Coming off two straight losses in which poor execution reared its ugly head, Clemson got just what it needed with a week off before its contest with Central Michigan. Many thought the game would be fairly close. Some experts even went as far as predicting a win by the Chippewas.
It appeared some of those talking heads knew their stuff after the first two drives. CMU marched down the field for a score and intercepted a pass in the end zone on Clemson?s first possession.
However, the possibility of an upset ended there.
The Tigers put that small bit of adversity behind them and quickly took control of a game that was over by halftime. If anything, it showed this team may have a little more moxie than once thought.
Clemson put up some very impressive numbers Saturday. It was the first time in school history the team has rushed and passed for over 300 yards, Cullen Harper tied a school record he set earlier this year with five touchdown passes, and it was the most points scored since they put 82 on the board against Wake Forest in 1981.
The offensive line has been the focus of most of the criticism this year and rightfully so. They didn?t look like gangbusters Saturday but they did look improved.
Thomas Austin got his second start at center and that now looks to be a permanent move, or at least for the rest of the season. He pulled on a few occasions and looked good doing so. His size advantage over Barry Humphries is an advantage, especially when he has someone lined up over him.
He does not allow as much penetration as Humphries but there were still instances when he needed to do a better job of holding his ground. He also has to do a better job of getting lower in goal line and short yardage situations.
Christian Capote has had a somewhat up and down season, with Saturday probably being more of a down day. He allowed an end to rush to the inside nearly untouched for a sack on the first drive of the second half and he was leaning rather than moving his feet on too many blocks.
Barry Humphries played some at guard and looked comfortable with the move. I?ve noted numerous times this year how athletic he looks when pulling and he can do more of that at guard. If he can pack on some weight and learn to play lower, I think the move is a good one because it looks more like his natural position.
I didn?t get to watch many of the younger guys because I was looking at the skill players later in the game. I will say Chris Hairston and Cory Lambert appeared to move their feet really well. One of the youngsters at guard needs to step up in order to provide depth because Bobby Hutchinson is not getting it done.
As a group, the tight ends are still very young and inexperienced and it showed. They had some good blocks in space but struggled at the line. They did not sustain their blocks very well and even appeared to miss a few when they were coming back across the formation after motioning or being lined up as an H-back. The back had some shots at big plays had the tight ends executed better.
Michael Palmer was knocked down by the linebacker when releasing on the play in which Harper threw his only interception. I?m not sure it would have changed the outcome of the play but he needs to do a better job of taking that blow and remaining on his feet. At the very least, it would?ve given Harper another option.
The receivers had a whale of a game. I can?t recall any drops. But more importantly, they did a fantastic job of blocking. Tyler Grisham continues to impress with his effort in all aspects and Terrance Ashe blocked extremely well.
With the exception being the Georgia Tech game, I don?t think enough can be said about the job the receiving corps has done this year.
The Tigers finally got a 100-yard performance from a running back, but this time it came from reserve Sadat Chambers, who rushed for 112 yards on 10 carries. I?m not sure he made a case for taking carries away from James Davis or C.J. Spiller but he did show good vision and a burst through the line. The former safety also displayed good power. For now, some of the concerns about a third running back have been answered.
Davis and Spiller didn?t put up huge numbers but both had productive days. Davis continues to impress me with the improvement his made since last year as well as with his leadership.
Spiller had a couple of big runs but he still looks like he?s trying to make things happen rather than letting his natural ability take over. On at least three occasions he misread the receiver?s block and cut to the outside when he should?ve gone to the inside.
After making a questionable throw that resulted in an interception on the first drive, Cullen Harper settled in and only missed once more on his way to a 20-of-22 day. He did a magnificent job of running the two-minute offense just before the half and continued to show a lot of poise. Harper also made some NFL-caliber throws.
Dan LeFevour entered Saturday having completed 60 of 77 passes in his last two games for 611 yards and seven touchdowns. He had also rushed for 246 yards and five touchdowns in that same span. Regardless of the competition, 857 yards of total offense and 12 touchdowns in two games is more than impressive.
That?s why Vic Koenning was sincerely worried about how his defense would fare on Saturday, even more so after the first drive.
But the unit settled in and had a good day, limiting CMU to under 300 yards of total offense, two touchdowns, and only one play over 20 yards.
Koenning kept the Chippewas guessing much of the day by employing a number of different looks. He used his nickel personnel a lot but changed things up by walking Michael Hamlin up to linebacker depth and dropping DeAndre McDaniel back to safety.
Jamie Cumbie and Phillip Merling also saw a lot of time inside as defensive tackles, presumably in hopes of using their speed to create more of a pass rush. Both players also dropped into coverage a number of times from their inside positions.
During one series Merling and Jock McKissick dropped, which left the Tigers with nine guys in coverage. The following play Koenning brought six rushers with a blitz.
Courtnei Brown saw his first meaningful action during series in which the game had not been decided. He has a good first step and all the athleticism you could ask for in a defensive end but he needs to bulk up and work on his strength before he can become an impact player.
Merling and Cumbie held their own inside and will probably see more action there throughout the rest of the season, especially on passing downs. The Tigers have struggled to create a rush from the inside and a little more speed may be the answer.
Scotty Cooper and Kavell Conner both started at linebacker because Tramaine Billie and Nick Watkins were being disciplined.
Cooper looks like a slightly bigger version of Billie but is a tad slower and doesn?t have the benefit of three years worth of experience. He overran a number of tackles and needs to work on improving his open field tackling but he?s playing very well for a true freshman.
I only got to see CMU?s first touchdown live and once on Pawvision but it looked like Cooper may have been playing zone when everyone else was playing man. At the very least, he allowed the receiver to get a free release, which can?t happen even if they were in zone.
Conner isn?t as athletic as Watkins and looked a little hesitant in pass coverage. He did mix it up pretty well inside and ended up having a pretty good day overall.
Courtney Vincent and Antonio Clay were not much of a factor from their middle linebacker spot because Clemson did not run a lot of base defense.
Chris Chancellor snagged another interception after disguising the coverage and making a great break on a poorly thrown ball. He did a good job all day against the pass and the run.
Byron Maxwell also had a very good play the corner position when he batted away a ball in the corner of the end zone. He did a good job of sticking with his man and getting his head around in time to find the ball and make a play.
Hamlin looked very good playing the nickel position. Despite looking tall and lanky, he was very physical and didn?t appear to shy away from playing as what was essentially a linebacker with expanded coverage duties.
McDaniel and Chris Clemmons worked well together at the safety positions. Clemmons made a nice break on two balls and would have picked both off had he not run into other defenders. However, he did appear to leave a man wide open on their second touchdown when he jumped a short route that already appeared to be covered.
A lot of the younger guys like Miquel Chavis, Rennie Moore, Marcus Gilchrist, Jeremy Campbell, etc., all got a shot and had their moments. As is the case with nearly all the freshmen, they need to get bigger and stronger and develop a better understanding of the system before they begin to contribute significantly but they all showed potential.
Mark Buchholz missed his only field goal attempt of the day from 48 yards out. He had plenty of leg but missed it wide right. Accuracy is typically something that will develop over time but leg strength cannot be coached.
This is his first full year of kicking since high school. It?s going to take some time for him to develop the much needed accuracy. The good thing is he has a cannon for a leg and will be a true weapon once he gets it all dialed in.
His kickoffs were so-so. He had a couple that he pinned couple between the numbers and the sideline but he also had a few that were in the middle of the field. Ultimately, you?d like to see him kick them eight yards deep like he did earlier in the year. But if that?s not an option, which appears to be the case, he needs to get them as close to the goal line and sideline as possible.
The coverage units were okay but nothing to be excited about. Too many guys are still running themselves out of play by avoiding blocks and they?re also doing a poor job of getting off blocks. It also appears they aren?t running downfield at full speed.
Special teams coverage is all about effort. There is only so much scheming that can take place. I noticed some changes on Saturday, like Merling getting at least one rep with the punting unit, but the staff needs to continue to tweak the personnel until they find 10 guys who are going to get down the field like a bunch of kamikazes, only under control.
Jacoby Ford had a great kickoff return. It was good to see him hit the hole at nearly full speed and let his natural ability make a play instead of searching for a crease in hopes of making a bigger play.
Jimmy Maners only had one punt of the day and it was a very good one. However, it did strike a CMU player and the guys down there in coverage were alert enough to get after it and make a recovery at the 3-yard line.
I think Phillip Merling deserves recognition for busting his tail to get down there on that play and take out a CMU player that potentially had a shot at making the recovery. He?s a big guy who had already gotten a ton of snaps. You won?t find many junior defensive ends/tackles who are willing to give it all they have on punt coverage like he did. If a few more guys with that kind of effort step up, the coverage problems will quickly be a thing of the past.
I like the changes along the offensive line. That group still has a long ways to go but I think they are more physical with Austin at center. I don?t think Clemson is going to put up really big numbers on the ground the rest of the way but I think they line is good enough to allow the backs to gain enough yards to keep people honest.
I liked a couple of wrinkles Spence added, like the draw off the fake screen. It?s been a long time since Clemson has run a draw and I think it will be a good resource as they continue to have to throw the ball.
Harper threw the ball extremely well and the receivers made the grabs they were supposed to make. They were able to put another touchdown on the board to before the half despite having to go nearly 70 yards with under a minute to play.
Over 650 yards of offense is pretty good against anyone. It?s almost fun to think about how exciting this offense could be if the line was a little more seasoned and physical.
The defense played another stellar game. Koenning has done a magnificent job through the first seven games. He has mixed in a number of different blitzes and coverages through a variation of looks and continues to use his personnel in different ways in order to get the most productive unit he can find on the field.
The one concern for the defense so far has been their inability to generate a rush and record some sacks with the front four, especially the inside guys. They?ve been great against the run but need to do a better job in passing situations.
Special teams didn?t cost the Tigers Saturday. In fact, they helped create two touchdowns by recovering fumbles deep in CMU territory. But it was CMU. The staff needs to continue searching for athletes that can and will cover. Otherwise, the woes that plagued them against Virginia Tech will cost them at least once more.