When Boston College scored its second touchdown within a two-minute span to take a 21-17 lead, the “here we go again” mumbles, thoughts, and sighs were rampant throughout the Clemson faithful.
But a funny thing happened. The Tigers threw away the script they’d followed what seems like too many times to count and fought back, both on offense and defense.
Instead of letting the unforced errors that have haunted them in so many losses bite them once again, they found a way to overcome and forge ahead.
It was nice that the victory came against Boston College, a team Clemson has lost heartbreakers to each of the last three years. It was nice that they finally got back into the win column, especially in conference play. And, yes, it was nice that Dabo Swinney notched his first victory as Clemson’s coach.
But what made this victory a little special was the attitude.
With just under nine minutes left in the game and trailing after having a 17-0 lead, the easiest and most realistic thing, at least considering the circumstances of the season, would have been to begin the finger pointing and turn on each other. After all, this is a team that has become known for its fourth quarter meltdowns. I can think of seven losses since 2006 in which Clemson had the lead going into the fourth quarter or in the fourth quarter and lost.
Instead of doing what was easy and expected, they pulled it together and rallied for a victory. It may or may not be a sign of things to come, but at least for a week everyone has a little more pep in their step and they can feel good knowing the Tigers didn’t give another one away.
It was pretty obvious heading into the game Clemson wasn’t going to have much success on the ground. With the struggles the Tigers have had on the offensive line, pounding the ball at B.C. would’ve been virtually useless considering how stout the Eagles are up front.
At the same time, slinging it all around the field wouldn’t have been very productive. B.C. has a pretty good secondary and throwing it a majority of the time would’ve only allowed them to blitz more, which would’ve led to a long night for Cullen Harper.
That’s why Billy Napier and Dabo Swinney deserve a pat on the back for their game plan. They effectively mixed up their play calls – 33 passes to 31 rushing attempts – and did a good job of keeping the defense honest by using a controlled passing game and enough runs at the heart of the defense while also trying to get Davis and Spiller to the corner.
The offensive line performed better than I expected, especially against Ron Brace and B.J. Raji. The Boston College defense definitely had their moments but they weren’t as overpowering up front as they could’ve been.
Bobby Hutchison and Thomas Austin switched positions because Austin offers a little more muscle at guard. In a zone blocking scheme against a 4-3, the center is expected to help double guys and get to the second level more than a guard. The move paid off for the most part with one added bonus – Hutchison’s snaps were much better Austin’s have been. They had good zip on them and were located perfectly.
Still, the injuries and youth along the line were evident. The lack of continuity because of injuries is causing a ton of missed assignments and miscommunications. Akeem Robins and Chris Hairston gave a rusher a free shot at Cullen at least once and a number of others went virtually untouched off of twists because Clemson’s linemen still aren’t making adjustments.
And all of them continue to play too high and get lazy with their footwork. David Smith and Mason Cloy were absolutely blasted a few times when they were too high. Chris Hairston was flagged for holding on what would’ve been a huge third-down conversion to Jacoby Ford because his footwork was bad, which caused him to get off balance and reach for the defender.
Instead of a first-and-goal at the three, Clemson eventually missed a field goal after that call.
Bobby Hutchison was also flagged for holding on the screen to C.J. Spiller that went for about 40 yards because he got a little lazy. The sad thing is the holding really didn’t come into play in that particular instance. It’s not like he had to stone the guy. It was a screen. Just move your feet and get in the way.
There were also a number of instances were plays were close to breaking for much better yardage if the linemen would’ve been a half-step faster of just released to the next level. I counted at least five runs were Clemson’s backs would’ve picked up at least four more yards had a lineman come off a double team to pick off another defender. That will come with time as they get more comfortable with the system and each other.
The receivers didn’t drop any balls that I can recall. Ford’s catch that was negated by the penalty was big. It takes a lot for a guy his size to make that catch over the middle, especially when the safeties have a better chance of reacting because the field was shortened due to ball being on the 22-yard line.
Michael Palmer had two big catches. The was on third down and kept a drive going that resulted in a touchdown. The second put Clemson at the two-yard line and set them up for their go-ahead touchdown. He also had a nice block that allowed Cullen Harper to score Clemson’s second touchdown.
One problem I continue to see is the blocking of Aaron Kelly. It’s a roll of the dice if he’s going to execute when he isn’t getting the ball. There are times when he blocks his tail off. Then there are others when Clemson may as well have 10 guys on the field.
The other problem that seems to plague the receivers is their inability to get open once the quarterback is forced to scramble. Typically, you want your long receivers to come back to the ball and the shorts receivers to head down the field in an attempt to cross up the defenders. Instead, they seem to continue on their routes almost as if they’re hoping the defender will fall down.
Cullen Harper had one of those games that leaves you scratching your head. His three interceptions were nothing short of atrocious.
He somehow missed a wide open Ford on his first interception and appeared to have his mind made up pre-snap on his third considering he stared the receiver down from the onset of the play. The Eagles had scoring drives of 21 and 7 yards because of Harper’s miscues.
His decision making seemed off or a little hesitant on a few other instances. The deep ball to Kelly into double coverage off the screen fake was a good call but B.C. defended it well. It should’ve been thrown away instead of up for grabs. It also appeared his first attempted fade to Kelly on the final touchdown drive should’ve been released a little earlier.
The good is that he showed more mobility than has come to be expected. He made a great adjustment on an all out blitz by rolling back to his left and nearly hitting Michael Palmer. He also had the big time throws to Palmer and Ford that were previously mentioned.
It wasn’t his best game but it also wasn’t his worst. Considering he had shoulder surgery just two weeks ago and did face some pressure throughout the night, he played well enough to help lead his team to victory by not letting his mistakes beat him for more than one play.
Spiller and James Davis continued to do what they do best – make plays. Davis ran hard all night despite not having huge holes. He had a huge eight yard gain on second down on Clemson’s final drive in which he ran over and through a defender for an additional four yards. It didn’t seem like much at the time but that drive essentially kept the drive alive and led to Clemson’s final field goal.
Davis also did a good job of blocking most of the night. He had a key block to spring Spiller’s long run as well as a couple of good blitz pickups.
Spiller was simply awesome. He only netted 55 yards rushing after picking up 57 on his big run but just having him back there was enough of a threat to help neutralize the defense. He was finally utilized as a receiver the way Clemson fans have been clamoring for since his arrival. His 105 yards set a Clemson record for running backs. His ability to take an eight yard pass and turn it into a 40 yard gain is beyond special. As Napier said, they just don’t make many guys like Spiller.
No question about it, Clemson’s defense won the game Saturday.
Boston College’s two scoring drives were a combined 28 yards. Of the 14 drives they had on the day (not counting the drive just before halftime), five resulted in three-and-outs and two more ended after three plays because of forced fumbles.
Their longest drive was a 15-play, 64-yard drive that resulted in a missed field goal. Nearly 60 percent of their drives (8-of-14) went for fewer than 15 yards.
If not for a special teams miscue and a couple of Clemson interceptions, the Eagles may have been shutout for the first time in over 350 games.
Everything started with the front four. They did a great job of shutting down running lanes by forcing double teams that freed up linebackers and forcing Chris Crane to make decisions on the run by collapsing the pocket.
I was somewhat shocked at how good Rashaad Jackson looked in his first action of the season. He was extremely active against the pass and run and look much more mobile than anyone could have expected. Before last week, I didn’t think he would make much of a contribution at all this season. But after watching his performance Saturday, I think he’s going to add a lot to Clemson’s front.
The ends didn’t have their names called very often but they had pretty good games. Ricky Sapp had a couple of tackles for loss and made a very good play on a pass to the running back after dropping into the flat on a zone blitz.
I have been very hard on the linebackers all year, and rightfully so, but they deserve credit for what they have done the last few weeks. A lot of the tentativeness and confusion that was so apparent early in the year has been replaced by quick reactions and good fits.
Brandon Maye has become a more physical player and is beginning to look like a middle linebacker. He showed really good closing speed on one instance Saturday when he essentially went for Crane on a delayed blitz after Crane began to scramble. He’s also shown a nose for the ball with three fumble recoveries over the last two games.
DeAndre McDaniel had his best game of the year. He played good assignment football and was more physical than he’s been in a while. The biggest surprise from him was how well he tackled.
The biggest change I’ve seen in any player on defense has come from Kavell Connor. Earlier in the year he looked like he was chasing rabbits. At best, he was confused and tentative.
But over the last few weeks, he has become much more sure of himself and it’s obvious in his decision making. His fits are much quicker and he’s getting to the ball at or near the line of scrimmage instead of six yards down the field.
The issue that continues to plague Connor, and a number of other guys on defense, is tackling. It’s almost as if Connor’s arms are too short for his body. He makes very good initial contact but never seems to be able to wrap his arms.
Connor made a great play on B.C.’s first touchdown by hitting their back about two yards behind the line of scrimmage. But he failed to wrap up, which allowed Josh Haden to spin away and into the end zone.
The same thing happened on a fourth-and-three play in the first half. Connor made a good hit in the hole but didn’t follow through with his hips and arms. The play resulted in a first down after he was dragged for two yards.
He’s also struggling when he blitzes. He should’ve sacked Crane on the fourth-and-four pass that went for a touchdown to give B.C. the lead and he missed at least one more because he left his feet. Linebackers are taught to not jump unless the ball is in the air. Otherwise, get your hands up and continue towards the quarterback.
Mentally, the light bulb appears to have finally gone off. He just needs some work on the physical part of his game to get to where he needs to be.
The secondary did a good job of negating big plays by applying solid coverage and forcing the shorter throws. Crane had four completions of 23, 15, 13, and 11 yards. The rest of his 14 completions were for eight yards or fewer.
Chris Clemmons made a nice break on a ball on B.C.’s first drive that broke up a pass and nearly had an interception a few drives later on a deep ball over the middle. It was probably his best coverage game of the season.
Coty Sensabaugh logged a few snaps at corner and nearly had a pick on a poor throw that was caused by pressure from Brandon Thompson. Vic Koenning has played Sensabaugh at corner and Marcus Gilchrist at safety more the last few weeks. I like the move because Sensabaugh is a pretty physical corner and Gilchrist has the size and speed to make plays at safety.
The punting unit gave up a block for a touchdown that really got B.C. back into the game. It’s hard to say for sure exactly what happened but it appeared that Chad Diehl tried to help inside when he should’ve blocked out and let the snapper handle to inside rusher.
I say it’s hard to tell because I’m not sure what type of call Michael Hamlin made. As the personal protector, he’s responsible for making the calls that tell the snapper which direction to block. However, I feel it was Diehl’s fault because the snapper blocked to Deihl’s side while Hamlin blocked to the right.
Jimmy Maners didn’t have a great day. His punts weren’t very long but they did have enough height to force four fair catches. He did receive a bad bounce on a pooch punt that put the ball at the 20-yard line.
Mark Buchholz missed his first field goal of the year but was pure on his other two attempts. Considering only two kickers in NCAA history have gone an entire season without missing a kick, it was bound to happen sooner rather than later. You can’t fault him for that. He has been solid all year.
His kickoffs were a little erratic in terms of depth but all were placed fairly well. I recall only one being near the middle of the field. The others were at the numbers or wider.
As for his coverage unit, they had another outstanding game. Nelson Faerber continues to make plays for the unit using his speed to come off the corner.
Other than the blocked punt, the only negatives were the fumble by Spiller and the call to have the return unit on the field instead of the defense on B.C.’s fake. You could look at the B.C. sidelines and see the fake was coming. I realize the Clemson coaches tried to call a timeout but they shouldn’t have been in that position.
The defense should have been on the field because you just knew the Eagles were going to have to do something to get things going considering how their offense was struggling.
I liked the offensive game plan. They took advantage of their speed by getting the ball to Spiller through the air and they created a few mismatches that resulted in linebackers trying to cover receivers.
I really like how they’ve begun to use screens to the running back, especially now that Spiller is healthy. The calls on the double pass and the deep ball off the fake screen were well timed and very nice.
Defensively, Vic Koenning called a great game. He blitzed more than normal and did a good job of changing up the secondary coverages.
The Tigers didn’t log any sacks Saturday but they had good pressure all day. I think Crane had no fewer than nine balls that were poorly thrown or thrown away because of the pass rush.
And while they didn’t force any interceptions, that had at least three passes that were broken up and forced two fumbles on big hits after the catch.
Overall, it was a great victory. The Tigers showed a lot of resolve when they were faced with a ton of adversity and appeared to really come together as a team. Clemson won the game much more handily than the score indicated but in many ways having to win it the way they did was much better for them as a team than a 31-10 victory would have been.
The offense finally came through for the defense while the defense was able to shake the stigma that they can’t hold a lead late in the game.
If this team can just quit shooting themselves in the foot, the final four games could be a lot of fun to watch.