Hello, folks! We are back with our weekly look at position reviews as we peer into the Tigers’ 31-24 loss at the hands of Florida State. Death Valley was at its best Saturday afternoon, but it was not enough to push the Tigers over the line in the biggest matchup in ACC football. Let’s get into it, and please comment and let me know your thoughts as well!
Quarterback - 8
Cade Klubnik is starting to come into his own as he continues his first season at the helm of the Clemson and Garrett Riley offense. He had arguably his best game of the season, able to manipulate the FSU secondary with his eyes and look confident making big throws. His final stat line was 28-38 for 283 yards and 1 TD while also adding another TD on the ground. I thought his pocket awareness was good throughout the day as well, except for the sack and fumble that led to the scoop and score for FSU – arguably the biggest play in the game. The kid keeps getting back up though and responds well to adversity. Klubnik has made huge strides since the Duke game, and if he continues to play at the level he played against FSU, we are in good shape at the QB position for the first time in a while.
Running Backs - 7
The Tigers were able to run for 146 yards on the ground against a good FSU defensive front, who is probably better known for their dominant pass rush. Mafah and Shipley were the usual suspects again with Mafah rushing for 69 yards on 10 carries and Shipley with 67 on 18 carries. Shipley was a weapon in the pass game too with 4 catches for 38 yards and a TD that put the Tigers up 17-7 late in the first half. Mafah was able to reel off a huge 46-yard run in the second half to put the Tigers in great position to potentially go up two scores. Mafah is maybe the culprit in pass pro for the FSU scoop and score – we know that pass pro is a weakness of his. This group is missing a speedster who is able to pull away from defenders. If we had that player in this group, you may have had a different outcome in the game.
Wide Receivers - 8
The wide receiver corps was more or less running free for most of the day as they were able to find success against the FSU defense. Garrett Riley has been able to scheme receivers open, and Cade just has to make the right decision to find the open man. True freshman Tyler Brown has really shown he can be a huge weapon in this offense; he had 5 catches for 84 yards and one huge diving 28-yard catch over the middle that set up the first touchdown. Sophomore Troy Stellato surprised with 4 catches for 41 yards and showed some physicality for his size while having his best day as a Tiger. Both Beaux Collins and Adam Randall had highlight grabs. Not having Antonio Williams hurt some of the explosiveness, but I thought this group performed well in his absence. Overall, no real complaints from this group on Saturday that is benefitting from a Garret Riley-led scheme.
Tight Ends - 7
The tight ends found some success in the passing game this week with Jake Briningstool becoming a reliable target for Cade Klubnik. Briningstool was second on the team in yards with 3 catches for 48 yards, and he had a huge 33-yard grab on a wheel route that was one of the biggest plays on the day for the Tigers. Sage Ennis was important on the QB sneak as well as he helped Cade into the endzone. This group has done well keeping the physicality on the edge in the quick game. I expect the TEs and especially Briningstool to have a growing role in this offense.
Offensive Line - 6
The offense line had a tough day matched up against a very talented Florida State defensive front. The Tigers were able to manage 3.6 yds per carry in the run game, which was lower than their 5.7 yards per carry average coming into the game. Walker Parks will be missed in this department as it looks like the starting right guard will be out for the year with Mitchell Mayes filling in. I thought the line did better than expected pass blocking against Jared Verse and crew, generally giving Cade enough time to make throws. The key sacks and pressures came mostly on delayed blitzes when Cade should be getting rid of the ball or a back should be picking it up. I would have liked to see more holes open up in the run game against a D-line that was averaging 2.04 yards before contact – which was 69th in the nation coming into the game. On the day, this group deserves a 6.
Offense - 7.4
There has been much said about the Clemson offense so far this season, but I believe the game on Saturday was their best and most encouraging so far. Just as a reminder, this offense is led by a new offensive coordinator, a sophomore quarterback in his 5th-ever start, and a relatively inexperienced receiving corps whose best current playmaker is a freshman. This offense has improved each game, and at points on Saturday, looked like the more impressive offense of the two teams. At one point in the second quarter, the Tigers had amassed 155 yards on 27 plays, while FSU only had 21 yards on 11 plays (some of this is due to the Tiger defense – more on that later).
The offense had a better yards-per-play average than they had in the Duke game, and they had their highest explosiveness number all season according to collegefootballdata.com at 1.22. This number is basically a sum of the expected number of points added per successful play, which is a geeky way of determining “how good” your “good” plays were. The average explosiveness number on the season up until the FSU game was 1.07.
The knock on the offense was obviously the conservativeness of the play calling in crucial moments where the game could have been won, not to mention the inexplicable RPO screen call in overtime on 3rd and 1 that lost yards. Cade has since explained that the call was on him because he elected to pass, but it should be taken out of his hands by the coaches to know to run the ball there. For how good the offense was all day, some decisions made late in the game almost certainly cost the Tigers a victory. The blame must be placed on the coaches’ shoulders because I thought our boys played tough all day and outplayed the FSU defense.
Defensive Line - 8
The Tiger defensive line was stout all day and put pressure on Jordan Travis consistently, which was a requirement if the Tigers were going to play well enough to win. The Tigers played excellent in run defense, only giving up 22 yards on 20 carries for a 1.1 yards/rush. Tyler Davis had his best game of the year as he racked up 6 tackles at nose guard and plugged holes all game. Xavier Thomas also had his best game of the year, I thought, as he contributed greatly to stopping the run, with 2 TFLs and a sack. I thought he could have had even more if not for some of the holding by the FSU O-line. This group was relentless and provided enough pressure and disruption on the day to give the Tigers a win.
Linebackers - 7
The Tiger linebacking corps has been reliable all year, but the preseason All-Americans of Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and Barrett Carter have not quite made the plays you would expect for two players of their caliber. They have performed well but there have been occasional missed tackles and misalignments that you would not anticipate from these two. Trotter had the best game of the two as he was able to clinch a huge sack, which arguably had Death Valley at its apex. He was a constant thorn in Jordan Travis’ side – providing steady pressure and putting hits on the experienced (and banged up) QB. Carter did play well in coverage against former Gamecock Jaheim Bell. Wade Woodaz did not feature as much with Mukuba mostly filling the Nickel/SAM role all game. A solid effort from this group, but I would like to see bigger plays made from the high-profile names.
Cornerbacks - 9
Both Nate Wiggins and Sheridan Jones had the most difficult task of any Tiger as they had to cover the lethal FSU receivers: 6’7 Johnny Wilson and 6’4 Keon Coleman. Both of these corners were put on an island against the FSU standouts, and they rose to the challenge. I thought Wiggins played excellent single coverage against Wilson, who they went to it seemed like 10 times on the boundary and he only reeled in 1 or 2. Both Wilson and Coleman combined for 10 receptions, but neither had over 100 yards. They never really had a ton of space all day except for the one Keon Coleman TD in the first half. FSU began to target Jaedyn Lukas once he entered the game, and he held his own as well. Lukas was on Coleman when he made the spectacular catch in OT, but you just have to tip your cap to him there with Lukas playing pretty good coverage. I am not sure this group will face a tougher challenge this season, so they deserve a 9 on the day.
Safeties - 8
Jalyn Phillips, RJ Mickens, and Andrew Mukuba were everywhere on Saturday. They were making plays all over the defensive secondary. Mickens led the team in tackles with 7, and Philips was behind him with 6. Both Phillips and Mukuba had some huge PBUs that resulted in halted drives for FSU in key moments of the game. Phillips had a wayward Jordan Travis pass hit him in the numbers that almost blew the roof off of Death Valley, but he failed to bring it in for an interception. There were no broken coverages that I can remember with FSU receivers running loose in the Tiger secondary, so overall a solid performance for the safeties. Had they found a way to create a turnover, they would have rated higher on the day.
Defense - 8.0
The Tiger defense had a superb performance on Saturday; they held a high-powered and experienced FSU offense to 17 points in regulation and 24 overall. The Tigers limited the FSU offense all day by limiting explosive plays and shutting down the run game. The Noles were only able to muster 3 total offensive points in the second half. FSU was held to a 37% success rate on offense, which was below their 43% average coming into the game. FSU was also only 4-13 on 3rd-down conversions and never really looked comfortable when the Tigers decided to blitz and pressure Travis.
The only questionable part of the day for the defense was when FSU picked the ball up with 2:03 left in the first half. Jordan Travis was able to execute his 2-minute drill to perfection as FSU drove relatively unopposed in 5 plays for 75 yards for a TD to cut the Tiger lead to 3. Coach Swinney commented during the halftime interview how he was “disappointed” in the defensive approach of only rushing 3 – essentially calling out Wes Goodwin.
This unit has improved from the Duke game and has played with a fire and intensity that Clemson fans are used to seeing from a Tiger defense. I do think Dabo has a point with his halftime remarks regarding some of Goodwin’s play calling at the end of the half, and I think those types of mistakes are something fans will have to endure with a defensive coordinator in only his second year. Overall, the Tiger D was excellent on a day when they faced one of the regular season’s biggest challenges. If they continue to get stops like they did on Saturday, they will set this team up for success.
Special Teams - 4
Where to begin? Much has been made of the Tigers’ kicking game this week when Dabo made a phone call to invite grad student Johnathan Weitz back to the team after being a backup kicker the last 4 seasons. As you have probably heard, Weitz was living in Charleston and was on his way to New York in two weeks to start a new job but was persuaded by Coach Swinney to return to the team to kick in place of freshman Robert Gunn III. Weitz was 1-2 on the day – making a 30-yard field goal in the first half but missing a 29-yarder to put the Tigers ahead late in the 4th quarter, therefore ending the fairytale story for Weitz. Had he made the kick, the Tigers would have had a great chance of winning the game. I am not sure where you go from here in the kicking game, but close games will be hard to win if we continue missing relatively easy field goals. Aiden Swanson had his best punting day of the year, averaging 53.3 yards per punt on 4 punts to best his season average of 47.7 yards.
Overall Team Performance - 7.3
Ouch. This one is going to sting for a while for all Tiger fans who invested anything in the game on Saturday afternoon. The Tigers played better in almost every category except for two, the turnover battle and the score. This seems to be the way things are going to go for us this year as we compete not only against the opponent but ourselves. FSU’s scoop-and-score was the biggest play of the game, as it took away a chance for the Tigers to go up two scores and ended up tying the ball game. FSU never led the football game in regulation. There are many, many things you can point to and say, “If we had just done this, or if we had made the play there.” To reference CFB Data again (link above), they would have expected Clemson to win 66% of the time given the metrics that they observed and calculated for the FSU game.
But the fact that the Tigers went toe-to-toe with the #4 team in the nation and should have won by most accounts is encouraging for this young team. The offense and defense have improved each game, and both are playing with more confidence. FSU is a much more experienced and savvier team than the Tigers, but you could not really tell a difference by the play on the field. It is bizarre how this team has basically outplayed all of the opponents on the schedule but is now 2-2 only 4 games into the season.
This is uncharted territory in recent years, as this is the first time Clemson has started 0-2 in ACC play since 2010. This team is exciting to watch, and I think most realistic Tiger fans were proud of the performance they saw on Saturday. I do not believe the same can be said for the team we have witnessed over the last two years. You can see the potential in this group, and I believe the future of this program is bright.
There is a lot of football left to be played, and there is no reason why this team cannot beat the remaining opponents on the schedule. This is not how we had planned for this season to begin, but I believe there is still a lot left for this group to play for. We will see how the Tigers respond next Saturday in Syracuse, New York.
Bonus Rating: THE FANS - 10
I thought Death Valley was electric on Saturday. The fans brought the energy from 30 minutes before kickoff to the final whistle in overtime. The students were fun to watch, and they were at their best on the day (can we get pom-poms for everyone?). When Clemson fans decide they want to create a hostile environment and have an effect on the game, there is not a more intimidating place to play in America. As a lifelong fan, I live for those moments, and I was proud to be a part of the experience on Saturday. Here’s to many more of those. Go Tigers!