You probably could not have asked for a better start than the one Clemson had on Saturday.
They took just five plays to go 80 yards four a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead. The defense then produced a three-and-out and the offense had another good drive that ended in a field goal.
But from there things quickly went down hill.
Clemson gave up a big play on a reverse that resulted in a field goal and followed that up with an interception for a touchdown. In the time it took most people to run to the concession stand for a Coke, the game was tied.
The Tigers managed to keep it tight for a half and were only down by seven entering the fourth quarter, but anyone watching the game knew that Clemson did not have much of a chance unless they had some big plays go their way. They did not, and Clemson walked away a loser in a game that was decided by a second half that was a little more lopsided that the scored indicated.
The offense started off as well as they have all year. They ran 13 plays in their first two series and had gains of 11, 12, 13, 14, 17, and 44 yards while avoiding any plays for negative yardage. They had put 10 points on the board and everything seemed to be clicking.
Then FSU’s defensive ends decided it was time to have some fun.
From the third drive on, FSU’s defensive front pretty much had their way with the Tigers. If they wanted to beat Clemson’s tackles with a speed rush to the outside, they did it. If they wanted to beat them to the inside, they did it. If they wanted to run through them, they did it.
I have written all year about the line looking lazy and not moving their feet so I should not have been surprised by the effort. But the ease at which the Seminole defenders had their way was astonishing.
Cory Lambert looked like he was wearing concrete cleats and someone had played a nasty joke on him by tying the shoelaces together. To put it as simply as possible, he was defenseless.
I counted at least five instances where he essentially whiffed in pass protection, three of which were sacks, and at least another three where he passed up a defender that kept running plays from going for big gains. That does not take into account the plays in which he got in the way of defenders but never really blocked them.
It was not coaching, the scheme, or the fact he did not stay at a Holiday Inn Express the night before. What I saw was a lack of desire on his part.
And it is sad. It is really sad when someone that big and athletic does not utilize their abilities.
As for the rest of the line, they had their good and bad moments.
If I am an opposing defensive coordinator, I run twist after twist in passing situations because Clemson’s line just cannot seem to figure them out. A perfect example is the interception that was returned for a touchdown.
FSU ran a simple twist that seemed to baffle Mason Cloy and Landon Walker. Because it was a screen pass, all they needed to do was bump their guy just enough to slow them down. Instead, the defensive tackle and end ran free and the play was a disaster.
The good thing was Clemson actually had some success running the ball right at the FSU defense. The line did a good job of getting physical on those runs and chipping off to seal the linebackers, which has not been their strongpoint most of the season.
The Hutchison/Austin experiment also had another good week and appears to be the way the line will operate the rest of the year. The additional benefit of the change has been the precision of Hutchison’s snaps.
Cullen Harper deserves a pat on the back for his performance. He took a tremendous beating all night and never seemed to get rattled. His touchdown pass to Michael Palmer and the fourth down pass to Jacoby Ford were tremendous throws.
He probably took a sack or two he could have avoided, but for the most part he had a good pocket presence and bought some time with his feet. The interception should have been thrown in the dirt, but it is hard to put that mistake solely on his shoulders because of the pressure.
James Davis and C.J. Spiller continued to run hard and had a number of big plays. Spiller did an excellent job of using his blockers on the screen pass that went for a score and Davis picked up four a five yards a couple of times when it seemed like nothing was there. They deserve to get more touches, but it has been a tough row to hoe for them considering the ongoing problems and injuries along the line.
One negative I saw was that it appeared they missed a couple of cuts. I am sure that has something to do with the line not giving them much to work with most of the year. Still, there were a few missed opportunities.
And while we are talking about the backs, I thought Chad Diehl’s effort as a blocker was not as sharp Saturday. He missed a couple of couple of guys and his effort was not as good as it normally is on a few others. Specifically, he did not deliver what should have been a knockout block on the last touchdown by Spiller. Spiller should have walked in. Instead, he scored because of his athleticism and effort.
The receivers had a great game catching the ball but missed out on some chances to make something happen after the catch. Jacoby Ford had a 17-yard reception on a well thrown ball, but fell down after making the catch. Tyler Grisham also fell on a screen that went for 3 yards, but probably should have gone for 15 or more. The result was a third-and-seven that ended with a sack because Clemson was forced to throw for the first down.
Grisham had a great block on the first counter toss to Spiller that sprung him for a first down, but he just stood out in space on the second attempt. Although Spiller picked up the necessary yardage on fourth-and-six, he probably could have picked up at least 10 more yards had Grisham made a block.
Credit does go to Ford and Palmer for their two big receptions. Both were difficult catches and they came through in key situations.
The defense has kept Clemson in every game this year except for Alabama, and in at least four of those games they did not get much help from the offense and/or special teams. Such was not the case Saturday.
Florida State gashed Clemson time after time on the ground. The Seminoles averaged 7.4 yards per carry on their 36 rushes for a total of 266 yards. And even though the FSU running game has improved tremendously this year, it is not excuse for what happened against the Tigers. Offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher’s toughest decision all day had to be whether to run it right, left, or straight at the Tigers.
Brandon Thompson, Jarvis Jenkins, Dorrell Scott, and Rashaad Jackson had good games. They made a number of plays by either getting penetration that forced a tackle for loss or forcing plays to go somewhere other than where they were designed. These guys forced a few bad throws and throwaways and even caused Ponder to not be able to put enough zip on the ball that was intercepted in the end zone.
I was especially impressed by Jenkins and Thompson. Both players are quick and very athletic for their body types. And as I said last week, it is amazing how good Jackson looks after being out for so long.
Unfortunately for Clemson, that was the only group that had a fairly productive day on the defense.
The defensive ends did an awful job of maintaining their containment assignments, which led to many of Florida State’s big plays. I am not sure they would have stopped the wide receiver sweeps and reverses had they known they were coming. On the few instances where they actually managed to keep containment, FSU was stopped for a minimal gain and even a few losses.
But those instances were few and far between. Regardless of who was in there, the defensive ends continually over pursued or allowed themselves to be hooked, thus losing their outside leverage.
If there was a bright spot for the defensive ends, it was the occasional good effort by Ricky Sapp. He had a sack on FSU’s first drive and a couple of other instances where he applied pretty good pressure. He also showed tremendous hustle on two of their bigger plays when he was running nearly stride for stride with a wide receiver and running back.
After making some headway the last few weeks, the linebackers fell back into the trap of dancing around pre- and post-snap without any real clue as to what was happening. And when they actually recognized what was happening, they either reacted too slowly or took bad angles that prevented them from making plays.
They were being blocked four, five, and six yards down the field by linemen instead of at or near the line of scrimmage. They also digressed back to their old ways of trying to get around block at or behind the line of scrimmage rather than blowing them up enough to create a pile and force the runner to make something happen.
Much of the same can be said for the secondary. Their angles on run support were atrocious at times and they allowed themselves to be blocked by receivers when they should have been shedding them and making plays. And as Dabo Swinney pointed out at halftime, they had some opportunities to come up with interceptions and did not deliver.
The defense’s inability to tackle has passed the point of being a problem. It is now laughable. FSU made a living by escaping tackles for a loss or no gain and turning them in to pickups of 15, 20, and 25 yards. On one particular first down blitz, Sapp, Connor, Thompson, Jenkins, and Clemmons all missed tackles. The result was an eight yard gain by Christian Ponder when it should have been 2nd-and-18.
Never have I seen an entire unit not explode with their hips and follow through with their arms. It is as if their arms are tied to their belts and all they can do is run into people.
For those of you that watch at home and like drinking games, take a drink each time you see a Clemson defender miss a tackle or let a guy run for more than two yards after initial contact. My bet is you will not make it through the first quarter and still be able to spell your own name.
Specials teams did not do much in terms of winning or losing the game.
Mark Buchholz was perfect on his two field goal attempts and all three of his PATs. His kickoffs were okay at best. A few were too close to the middle of the field and they resulted in pretty good returns for FSU. A couple of others were between the hash and the numbers and the coverage was a little better. As short as some of the kicks were, he needs to do a better job of placing them between the numbers and the sideline.
It is hard to tell for certain what his first kick of the game was supposed to be but my guess is he was trying to pooch it over the heads of the guys on the frontline, but short of the upbacks. It looked like nothing more than a long onsides kick.
His last attempt was a great onsides kick that got the big hop you always want. The problem was Clemson’s coverage guys seemed more worried about being blocked than recovering the ball. There were six guys on that side and at least three, if not all of them, should have sold out to get that ball. It was a great kick that was wasted by poor effort.
Jimmy Maners averaged 41 yards on his six punts with a long of 53 that really helped improve field position. He also had a 28-yarder that was spotted at the 30-yard line when he should have had it inside of the 15.
One attempt should have been blocked, but FSU somehow missed and was flagged for a roughing the kicker call that extended a drive. It was another breakdown in protection that also came from the left side, only this time it looked like it came from the outside.
The return game never got on track. Three of FSU’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks and there should have been a fourth, only Spiller tried to return it from about four yards deeps as Ford tried to stop him. Clemson began that drive from their nine. Their best return of the day was to the 26, although it was negated by an illegal block penalty, which was then negated by a dead ball foul against FSU. Clemson began that drive at their 24.
Charles Roediger does not get his name called very often but he deserves a little credit. The senior long snapper has been nearly perfect all year and was sharp again Saturday. He made a good hustle play on the fumbled punt by Tony Carter when he recovered it at the FSU nine. That fumble led to Clemson’s second touchdown.
I have seen and heard a lot of people talking about how bad the play calling was Saturday, but I just did not see that side of it. Sure, there were some questionable calls here and there, but that is usually the case with every game.
I thought Swinney and Billy Napier did a pretty good job of mixing things up. The thing everyone needs to remember is calling plays is much, much tougher when your backside tackle just is not getting it done and you are faced with a lot of second and third-and-longs.
I liked the timing of the timing of the two deeps balls and thought the call on the fourth down counter sweep was great. I continue to like the screens to the running backs and the additions of more toss sweeps. The call on the delayed throwback to the tight end was marvelous. It is something they should have been using for the last few years.
Another thing to remember is you cannot revamp an offense in the middle of the season. Swinney and Napier basically have to work with what was already in place with a few tweaks and additions here and there.
Willy Korn is still feeling the effects of the shoulder injury he suffered against Georgia Tech and it has hampered his ability to pass. To say he needs to be playing more right now just is not fair. However, I do think it would not hurt to give him some more action in goal line situations because his ability to run adds another dimension and he does not have to make very many long throws with a shortened field.
Defensively, it is hard to truly assess how effective the game plan could have been because of the number of missed assignments and tackles. I am sure Vic Koenning would do a number of things differently if he had to do it all over again knowing what he knows now.
The truth of the matter is Clemson just did not execute defensively. They gave up 34 points and enough big plays to last an entire season and could not seem to get off the field on third down. Rarely, if ever, will you win a game with that recipe.
Overall, Clemson just could not get it done on either side of the ball when they had to. They had the early momentum but could not capitalize on it because of a costly turnover and some big plays by the FSU offense.
The good thing is the offense had success at times. They had touchdown drives of 80 and 97 yards and another drive of 89 yards that resulted in a field goal.
The bad thing is that is 267 of their 316 total yards were on three drives. And anytime you have a 15-play, 89-yard drive that takes nearly 8:00 minutes off the clock, you better find a way to get six points instead of settling for a field goal.