Clemson's first road test of the season proved to be anything but a test.
Despite N.C. State tying the score at seven on a 99-yard kickoff return following Clemson?s first score, the Wolfpack did not have the firepower to make it a contest against a Tiger squad that posted some very gaudy numbers.
But as the case nearly always is, the numbers do not tell the entire story.
Clemson did not play as well as they could and should have. Truth be known, the Tigers should have left Raleigh with a much larger margin of victory had they not shot themselves in the foot a number of times.
They notched such an easy victory because, quite frankly, N.C. State does not appear to be a very good team. Well, that and the fact that Clemson was really clicking when things were going well.
Statistically speaking, it was the best offensive performance Clemson has had in quite a while.
Twenty-five of Clemson?s 41 first down plays went for four or more yards, and at one point they had amassed 292 yards on first down, compared to just around 140 on second and third downs combined.
Excuse me for stating the obvious, but Clemson?s success on first down was the catalyst for their outburst.
The Tigers rolled up 608 yards of total offense, 340 of which came via the ground game. C.J. Spiller and James Davis each had over 100 yards and averaged an astonishing 5.4 and 6.9 yards per carry on 21 and 24 attempts.
In terms of pure running rather than statistics, Davis had his best outing as a Tiger. He is faster and stronger this year thanks to an increased work ethic in the off-season and it is showing.
Spiller finally got on track and had a few big runs. I have heard some folks say he danced a little too much and in certain respects that may have been the case. However, that is his style of running and you have to take the good with the bad. With every two-yard loss comes the possibility of an electrifying big run, as he showed on his 44-yard touchdown gallop.
It is not often you can say a quarterback completed just 64% of his passes and have it sound like a letdown, but that is exactly what Cullen Harper did. He missed on a few passes that he should have made, but still looked pretty darn good. His touchdown to Spiller was a very difficult throw and his big gainer to Rendrick Taylor over the middle was a beautifully thrown ball.
More importantly, he continued to show tremendous poise and leadership as well as an ability to make his progression reads and protect the ball. He now has 14 touchdowns and no interceptions through four games.
Five different receivers caught at least three passes, led by Aaron Kelly with eight for 95 yards. Kelly has really come on this year after mentally hibernating his sophomore season. He does a great job of using his hands rather than his body and he is much more elusive than he appears.
The offensive line performed much better but they are the one facet of the offense that is a concern.
Brad Scott substituted a number of the younger guys fairly early in the game and they had mixed results. Corey Lambert was beaten pretty badly on at least two occasions, one of which resulted in a sack. The defender had a pretty good first step, and Lambert was slow to react.
Thomas Austin saw some duty at center and looked more than capable. Unfortunately, Bobby Hutchison looked overmatched when he was in as a guard. Barring someone else stepping up, Austin is going to have to spend a majority of his time at guard unless Brandon Pilgrim and Chris McDuffie can go the distance.
Speaking of McDuffie, he has quietly had a fairly solid first four games and is Clemson?s best option when pulling on traps. He does a good job of taking the proper steps and getting turned up the field looking for someone on the second level when there is no one to block in the hole.
The line?s inconsistency was clearly evident when the field was shortened inside of the red zone. Clemson had the ball at the State 13-yard line or better on four drives and only produced nine points. Granted, it is tougher to operate down there because the defense has a much smaller area to cover, but a team that put up the numbers Clemson did Saturday should come away with at least two touchdowns in those four trips.
The Clemson defense looked like it may be a really good unit against Florida State but they gave up big yardage against Monroe and Furman playing lots of base packages. So, heading to Raleigh there were some doubts as to what would happened.
They quelled those doubts for the time being with an outstanding, if not dominating, performance.
The Wolfpack managed just 202 yards of total offense, 81 of which came on their first half scoring drive. One can only imagine how much lower that number would have been had Kavell Conner been able to hold on to an interception he made early in that drive rather than fumbling back to State during the return.
Ricky Sapp led the team with six tackles and two sacks. Two others had five tackles, five more had four, and another five had three. Those numbers being spread out as they were are indicative of how Clemson was flying to the ball. There were times when it looked like they had 15 guys out there.
The front did a great job of shutting down the run all day and then turned their attention to harassing the State quarterbacks because they were forced to pass. Sapp looked to be too quick and athletic for their linemen to handle, and the inside guys did a nice job of forcing double teams.
Although it is harder to get a feel for the coverages from the television broadcast, it appeared that Vic Koenning did a good job of mixing in some man early on and it shut down the few attempts State tried at getting the ball to their backs on screens and underneath routes.
He ran more zone later in the game and State was able to hit some of the intermediate routes, but that is not such a bad thing when you have a commanding lead. Give them the underneath stuff and take away the big play.
Tackling was better this week, but there are still too many attempts of going for the big shot instead of making the sure tackle. A number of the guys are also reaching or throwing shoulders rather than exploding through the hit and wrapping up. That has to be corrected or the Tigers will pay the price sooner rather than later.
The corners continued to play well against both the run and pass. They are much more physical as a group than I thought they would be before the season began.
Chris Chancellor had a very nice pick on State?s first drive. He did a magnificent job of using the sideline to his advantage and positioned himself extremely well as he went up for the ball.
Michael Hamlin ended the day with two interceptions, although only one officially counted. His second came on two-point conversion attempt than he returned the distance after making a great read and break. Because of how stats are kept, that one does not go on the books.
The one area in which State had some success was finding their tight ends. This goes back to what I said last week concerning free releases. A tight end should rarely, if ever, release downfield unabated. The linebackers need to do a better job of contacting them.
They also need to do a better job of taking their drops. I noticed a few times that they were turning and running to a spot as opposed to keeping their eyes on the quarterback as they got depth. If they get their heads turned towards the play, they should do a better job of seeing some of those routes and have a shot at making plays.
Everyone had to be thinking bad thoughts as Darrell Blackman raced down the sidelines on his return for a touchdown. A collective ?here we go again? could be heard throughout the Clemson nation.
But give credit where it?s due ? Blackman is a great return man.
You do not like to see a kick that close to the middle of the field, but that is no excuse as to why the Tigers gave up the big play. They simply did a poor job of covering the kick. I saw at least two guys zigzagging their way down the field trying to avoid blocks rather than sticking to their lane assignments and blowing up blocks. There were also a few poor attempts at making a tackle.
There is no need for concern just yet. The mistakes that were made are easily correctible.
Marc Buchholz had his first miss of the year and ended the day with two, three if you count the 51-yard attempt just before the half that was negated by a penalty. His others came from 29 and 52 yards. Both had the distance but missed wide.
He did nail a career long 46-yarder with no time left on the clock before the half. It was a great kick and showed he has the proper mental makeup considering he had just knuckleballed the 51-yarder.
Jimmy Maners only had two punts but continued to shine with a 48.5 yard average. Crezdon Butler did a great job of beating a tandem of gunners to the inside on one of the punts and but the coverage was a little suspect on the other.
Jacoby Ford was one step away from possibly breaking a big punt return, but those opportunities may be few and far between because most teams appear to be either punting it high and short or away from the return men. They averaged just 36.5 yards on six punts with a long of 46.
Spiller fielded both of the Tigers? kickoff returns, but could not do much with them. It looks like he is waiting too long for a hole to develop rather than turning on the speed as soon as he makes the catch. He needs to be at full speed about five yards into the return instead of searching.
I though Rob Spence called a masterful game. He stayed aggressive the entire time and even caught a little flack on a few of the message boards for throwing it late. I find that somewhat ironic considering a lot of people came down hard on him last year for not being aggressive and working the passing game early in the season when he had chances.
His plan on the ground seemed to be much like the one he used against Georgia Tech last year ? hit ?em in the middle. That can sometimes be the best plan of attack against a speedy defense that likes to attack.
Involving Ford in the running game has been a plus because he is speedy enough to make plays and it loosens up defenses that pursue well. I also like how he is using the middle of the field and taking some deep shots in the passing game.
The one area that must be corrected immediately is the production in the red zone. There is no excuse for not more than 50 points on the board Saturday. Yes, that sounds awfully greedy after a big day, but facts are facts. Four trips inside the opponents 15-yards with only nine points to show for it will spell defeat more times than not.
Koenning also had a good plan with his unit, although I am not so sure he is ever going to be pleased with their production unless the opponent finishes with negative yardage and a ton of turnovers. There is still plenty of room for improvement, but the overall effort and execution was pretty good.
Overall, there is not much to complain about when you go on the road for the first time and come home with a 22-point conference win. Focus on all that good in order to boost the confidence level, but pay special attention to the areas that need work and continue to work on getting better because the next two weeks will tell a lot about how the season will unfold.