Happy as they may have been at the end of the nearly four hour marathon, many fans felt as if someone had burst their bubble Saturday night. Dreams of a runaway victory to start a great season were nearly replaced by nightmares of a second straight loss to Wake.
Fortunately for Clemson, the Tigers were able to muster enough fight to claw their way back from twenty-four unanswered points as they won a double-overtime thriller.
Starting the season with a 1-0 ACC record by defeating a team that manhandled them last year was big. How they won was even bigger.
Facing adversity that would have routinely spelled defeat in the past, they finally decided it was time to change their ways. Needing seventy-nine yards and eight points with a little less than six minutes remaining, Charlie Whitehurst and company marched down the field as if the outcome had been rehearsed hundreds of times in preseason practice.
Greatness is rarely determined when things are going well. Instead, it’s when times are tough that fighters show their true colors. If Saturday afternoon was any indication of what can be expected, this team has a lot of fighters.
Don’t get me wrong; they need to make a ton of improvement if they are to have any chance of finishing with a record that most would deem respectable. The offense must become more opportunistic and the defense has to find a way to stop the run.
Still, they showed what might be the most important aspect of any good team – heart.
Despite ending the first drive without putting any points on the board, the offense looked like gangbusters during the first quarter. For the better part of the next three quarters, they looked like a ragtag bunch of kids playing together in the backyard for the first time.
In what has become a theme over the last couple of years, the running game has to improve. Few, if any, good teams are one-dimensional. Clemson does not have to be dominant on the ground but they must be respectable.
Despite Bowden’s post-game comments, the line appeared to struggle much of the day. That may or may not have been the reason Yusef Kelly was never able to get on track. It’s hard to blame him because the holes were rarely there. When they were, he managed to gain some good yards.
It would be nice for the Tigers to have that breakaway threat at running back. Again, it’s hard to determine if Kelly has that ability because even the great ones have to have a little help.
Whitehurst completed less than 50% of his throws. That is the least bit impressive, especially for him. What the box score doesn’t show is he spent a better part of the day rushing to get the ball away. When given time, he put the ball where it needed to be. In fact, he made some rather spectacular throws.
The expectations for Charlie – both the ones he’s put on himself and the ones the fans have for him – may be a little too much at this point. He’s playing behind a line that includes two former walk-ons. His receiving corps is relatively young and inexperienced. All things considered, his stats were pretty good minus the two interceptions.
Perhaps the bright spot for the offense was the play of Airese Currie and Chansi Stuckey. Currie showed he’s still a deep ball threat and the consistency he displayed much of last season seems to have carried over.
Despite all of the preseason hype surrounding Stuckey, his performance was still a big surprise. Coming into the game everyone knew he was a playmaker. The biggest concern was how reliable he would be as a receiver.
Those concerns have been put on the back burner, at least for now. He showed great hands, the courage to go over the middle, and the strength to fight for the extra yards after contact.
Whitehurst has said on many occasions that Stuckey will soon make fans forget about the loss of Derrick Hamilton. A few more performances like that and many folks will begin to believe Charlie.
As good as those two played, the rest of the WRs practically went unnoticed. Kelvin Grant’s two point conversion catch was the lone exception, as it may have been the biggest play of the game. It was also the gutsiest call of the game. Grant has been inconsistent throughout his stay in Clemson. That’s not the guy you normally want to go to in a time like that.
Yet, Bowden chose not to have multiple options on the play by having Charlie roll out. For whatever reason, he had enough confidence in Grant’s ability to go with only one option. For now, Grant has earned some respect. He, along with the rest of the receivers, need to continue to build a foundation. Otherwise, this team will not have much success with only two guys catching the ball.
Saturday’s performance was a tough one to gauge where this group really is. Wake is an excellent running team. They consistently were gaining four to six yards a run, especially on first down. It’s hard to successfully stop a team when they are regularly looking at second and four or five.
Clemson’s front is relatively young. There were times when they looked really good. There were others when they showed their youth. Facing Wake this early should end up being a good learning experience for them. It was a big test for them, much more so than for the linebackers and secondary.
Consider that Corey Groover and Bobby Williamson played their first games at new positions while Charles Bennett and Donnell Clark received significant playing time for the first time in their careers. Groover has spent his entire career at linebacker or defensive end. Williamson just recently moved to the defensive side of the ball after being a tight end much of his life. Although Bennett did make a late push last season, this was his first time really getting out in a regular rotation.
Each of those four showed some ability. Groover, as raw as he is, displayed a lot of athleticism and a motor that never quit running. With the addition of Chris McDuffie and Vontrell Jamison’s emergence after his injury, this group has a chance to be pretty good as long as they use each week as a stepping stone.
The secondary played well against the pass. Ben Mauk’s long TD pass was one of those things that happen to every team over the course of time. Even the best defensive backs make those mistakes. Take that one play away and their passing attack was kept in check.
Yes, Clemson did give up quite of a few eight to twelve yard quick hitters. More than anything that was a result of having to play a lot of zone defense against Wake’s running game. By doing so, the cornerbacks were forced to give a lot of cushion. That shouldn’t be a big cause for concern.
The linebackers made quite a few plays and were in position most of the time. The problem is there were a lot of missed tackles on their part. Having a guy make a move is one thing. Flat out missing him is another.
A perfect example is the kill shot Eric Sampson had on Corey Randolph early in the second half. Having rushed in untouched, Sampson left his feet and nearly tried to piggyback the Wake quarterback. Randolph was able to break free from what should’ve been devastating hit because Sampson didn’t stick to the basics – go for the QB’s outside shoulder and don’t leave your feet.
And that was something that many people may have missed simply because Randolph was eventually sacked on the play. No one missed Barclay’s 50-yard run up the gut. There’s absolutely no excuse for that.
The defense as a whole needs to tackle better but the focus should be on the linebackers. That extra two and three yard a running back gets eventually is the difference between second and nine and second and six. Ask any defensive coordinator in the country which he’d rather defend.
A punt return for a touchdown and a blocked punt that resulted in a safety were the difference makers in the game. Those were two really bright spots for the special teams.
Stephen Furr made his first career start. He missed his first field goal but battled back to hit his next two, the latter of which was a pressure packed overtime boot. His 42-yarder that banged in off the goalpost was called lucky by most. It’s luck when you win a close game. It’s just another kick when you win comfortably.
Cole Chason and his coverage unit had a good day. He’s still not getting off the booming kicks everyone likes to see but the Tigers aren’t giving up much in the way of returns.
If there is one mystery surrounding the kicking game it has to be Jad Dean. Since signing two years ago, all that’s been talked about is his leg strength and his ability to reach the end zone. Either the coaches are telling him to not kick it deep or he’s just having a hard time finding his touch. I can’t imagine it being the former, at least not on a regular basis. That being the case, Dean needs to learn how to put his strength to use.
Inconsistency ruled the day for the Tigers. They started off with a bang but failed to deliver a killer blow.
The offense looked downright anemic at times. Excluding overtime, seven of Clemson’s twelve drives resulted in less than twenty yards. That’s not going to win very many ballgames, especially when you commit three turnovers. Still, they found a way to make it happen when they had to and that says a lot about this team.
Maybe the problem is the offense has been working against our defense throughout the spring and preseason. The defense can’t seem to stop the run and the offense can't seem to run the ball. One can only imagine what actually takes place on the practice field.
As for the defense, having a young line hurt a little. The big killer was the lack of tackling. That has to change quickly. The addition of McDuffie will provide some type of boost. His sheer size alone should be enough to clog some running lanes.
What it all comes down to is the Tigers got a win in a game that was a big mental obstacle. The win did more for the character of this team than anything. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s definitely something this team can use to get them going in the right direction.