Roy Martin: Clemson - Maryland Postgame Analysis


by - Correspondent -
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Patience. How ironic is it that a large majority of fans, if not all, exhibit very little of it these days while the coaches and players, those with the most to lose, seem to have an abundance of it?


The Tigers showed once again that they know how to win. More importantly, they showed they know to win even when they are supposed to lose. Regardless of how talented a team may be or how good their game plan is, learning how to win in spite of how the chips are stacked, is the toughest thing any team faces.


The evolution this team has gone through over the last two seasons is nothing short of amazing. Two last second losses against Georgia Tech and Duke, both of which were games they should have won, would have sent most teams into the cellar. Instead, they have found a way to use those games as well as victories against Wake, N.C. State, Maryland (twice), and Miami as learning experiences that have them where they are today.


Not only did they win another tough one, they won on the road against a team they have struggled against immensely the last four seasons. Ralph Friedgen was 32-1 going into the game when his team held the lead at the half. He is now 32-2 with both losses coming against Clemson.

Call it luck. Call it fate. It really does not matter how you explain it. The simple fact is Clemson – both the coaches and players – have learned how not to panic. The fans would all breathe a little easier if they could learn to do the same.


OFFENSE

The opening drive of the game was a thing of beauty. Standing on the sidelines, Tommy Bowden, the man many associate with high-powered, fast paced offensive football, could only feel good about the methodical drive that took 9:47.

Had it not be so widely reported in the media, one could have easily won lots of money with a trivia question asking who the coach was during the longest drive in terms of time in school history. The answer is a paradox. How could it not be Danny Ford?


Again, the answer to that question revolves around patience. Bowden has matured enough to let Rob Spence drive the offense. He no longer feels the need to drive the fastest sports car in town. In fact, he is actually enjoying riding shotgun in Spence’s reliable sedan.

It has not always been pretty during the last two games, but the offense has been effective. Instead of forcing the issue they have taken what defenses have given them and slowly chipped away.


All of the talk has been about Clemson’s running game. Yet, Spence has been predictably unpredictable. Clemson had twenty-one first down plays Saturday, twenty-two if you count a botched snap that kept the play from developing. Thirteen were runs and eight were passes. That is not indicative of a running offense.

Furthermore, the play selection on third down was just as mixed with seven passes and six runs. Three times the Tigers faced third-and-three or more, and they elected to run. That is not a mind boggling stat until you consider the mentality in such situations the last couple of years.


Reggie Merriweather’s winning touchdown was a great call for two reasons. First, it caught the defense totally off guard. The Tigers had been successful in the second half throwing the ball and that is just what everyone expected on third-and-long


Secondly, it was the greatest example to date of just how patient Spence can be. He was told he had two plays to get seven yards and he took that approach. It was not a gutsy call. It was not even a lucky call. It was a calculated risk that was not so risky once you really think about how that one play fit into the scheme of the entire game.

Another great call was the long touchdown pass to Curtis Baham. What made the call noteworthy was not the fact that it led to a big score, but how it was set up.

Charlie pumped as if he was going to throw the receiver screen Clemson has used numerous times in the first two games. Baham worked outside as if he was going to block the corner, then released on the pump. The safety bit on the fake, and Baham was left to run free. It is a play call Spence may only get to use three to five times all year, but it was just another example of how his patience paid off.

The offense has been so versatile because it has been successful on first down. Clemson averaged 4.58 yards per play on their twenty-four first down snaps. That includes two incompletions, a five-yard loss on a sack, and a one-yard loss on a fumbled snap. Fourteen of the twenty-four snaps resulted in a gain of four or more yards. Every offensive coach in the country would love to face that many second-and-six or less situations in a game.

The biggest benefactor of the new offense has been Charlie Whitehurst. He was nearly perfect on Saturday as he went 18-of-22 for 174 yards and 2 touchdowns. His yardage numbers are anything but gaudy, but completing 81.8% of your passes while not throwing any interceptions, will win a lot of games regardless of how many yards are in the equation.

Speaking of no interceptions, the Tigers have finally gotten rid of the turnover bug that hampered affected them during their down times last year. At one point during the 2004 season they had a turnover margin of -12. They stand at +3 after the first two games, which just happens to be the first time in Bowden’s tenure that the offense has played consecutive games without losing the ball.


Reggie Merriweather and James Davis have turned the running back by committee routine into a two-player race. Davis is not playing like a true freshman and seems to be the new fan favorite. As good as he is, it is not time to anoint him the starter. Merriweather is a seasoned veteran that looked as good as ever Saturday. Not only do both deserve lots of playing time, this offense needs them on the field as much as possible.

The receivers had a great day not so much because they made big catches, but because they blocked as well as they have in years. Merriweather’s last jaunt was made possible because of key downfield blocks by two receivers. Freshmen Rendrick Taylor and Tyler Grisham have embraced their role as blockers and seem to enjoy it. Aaron Kelly again made some big catches and demonstrated surprising strength for some of his stature.


As is always the case, an offense cannot prosper if the line does not do their job. This is undoubtedly the best line Bowden has had while at Clemson and the most promising note is they continue to improve. Depth, although as good as it has been in some time, is still somewhat of an issue, but the versatility of a number of players such as Roman Fry has helped fill those gaps.


DEFENSE

Missed assignments and tackles once again led to a number of big plays for Maryland. The secondary looked confused at times when in zone coverage and the front four struggled most of the game to get pressure on Sam Hollenbach.

The lack of pressure has to be a point of contention for Vic Koenning. He historically has preferred to get a good push with the front four while leaving the others to drop into zone coverage. Even with as many as seven guys in coverage, a good quarterback can find holes in a zone when given enough time to throw.

The lack of pressure and the nature of Maryland’s offense led to success through the air. One should not forget that Friedgen and Charlie Taaffe are excellent play callers who deserve credit for their game plan.

They used their best athlete, tight end Vernon Davis, to combat the zone coverages. Davis had 6 catches for 140 yards and a big touchdown. It should be noted that Clemson missed what should have been a sure tackle on Davis’ touchdown. It has been said too many times before, but those missed tackles are going to haunt the Tigers soon enough.

Where the front did excel was against the run. Maryland mustered only 56 yards on 38 carries. That is an average of less than 1.5 yards per carry, which is astounding considering their lack of size up front and the yardage given up a week earlier.

The defense also did a good job of rising to the occasion when they were in tight situations. Tramaine Billie forced a key fumble on second-and-goal from the six after Maryland had marched down the field from their own 21-yard line. They also forced the Terps to run four plays from the Clemson three after the Tigers botched snap a on a punt. Maryland did score, but had to work harder than expected for it after the defense made a valiant effort. That performance in a sudden change situation had to make Koenning proud.

Maryland also had the ball on the Clemson two-yard line after picking up 44 yards on third-and-11. The Tigers pushed them back to the four-yard line after three plays and forced them to settle for a field goal.

The linebackers did a better job of getting off blocks and making their way to the ball. Anthony Waters led the team with 14 tackles while looking much better than he did the week before. He and the others still have a lot of work to do, but each of them showed promise.


One little talked about area the ends and linebackers need to improve upon is how they disrupt the routes of tight ends when releasing. The ends need to initiate more contact at the line and the linebackers have to force more contact as the tight ends get up field. The slightest bit of contact forces keeps them from running clean routes, which in turn throws off the timing and gives the front more time to apply pressure.


Phillip Merling had what could be called his coming out performance. The true freshman was not credited with a tackle, at least not in the stats I have seen, but he wreaked havoc on the offense when in the game. His size and athleticism troubled the Maryland tackles all day and disrupted the flow of their offense.

Cory Groover, Rashad Jackson, and Jock McKissic all provided some quality snaps. Groover seems to be regaining the form he displayed towards the end of last season. To say he is a gamer is an understatement. The guy comes to play on Saturdays and provides an emotional boost any time he is in the game.


Despite making his first pick since the middle of last season, Tye Hill did not have his best game. He was turned around on a few occasions and it cost the defense dearly. He needs to rely less on his speed and more on the fundamentals. It only takes a receiver getting one step on a corner for a good quarterback to make a big play.

The defense was bailed out by the offense to some degree once again, but they did make enough big plays to deserve the victory. They need to continue to improve each week because they have to shore up the basics. The good thing is the talent is there. It is just a matter of shooting themselves in the proverbial foot at this point.

SPECIAL TEAMS

There is no doubt Maryland won this aspect of the game. Clemson gave them the ball on the three-yard line after a bad snap on a punt, which led to a Maryland touchdown. To make matters worse, Cole Chason averaged just 36.5 yards on four punts. It did not help that he had to have been worried about every snap but, again, he has to come through.

Jad Dean got his wish and never saw the field for a field goal attempt. He was perfect on all four PATs. He only had one touchback on his five kickoffs. He certainly has the leg to get it through the end zone and should do so as often as possible. I am not sure if the coaches are having him kick it short or if he is just not getting enough leg on it. Regardless, I still say the best play in that position is to make a team go 80 yards.

Maryland’s starting field position after kickoffs was the 28.8 yard-line. Clemson’s was the 22.8. Those six yards of field position may not sound like much but it is a huge difference when you consider that, other than the one start after the touchback, Maryland started all but one of their four remaining drives outside of the 30. Meanwhile, Clemson had two drives that started at the 13 and 17. The Terps averaged 27.75 yards per return while Clemson netted just 16.5.


Chansi Stuckey had a couple of nice punt returns, but made a major gaff when he fielded a punt at the two-yard line. One rule punt returners must always follow is to never field a kick inside of your own 10-yard line. There are no exceptions.

Nic Riddle lost his starting position to Colin Leonard after his bad snap. Leonard’s first snap was a little high, but he settled in and did a good job. Riddle is still working with the field goal unit and should continue to do so as long as he remains consistent.


SUMMARY

There are those that would say Clemson was lucky to escape with a win. I do not think that is a fair assessment. Yes, Maryland did have some foolish penalties that kept drives alive for the Tigers. However, Clemson practically gave the Terps their first touchdown and allowed them to sustain a couple of drives after giving up big plays on third down.

I think Clemson earned the victory because they stuck to their game plan and wore the Terps down in the end. They were extremely efficient on offense and made enough plays on defense to keep the game close.

It was a good win because it proved once and for all the new offensive philosophy can and will work as long as the players execute. It was also the first time many of the younger players experienced what it is like to play in a hostile environment, which is going to be a valuable asset down the stretch.

The focus on both sides of the ball has to continue to be shoring up the mental and physical mistakes that should be easily corrected. The really good teams know how to enjoy a victory while at the same time moving on to the next opponent. That will be a must this week as Miami comes to town with twelve days of preparation under their belts.


The fans can celebrate as much as they want, but the players must once again be patient as they get back to work. As hard as it is for a group of 18-22 year-olds to hurry up and wait, it is a necessity for nearly three months each fall. Such is life in the world of college football.

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