Dabo Swinney picked a great time and place to pick up his first win as a head coach, giving Clemson an ACC win over the Boston College Eagles for the first time in four tries. However, this was win is less about Dabo and more about C.J. Spiller.
The junior running back, who had missed the previous six quarters with a hamstring injury, was definitely the difference for the Tigers. Kickoff returns, punt returns, running the football, catching passes – he did it all.
His kickoff return late in the game, the one that set up the go-ahead touchdown pass from Cullen Harper to Aaron Kelly, looked like it was done on guts alone. If I am Dabo Swinney, I try to make a gameplan for next week where I get the ball in his hands 25 or more times. He is simply too special, and I would love to see what the offense would look like should he get that kind of workload.
Defensively, the Tiger defense looked like a Tiger defense of old, with several big hits, and with more blitzes from the linebackers than I have seen in a while. That type of defensive effort will be needed down the stretch if the Tigers are to get to a bowl game.
Quarterbacks – Senior Cullen Harper made some big throws, including the touch pass to Aaron Kelly in the end zone for the game winner. He was able to escape pressure several times, but looked uncomfortable throwing on the run, so his shoulder may still be an issue. He had three interceptions, and looked like he was not going through his progressions on any of them. Give a defense like B.C.’s time to read your eyes, and you’re in trouble as a quarterback. I thought we would see a little more Willy Korn, but he must still be feeling the effects of his hurt shoulder.. He was in for just a couple of plays, and Dabo stuck with Harper even after it looked like he was imploding. The sign of a great quarterback is being able to sit in the pocket that extra split second and deliver a pass even if you know you’re going to take a shot. Harper looked like he would flush a little too early, and was ineffective once he left the pocket. If I am wily defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews of Florida State, and I see that on tape, I make sure I outnumber the blockers on every sure passing down and bring the blitz, knowing all they have to do is make him feel the pressure and the play will break down. Grade: C minus.
Running Backs – James Davis took a metal lunch pail and went to work on Saturday. He ran well between the tackles, exploited the holes that were there, and blocked when he had to. He also picked up the blitz on a couple of occasions, improving his NFL draft stock. On a day when he had to share the limelight with Spiller, Davis was an unsung here in this game. Spiller was amazing, as has already been documented. That game had the feel of Georgia Tech two years ago. Grade: A plus.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends – Aaron Kelly did what Aaron Kelly does, and that is block and catch passes. The touchdown grab at the end of the game was clutch, and hopefully erased some bad memories for him. Tyler Grisham did his usual job, and Michael Palmer would have had more catches if throws had been on target. The group might need to work on coming back to the quarterback once the play breaks down, however. On the plays I was looking for it, and granted I have not had a chance to view film, they did not do a great job of trying to get open once the route was busted. Maybe the game film review will show something different. Grade: B.
Offensive Line – This group did the job it needed to do against a fast, aggressive and big Eagle defense. Somebody needs to go find Bobby Hutchinson, who made the second start of his career (and first at center) and give him a pat on the back. Early in the game, there were some HUGE holes to run through. The running plays that really got stuffed were out wide, not on the interior. This group also did a pretty good job on pass protection. It is still a work in progress, but this group was called out, and they responded. Now, can we please make sure we have someone ready to get these guys to class this week, and avoid any scooter accidents? They need to be as healthy as possible against the Seminoles. Grade: B.
Defensive Line – This group was outstanding on Saturday. They got consistent pressure on Crane, the Boston College quarterback, and stuffed the Boston College running game. Ricky Sapp and DaQuan Bowers were all over the place, while Dorell Scott and his group in the middle kept blockers off the linebackers. Bowers recovered the fumble that helped seal the deal for the Tigers. It looked, midway through the fourth quarter, that they were starting to tire because of the time they had been on the field. Take away the interceptions and blocked punt, and this group was part of a dominant Clemson effort. However, I would have liked to have seen that pressure turn into more sacks. Pressure is great, but sometimes you just gotta finish. Grade: A.
Linebackers – This group is hard to call this week. There were some bright moments, including Kavell Conner on his blitzes. There were also some big hits, reminiscent of Tiger linebackers past. And the linebackers, especially on the run blitzes, came up huge. But there were also some problems in coverage, and you would love to see some of those shots at the quarterback turn into sacks. However, the pressure was enough to see the line get free. So, overall, a much better effort for this group, which is just beginning to grow up. Also, a thumbs up to defensive coordinator Vic K. for letting these guys loose on some blitzes and not just sitting back and letting the offense dictate the tempo.Grade: B.
Secondary – This group might actually get my game ball. No, there weren’t any huge interceptions, but this group covered very well. Even when Crane had time, there weren’t a lot of options open to him. There were a few hiccups here and there, but overall, this group made the plays they had to make. As I have said many times before, I have not seen them on film, just what I saw with the naked eye, but this group tackled better and covered more athletic receivers than against Georgia Tech. That type of effort will be needed again this weeked. Grade: A.
Special Teams – Kicker Mark Buckholz missed his first field goal of the year, but also made two that were the point differential in the game. His kickoffs, which were designed to go short and not allow the return team to set up blocks, were on target and effective as Boston College did not have any great returns. The coverage teams were also very good. Jimmy Maners was effective. I know there was a problem in the blocking in the middle on the blocked punt, so the blame can’t go to Maners here. The return teams were, as we know, very good, except for Spiller’s fumble on a punt return that would have given the Tigers great field position. There were good and bad, so…Grade: B minus.
Coaching – Swinney seems to be winning this team over with his style.. It was nice to see a Clemson team bounce back from adversity. The game plan was effective, both on offense and defense, and it was nice to see him showing emotion on the sideline. He was in the face of both offensive and defensive players, and was quick to growl at a miscue, or give praise when warranted. Koenning’s defensive gameplan was also effective, and it was great to see the blitz in the package. Swinney and Napier seemed to have no glitches in getting the plays called. The screens were effective and not too numerous, and the run and pass were mixed well. I would still like to see a little more play-action passing, but that will come as the Tigers run the ball better. Overall, though, it was great to see the Tigers bring some toughness to the table. Grade: A.