Editor's Note: This article was scheduled to appear yesterday but we pushed it back due to the death of Jim Phillips.
A better than expected crowd got to see the Tigers notch its first victory of the 2003 season on Saturday.
What could and should have been a runaway victory, turned into a 13 point win marred by penalties, poor special teams play, and another bad rushing performance. Thankfully for Clemson fans, a fairly strong passing game and good effort by the defense never really left the game in question.
The game truly was a no-win situation for a team looking to find an identity. A big win, and fans would have simply written it off as a victory against a much lesser opponent. A run of the mill effort like the one turned in on Saturday means that no one is happy with the prospects for the remainder of the season.
Truth be known, these are the hardest games for the players to get enthused about. Playing a lesser opponent after a big loss usually makes for a hard week of practice and not a lot to play for on Saturday. It sounds bad to say such a thing, but why deny the truth. Whether in sports or everyday life, it is human nature in such situations.
ANALYZING THE KEYS TO IMPROVEMENT
1. Experience - Some of the younger players got a chance to play. Anthony Waters seemed to be on the field for more snaps that any of the others. He made some rookie mistakes, but looked to have a pretty good performance. His combination of size and speed was what stood out the most. If he continues to improve over the course of the season, he should garner much more playing time. He is someone the fans should be excited about as he has a very promising future.
Of the offensive linemen mentioned, it looked like Dustin Fry may have been the only one that did not get on the field...at least as far as I could tell. Chip Myrick saw the most action of any of the reserves. Dukes, Pilgrim, and Roman Fry saw action, but not nearly as much as the fans or coaches would have liked.
Chansi Stuckey made what looked like a predetermined appearance on the third drive of the game. Operating in what has affectionately become known as the "Woody" offense, he had two straight designed runs that resulted in a combined gain of one yard. Charlie Whitehurst replaced him on third down to start the second quarter in an attempt to throw the ball for a first down. It is clear that there is a steep drop off from Whitehurst. Fans can only hope Stuckey's playing time in the future is not out of necessity.
2. Running Game - In comparison to the UGA game, the running game was better...at least statically. Of course, that is not saying very much.
It is now painfully obvious that the 2003 running game is not going to be very good. That downfall rests solely on the shoulders of the offensive line. The running backs have run hard and shown some promise. The problem is that they are constantly fighting just to get three and four yards.
As much as the fans and coaches would like to focus on the running game, it seems like this team must now rely on the passing game to get through the season. It is not a predicament that any team would like to be in, but that does not mean all is lost. There is enough talent at wide receiver and quarterback to make this team a productive one. If they can continue to improve the running game on a weekly basis, there will come a point in the season where it will be productive enough to take this offense from a one-dimensional approach.
Besides the backs running hard, there was one other bright spot on Saturday. Steven Jackson had at least 8 plays at fullback and did a very good job as a blocker. He looks like a prototypical I-formation fullback. He has yet to showcase his running ability, but was impressive in carrying out his duties. Eight plays are not nearly enough to judge someone's talents, but he at least began laying a solid foundation for future playing time.
3. Intensity - The intensity was not bad at times - especially for the defense - but it was not nearly what it should have been. The killer instinct just was not there. That may or may not have been a direct correlation to the quality of the opponent.
The offense never seemed to get in gear in the second half. The opportunities were there to put a lot of points on the board and make it a true laugher. Instead, they turned in a lackadaisical effort as they focused on the running game. Ben Hall and Bobby Williamson also had two big drops that could be attributed to a lack of focus.
Leroy Hill and J.J. Howard had good efforts on the defensive side of the ball as they played at full throttle most of the game. Those two need to turn in similar efforts over the next 10 games if the defense is going to continue to improve.
The special teams took a step in the wrong direction this week. Just what is it about Clemson punters not being able to handle perfect snaps?
Minus Derrick Hamilton's 66-yard kickoff return, the return game was not even close to being average. The Tigers had negative return yards in the punting game thanks in part to four different penalties and a 20-yard loss by Justin Miller.
Lou Groza Award nominee Aaron Hunt continued to struggle with field goals as he missed from 38 and 48 yards. He is now 0-3 on the season and has pretty much taken himself out of the running for any post-season awards. Bowden has since stated that Hunt's job will be in jeopardy if he does not improve very soon.
The Tigers repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with 11 penalties for 111 yards. A 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty kept a Furman scoring drive alive after being stopped on fourth down. A clipping penalty also negated a nice completion to Curtis Baham. The Tigers are not explosive enough to overcome such penalties in a tight game. They must be corrected.
It was not what everyone had planned, but it was a victory. A victory is what this team needed more than anything.
They did not get to play as many players for as many plays as desired, and the running game was still very anemic. The defense struggled at times with the option, but had an overall good performance. The passing game was good and finally showed its big play ability. One would think the Tigers would have thrown the deep ball more often, but the emphasis on the running game was top priority.
Once a solid lead was established, things got very vanilla for the Tigers. The good thing is that they needed that as they worked on the basics.
Whitehurst had a good day throwing the ball and made some very good decisions. What is often overlooked is his relative youth and decision-making ability. Not once did he throw the ball up for grabs when pressured. He either got positive yards with his legs or threw the ball away. He did make a great throw to Baham in the corner of the end zone on a ball that should have been caught.
Fans were not impressed with the victory and rightfully so. Those wanting a blowout instead witnessed a game in which Clemson did not show very much as they worked on playing fundamentally sound football. They should take the victory and move on to Middle Tennessee State on the 13th. The hope for continued improvement should guide them through the next couple of weeks of practice as they enter the conference schedule against a Georgia Tech team coming off a big victory.