Stats & Storylines: DJ finds his groove, defense wakes up and locks down


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DJ Uiagalelei looks for a lane against BC. (Photo courtesy ACC)
DJ Uiagalelei looks for a lane against BC. (Photo courtesy ACC)

With DT Tyler Davis, LB Mike Jones, and LB James Skalski out with injuries, and QB Trevor Lawrence out with COVID-19, we knew the Tigers would need a gutty performance to beat Boston College. Led by new coach Jeff Hafley and Notre Dame-transfer QB Phil Jurkovec, the Eagles have moved from their old-school, run-heavy offense and instead sling it all over the field. In the first half, it was working like a charm.

Already leading 21-10, Boston College lined up for a field goal, but then the holder ran under center and drew Nyles Pinckney (and several other linemen) offsides. With a new set of downs, WR CJ Lewis made a highlight-reel TD catch that pushed the Eagles’ lead to 18.

The 18-point deficit was stunning. It seemed like it would be asking too much for freshman QB DJ Uiagalelei to lead the Tigers back, but that’s exactly when DJ found his groove. He led a drive ending in a field goal to close out the half. The defense shut out the Eagles in the second half and the Tigers scored 24 straight to earn their biggest comeback win in Death Valley since 1966. With such an exciting game – and the biggest game of the year coming on Saturday – there’s a lot to delve into. Let’s begin with the performance by Uiagalelei.

QB DJ Uiagalelei: 30/41, 342 yards, 2 passing TDs, 25 rushing yards, 1 rushing TD

The freshman delivered. There were a few errant throws over receivers’ heads early on, but after the Tigers fell down by 18, the training wheels came off, the playbook opened up, and DJ was excellent. He made smart decisions, showed off his rocket arm, and – when needed – provided a critical wrinkle to the running game with his legs. It was a very impressive performance in his first start and one that should lend confidence as he prepares to face Notre Dame’s elite defense.

WR Cornell Powell: 11 receptions, 105 yards

I’ve been somewhat critical of Cornell Powell this season, but he was sure-handed and seemed to be a favorite target of Uiagalelei Saturday. He reeled in 11 of Clemson’s 30 receptions. It was the best performance of his Clemson career and it came when it was needed the most. Kudos, Cornell!

RB Travis Etienne: 84 yards (4.2 YPC), 1 rushing TD, 7 receptions, 140 receiving yards, 1 receiving TD

Clemson’s rushing attack found little room to run for most of the game. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Travis Etienne carried the ball 20 times. Offensive Coordinator Tony Elliott adjusted to lean more on the passing game and the QB-run but continued getting the ball to his best player by targeting Etienne as a receiver. He even sent Etienne out wide for a play (and it worked). Etienne led all Tigers with 140 receiving yards on seven receptions. While scheming to get the ball in his hands was great, it was a little discouraging to see the offensive line struggle to open holes in the running game for the second-straight week. It’ll be even tougher against Notre Dame.

Etienne’s 84 rushing yards were enough to push him past Ted Brown for the ACC’s all-time leading rusher. He already held the ACC record for rushing touchdowns. No Clemson football player has had a greater collegiate career than Etienne.

Boston College Running Backs: 72 yards (3.0 YPC), 1 rushing TD

Boston College’s running game found even fewer holes to run though than Clemson’s. Their run blocking has been problematic this season as they transition to a zone-blocking scheme, but up 15 in the second half, they needed to find some success on the ground to slow down the game and they couldn’t do it. Clemson’s defense stepped up tremendously in the second half to keep getting the ball back to the offense. Doing this without DT Tyler Davis was all the more impressive. Potentially getting Davis back against Notre Dame will be huge as the Tigers will want to force Notre Dame QB Ian Book to beat them through the air.

Clemson Turnover Margin: -1

The Tigers won despite a negative turnover margin with the fumbled exchange between Uiagalelei and Etienne being the only turnover on the day. That doesn’t tell the whole story though. Nolan Turner intercepted his 4th pass of the year (which would have been the most in the country), but it was wiped out by offsetting penalties: holding on BC and a (very borderline) roughing the passer penalty on DE Justin Mascoll. It was a huge turn of events that helped Boston College extend their lead to 18 points.

Later in the game, another interception was taken off the board, this time by a targeting call on DE Xavier Thomas. This call wasn’t as questionable though. John Perry, the rules official on the broadcast, said it was “exactly what we’re trying to get out of the game of football.” The play was in the second half which means Thomas will miss the first half of the Notre Dame game. Notre Dame also had a player, LB Marist Liufau, ejected in the second half for targeting, so he will miss the first half of next week’s game too.

K BT Potter: 2/2 FGs, 2/3 XPs

Special teams remains… interesting. BT Potter nailed a 50-yard field goal to close out the first half. It was a huge kick that made a second-half comeback seem doable. A miss would have been devastating, but he nailed it for his second field goal of the day.

In the fourth quarter, Clemson finally took their first lead of the game going up 32-28. They’d planned to go for two in that event, but the players – wrapped up in the excitement of the comeback – forgot and Clemson had to burn a timeout get set-up. Then the Tigers jumped offside and took a five-yard penalty. That necessitated a change in the play call, but they had trouble getting it in and burned another timeout. At that point, they figured they’d just take the extra point, but since the offense had already been on the field, they had to kick it from the left hash and ended up missing it. It was, in Dabo’s words, “pitiful.”

Execution aside, I still don’t understand the math behind the decision. The extra point would have given Clemson a five-point lead. The difference between a five-point lead and a four-point lead is the difference between having a game-winning vs. a game-tying field goal if Boston College were to score a touchdown to retake the lead. Trying to go up six instead of five doesn’t seem especially important unless the opponent is having trouble making extra points, which wasn’t applicable here. Fortunately, Boston College didn’t score again and it was all moot, but it sure was interesting.

Oklahoma State Falls to Texas, Cincinnati Dominates Memphis, Notre Dame Handles Georgia Tech

Oklahoma State and Texas provided an exciting afternoon game that ended with the formerly undefeated Cowboys losing to the Longhorns. That loss is notable because it opens the door for a one loss-ACC runner up to grab a playoff spot. That would be the case if Clemson and Notre Dame split matchups in the regular season and ACC Championship, so it isn’t too far-fetched.

Cincinnati beat Memphis by 39-points. They have to be considered a serious playoff contender now. Their toughest remaining matchup comes at home against Houston this Saturday. Oklahoma State’s loss helps their playoff odds if they can finish the season undefeated. It also helps Texas A&M, which has a relatively reasonable path to 9-1 (at Auburn is their toughest game remaining). The winner of Georgia vs. Florida this weekend still has to beat Alabama in the SECCG to avoid a second loss so I’d handicap the race for the final playoff spot as: 1) 1-loss ACC runner up, 2) Undefeated Cincinnati, 3) 1-loss Texas A&M.

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