – I just wish he would run with his head up to see the holes as the plays develop.
Wide Receivers - 9
The wide outs were effective all day in the pass game as they found space in the Syracuse secondary and gave Klubnik options on key downs. “Third Down” Tyler Brown is by far the biggest playmaker at the wideout position and was able to haul in 9 catches for 153 yards through the air and add 23 yards on the ground. There were several 3rd downs where Brown popped up on the boundary and made a big catch on the sideline to keep the drive alive. Beaux Collins had a double move which left a Syracuse corner with his jock strap on the turf as he walked in a 47-yard touchdown. Stellato has that dawg in him. Once Antonio Williams returns from injury, this group will have several playmaking options for the first time in a while.
Tight Ends - 5
The tight ends had little to do on Saturday as Briningstool was the only TE to catch a pass. He ended with 3 catches for 5 yards and was responsible for the only turnover when he fumbled behind the line of scrimmage to setup Syracuse’s second touchdown of the day. Not much else to say on a quiet day for this group.
Offensive Line - 5
I thought the offensive line had their worst game of the year as they were matched up against an undersized front for Syracuse. The Orange run an odd front in a 3-3-5 defense and provide a lot of different blitz packages that confused some of the inexperienced players on the line. Mitchell Mayes, filling in for the injured Walker Parks, was responsible for at least two sacks and did not look confident all game. Redshirt junior Trent Howard made an appearance at the right guard spot but did not provide much more help than Mayes. There is a stat I look at called Line Yards per Rush which quantifies the number of yards an O-line is responsible for on any given run play. The Tiger O-line had their lowest of the season on Saturday with 2.3 LY/Att (3.5 LY/Att season average). This group is going to have to find ways to get creative in the run game and more consistent in pass blocking without Walker Parks for the rest of the year.
Offense - 7.0
The Clemson offense found ways to make plays in a hostile and noisy environment within the JMA Wireless Dome (stupid rebrands) on Saturday – something Clemson would have not been able to do the past two seasons. Cade Klubnik has found some confidence under Garrett Riley’s tutelage and has become the leader of this offense. With the emergence of true freshman Tyler Brown as a weapon, this offense has found life again.
One aspect of the offense that still needs cleaning up is the red zone efficiency. The Tigers have failed to score at least once in the red zone in every game this season, with Saturday being no different as the Tigers went for it on 4th down inside the Syracuse 5-yard line and were sacked. As it sits now, Clemson is 128th out of 133 teams in red zone scoring – abysmal.
The Tigers compiled a total of 389 yards – which is a little under the season average, but they made decisive plays in the game. When taking a look at the advanced metrics from Saturday, they had a lower EPA and Success Rate than their season average, but they did have a much larger Explosiveness score, which can be attributed to many of the big plays in the pass game. If this offense can stay consistent with creating explosive plays, this team will become a threat to any defense.
Defensive Line - 9
The defensive front for the Tigers had a dominant performance on Saturday as they were relentless in the pursuit of Syracuse QB Garrett Shrader. This was evident on the first drive of the game when the crafty quarterback scrambled for a first down, but defensive end Justin Mascoll provided a slobber knocker that jarred the ball loose for a fumble. Xavier Thomas recovered another fumble as well and almost took it to the house. Freshmen defensive end TJ Parker provided two sacks and was second on the team in tackles. The big DT Ruke Orhorhoro also had sack and was a bully up front along with Peter Woods and Tyler Davis. It was great to see the big names in this line play up to their pre-season expectation level.
Linebackers - 8
This game was a mixed bag for the linebacking corps. For Syracuse’s first scoring drive of the game, Trotter looked sluggish as he missed tackles and looked poor in pursuit as the Orange rattled off big gains. Coverage was a problem for Trotter all afternoon as he was guarding LeQuint Allen in man coverage for Syracuse’s second TD of the day. He also had a dropped interception when dropping into zone coverage. However, he did respond in a big way when he came up with an interception in the 4th quarter that proved to be the dagger for the Orange. Both him and Carter look good when pursuing in the backfield as they combined for 2 TFL and kept Shrader in check for the most part. They could improve in open field tackling but I am probably being picky.
Cornerbacks - 8
The cornerbacks played well this in week in the absence of Nate Wiggins as he is recovering from an injury he sustained against FSU. The corners took away space from Syracuse receivers on deep routes by pushing them towards the boundary. Syracuse attempted many deep balls with Jeadyn Lukas and Sheridan Jones in coverage, but they never had much success. Overall, a solid performance from this group who helped limit Syracuse to only 16 completions and 181 yards through the air.
Safeties - 8
The safeties played a similar game to the corners as they aided in limiting Syracuse through the air. The Orange did have two plays over 30 yards where Sherrod Covil Jr. and RJ Mickens were out of position. A positive takeaway from this group is they do a great job of keeping plays in front of them even though they can allow a big gain every now and then. They keep touchdowns from happening and give the defense another chance to make a stop.
Defense - 8.3
The Tiger defense put together a complete performance on Saturday as they limited the scoring opportunities for the Syracuse offense and found ways to come up with turnovers. Clemson was able to jump out to an early 14-point lead because of two big takeaways by the defense in the 1st quarter. I thought the defensive line had their best game in terms of getting to the quarterback as they were able to come away with 5 sacks on the afternoon. They had only aggregated 6 sacks through all of the first 4 games prior to Saturday. The pressure on the quarterback was relentless all game and contributed to getting key stops and returning the ball to the Tiger offense.
There is one drive the defense would like to have back when the Orange gashed the Tigers a couple of times on big plays for their first score of the game. The linebackers and safeties were out of position and honestly did not look interested in tackling in a couple of situations. If Goodwin can find a way to limit those types of series to a minimum, this defense will be tough to score on.
Special Teams - 6
The Tiger special teams unit gets their first score above 5 for the year as I thought they had their best game to this date. Jonathan Weitz was the field goal kicker for the second straight game – going 1-2 with a 42-yard miss and 38-yard make. I honestly thought the 42 yarder was in, so we are at least keeping the kicks within the same zip code as the uprights now. Swanson continued to punt the ball well for the second straight game as he pinned Syracuse inside their own 20-yard line 3 times. Overall, a solid performance for this unit who has struggled mightily so far this season.
Overall Team Performance - 7.4
The Tigers on Saturday were able to put together their first convincing win over a Power 5 opponent since the ACC championship game last season. The Carrier Dome has been a hostile environment in the past and Syracuse always finds ways to give the Tigers fits. I thought the team looked prepared for the challenge and they were focused on getting back to winning ways. One thing this team does have is resiliency, and I believe that comes from the leadership within the group.
The key to success against Syracuse is something I know Coach Swinney has been harping on in practice the last couple of weeks – win the turnover margin. The Tigers were able to mostly eliminate the crucial mistake that has been the killer in the first two losses this season and collect a few takeaways on the defensive side of the ball. The offense did have a turnover, but it miraculously did not end up in an immediate 7 points for the other team – although they did score later on that drive. It seems the Tigers will live and die by the turnover margin this season, and if they can continue to win in this area, it will be a recipe for success.
Coaching - 8
I have been asked several times now in the comments of my position group articles to rate the coaches’ performance after each game. I have been reluctant to do this because to be honest, I do not feel as adequate to judge coaches' performance because I have never coached a team, much less a college football team for a major Power 5 program. However, I am going to give the people what they want. You will see me mostly judge the gameplan on both sides of the ball and key decisions.
I thought the gameplan worked like a charm against the Orange on Saturday. One thing I thought Garrett Riley did a great job of was to continue to call the deep ball several times throughout the game. Syracuse was stacking the box and committing to stopping the run, which Riley countered by letting Cade loose and looking for our receivers on deep routes. This obviously paid off because we had a couple of big plays and pass interference calls that extended drives. In the future, I would like to see Riley get more creative in the run game now that we have lost interior lineman Walker Parks for the rest of the season.
Wes Goodwin had a good gameplan on the defensive side of ball as he committed to pressuring Shrader with blitzes all game. I never thought Shrader looked really comfortable which is a testament to Goodwin. One thing I would like to see more from the defense is the ability to limit opponents to field goals in the red zone instead of touchdowns. The great Clemson defenses we have seen had an uncanny ability to force field goals and make big goal line stands, which I have not seen this group do yet.
The only coaching decision I thought was questionable was the decision to go for it on 4th down at the Syracuse 5-yard line in the first half. Even with our kicking woes, I would have opted for a field goal.
Bonus Rating: Cade Klubnik’s Acting Ability - 10
If there are any Hollywood film producers reading this article and are looking for an actor in an upcoming film, I have your guy – Cade Klubnik. Klubnik’s incredible acting acumen was just what the Tigers ordered as he put on a display for the ages in an important 3rd down situation when he collapsed to the ground after a pretty weak headbutt from a Syracuse defender. The acting spectacle resulted in a personal foul and free first down for the Tigers to keep the drive alive. Maybe Klubnik has been watching LeBron play too much, or he is a big English Premier League fan. Nevertheless, Leonardo DiCaprio is going to be looking over his shoulder after that one.