Hollywood had to be jealous of the storyline that unfolded Saturday night.
The star quarterback was on the sidelines much of the fourth quarter with a concussion. His backup came in with more playing time in one quarter as a receiver than he had his entire career under center. The running back during the key drive not only was a freshman, but he carried the ball for all eight plays that lead to a game winning field goal, which just happened to tie a league record for most made FGs in a game.
Exciting? There is no question. Fans of both teams were on the edge of their seats for nearly the entire fourth quarter, if not the whole game. Even though the score did not necessarily show it, the game was an offensive shootout that saw both teams on the field for only one three-and-out series.
There were those who thought Rob Spence might have been spewing the company line about being committed to running the football. After all, it was something the Clemson faithful had heard many times before during the Tommy Bowden era. It does not appear that Spence’s words were hollow.
Not only did the Tigers run the ball early and often, they relied solely on their ground attack during the game’s key drive. It was not always pretty, but it was effective. So much so that Clemson’s time of possession (37:58) was the most since Bowden arrived. Over eleven of those minutes came during the final quarter.
That may have been the biggest difference in the game for a couple of reasons. First, it kept A&M’s offense, which appeared unstoppable at times, off the field. Secondly, it wore down their defense, thus allowing Clemson’s offense to grind it out on the final drive and not take many risks with an unproven quarterback leading the charge.
Another stat that Bowden had to be proud of was the turnover column. Clemson had none to A&M’s one. Turnovers and, more importantly, the lack of turnovers forced were a thorn in Clemson’s side last season.
The one negative that jumps out more than anything was the offense’s inability to punch it in when in the red zone. The Tigers had four trips inside the 8-yard line and came away with four field goals. One of those missed opportunities came on a drive that started at their own 3-yard line.
As good as it was to put points on the board in each of those possessions, you cannot expect to win on a regular basis with that lack of production in terms of points. Just one touchdown in any of those situations would have put some separation between the two teams and gone a long ways towards that “kill shot” that coaches always talk about when trying to put teams away.
All of this leads to one question - where was Reggie Merriweather? The junior has proven he has a nose for the end zone and flourishes in short yardage situations. He is a hard runner with a low center of gravity that seemingly finds a way to get those extra couple of yards. Duane Coleman, although a good back in his own right, is less suited to be in there when the Tigers are in a short yardage/goal line mentality.
Other than the red zone issues, the offense looked as good as it has in some time. The formations and use of personnel were to be expected, as were the absence of the looks to the sideline for an audible and the repeated attempts to throw the ball deep down the field.
There were only two instances that I can remember in which they went deep. The first resulted in a pass interference call against A&M and the second, when Will Proctor just overthrew an open receiver in the end zone. It is debatable as to whether or not the latter actually qualified as a deep ball.
The Tigers used a short-to-intermediate passing game to complete 67% (16-of-24) of their passes. That is a huge improvement over last season’s numbers and will be a boost to the offense if they can stay anywhere in that range throughout the course of the season. What is more promising is the way the receivers caught the ball and the yards they picked up after the catch.
The line looked great at times and poor at others, but overall it was a very solid performance. They were tested by a very big and athletic defense. There are those that say it is better to start off with a sure win because it gives the guys a chance to build confidence. Others think it is best to throw them straight into the fire. Regardless of what you believe, this effort should go a long ways towards solidifying the line play and boosting their confidence.
The running back by committee approach seemed to be effective. Of course, the story of the night from that prospective was the play of James Davis. The freshman from Atlanta showed flashes of why he was the 6th best running back in the nation last year. Just as Tommy Bowden described in the preseason, Davis has the vision, speed, power, and presence that you cannot coach. As long as he keeps his head screwed on and makes gradual improvement in the areas that need some work, he could very well be the main cog in Clemson’s offense by the end of the year.
As mentioned earlier, the quarterbacks were very productive. The statistics were not that impressive, but they do not always tell the story. Charlie Whitehurst was very efficient in that he did not throw any balls up for grabs and got rid of it instead of taking a sack on a number of occasions. Will Proctor was more poised than anyone could have imagined for a guy coming in under the circumstances he faced. Everyone feels a little better about the depth at quarterback now that he has some valuable time under his belt.
Texas A&M is a good offensive ball club. They returned a number of their skill guys, four of their five offensive linemen, and have a quarterback that is as athletic and fast as any in the country. Essentially, he is the perfect guy to run the system they employ.
Clemson gave up nearly 400 yards to the Aggies, who averaged just over 7 yards per play. Again, those numbers will beat you most of the time. Fortunately for those clad in orange, the defense made a stand on their final series and put the Tigers in a position to win.
Forget the youth in the secondary and the line. Granted, lots of new faces saw action in those areas and sometimes it showed. On more than a couple of occasions, guys looked like they were not sure of their alignments and assignments. Even so, that was not a huge issue because those same guys were making mistakes at full speed. Any coach will tell you they can deal with that when trying to mix in a little youth.
Forget the lack of size at the tackle and nose guard positions. Yes, it did cause problems at times because they Aggie linemen were much bigger and sometimes bullied the Clemson front. You cannot expect a 270 lb. nose guard to take on a 320 offensive guard all night and win every battle. Tate, Groover, Clark, etc. may have been undersized, but they hung fairly tough.
The cause for concern for coaches and fans should be the most basic element of defense - tackling. There were times when it looked like a bunch of five-year-olds dressed in orange trying to chase a couple of greased pigs. Never have I seen a team tackle so poorly and still win.
The young secondary took some lumps throughout the game, but survived. Their run support on the perimeter could have been better and they bit on a couple of very good play action passes, but when it was all said and done they turned in a performance laced with enough promise to give everyone a lot of hope.
The linebackers were a bit of a letdown in my opinion. It is not so much that they played bad, but more of an instance where they probably did not play up to their full potential. They were not able to get off of blocks as quickly as they could have, and they missed what should have been routine tackles. It is not uncommon for a running back to juke a defensive linemen or a fullback to run through a defensive back’s tackle.
It is uncommon for those things to happen to a linebacker. Those guys are supposed to be physical. They are supposed to be athletic. Most importantly, they are supposed to be the guys you can rely upon to make a big play on defense. All too often they did not look physical and/or athletic and they did not make plays.
That is not to say these guys are just plain bad. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a ton of potential and athleticism within the linebacking corps. They made their fair share of good plays Saturday night and young guys like Antonio Clay showed why the veterans better take notice.
When it was all said and done the defense found a way to get it done. That is all a coach can ask of his players, but he does not want to find himself having to do it every week. The mistakes, many of which were fundamentals, have to be corrected immediately. Otherwise, the defense is going to discover just how fine of a line it is between being good and being lucky.
What does Jad Dean do for an encore? There’s probably not much he can do. It is rare that a guy gets to attempt six field goals in a game and even rarer for someone to nail that many. He did his job well on a way to a record setting day. He just needs to remember it only takes one miss for some folks to call for his head. Such is the life of a kicker.
Cole Chason had a great day as a holder. His day as a punter was not so great. His three punts for a 25.3 yard average probably would not place him in the top three at a Punt, Pass, and Kick competition for twelve-year-olds. In his defense, he had to work to pull in two of the three snaps. Be that as it may, he is a third year player and is expected to perform better than he did.
The return game was given a huge shot in the arm by Chansi’ Stuckey’s return. It was a very well executed wall return for the Tigers. Stuckey only had to shake his hips a few times before he was running to daylight.
The kickoff returns were not bad, but just did not seem to live up the expectations many have come to live with as a result of Justin Miller’s tenure. Clemson averaged just over 30 yards per return, which is a great number, but the anticipation that came with watching Miller catch one just was not there. You never got the feeling something big was about to happen.
The kickoff coverage unit was bad. Why that is the case, is a mystery. They were one of the better units in the country last season while the Aggies were one of the worst in the country when it came to returning kicks. It looked as if the roles had been reversed on Saturday night. That is just one more reason why I think kicking the ball through the end zone is one of the best plays in football.
It was a victory for the Clemson special teams thanks in large part to Jad Dean and Chansi Stuckey. Every single point came off of a kick or a return. Just be sure to not let that stat fool you. There is still work to be done.
There was a lot to be happy and excited about after the game. There was also some cause for concern and areas that need immediate attention. That is to be expected after the first game of the year, especially after one as competitive as Saturday night’s contest.
There were other bright spots that have not been mentioned such as Clemson going 7-for-16 on third down conversions and 1-for-1 on fourth down conversions while holding A&M to 2-for-7 on third down and 0-1 on fourth down.
There were eight true freshmen on the field not necessarily out of need, but more because they are good athletes, and are evidence of the staff’s increased emphasis on recruiting the last few years.
The fears of what would happen if Charlie Whitehurst ever went down with an injury were somewhat quelled when Will Proctor looked like a seasoned veteran coming off the bench.
Most importantly, the Tigers found a way to scratch and claw their way to victory against a team that embarrassed them a year ago and was expected to win again this year. Not bad for a team that played eight true freshmen, a number of redshirts, and enough new starters to make you worry.
Fans saw just how devastating the loss to Georgia Tech was last year. Could this game send them in the other direction? The answer to that question lies within the senior leaders. Will they capture this momentum and run with it, or will the youth that peppers the lineup rear its ugly head?
No one really knows. What is evident is there is no time to celebrate. The September schedule is as brutal as any in the country with games against four solid opponents, three of which should be nationally ranked at the time of kickoff. There is a lot of work ahead but the season has begun on a very positive note.
Scripted or not, a positive note is all Tommy Bowden is worried about at the end of the week.