Late offensive surge provides glimpse of future but questions still remain

by - Senior Writer -

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A disappointing and sometimes lackluster three-and-a-half quarters for the Clemson offense turned around late in Friday’s Meineke Car Care Bowl, giving Clemson fans the only reason to cheer during the loss to South Florida.

And it provide a small glimpse of the future, as quarterback Tajh Boyd took over for starter Kyle Parker, who left with broken ribs. Once Boyd got over his jitters and settled in, he led the Tigers to two late scoring drives and said after the game that he felt like he would have led the team to a final touchdown had Clemson gotten the ball back on the final onside kick.

Boyd said Swinney told him at halftime that the second half would be his, and he was disappointed that he wasn’t able to deliver.

“I think it shows a lot of our character with how we tried to come back and win this game,” Boyd said. “We made some dumb mistakes early on. You kind of wish that you could have those things back. We have a lot of fight in this team and it’s going to be fun in the future. Coach Swinney told me to go out and win the game for us. I wish I could’ve done that for them. A few more things here and there and we could’ve changed the outcome.”

The redshirt freshman said he realizes he has things to work on.

“It’s little stuff. When I threw the pick, I tried to squeeze it in there when I probably could’ve checked it down, but it’s just me trying to make plays,” Boyd said. “It’s learning to manage the game. One time I threw it away and I didn’t realize it was third down. This is a hard-working program. We have a solid fan base. We want to go out there and win for us and the fans. It’s hard to come out of here with a losing record, but I think we’ve made some guarantees that it won’t happen again.”

He also said he grew up a little in the process.

“Towards the end the of the game is when I got most comfortable,” he said. “I was a little nervous coming into the second half, but things started to settle down. I was just trying to come out and make some plays. I think I grew up a little bit in the second half.

“I hope this will lead to some things for a better future. I can’t wait to get out there and get to work in the offseason. I’m going to do my best and work my hardest to make sure that we have a successful season. Other players are going to play like that too. In the offseason there’s going to be a lot of hard work. I’m excited about it.”

Offensive coordinator Billy Napier said Boyd showed his competitive nature.

"I think what happens to a guy like that is he gets in a situation where nothing matters but competing and getting himself and his team in a position to win,” Napier said. “I think that'll be valuable as he moves forward, where he is thinking back to the positive experiences he had at the end of the game. I think he got comfortable and was just competing and thought about nothing but getting his team in a position to win.

“You saw that the guy can play. Once he got that mindset that he was going to do what he needed to in order to get the team to compete, he did a lot of good things. I was pleased for a red-shirt freshman to go in and make the best of that situation. He has a lot of growing up to do and today was part of that process."

The Clemson offense struggled rushing the football, gaining just 50 yards on 27 attempts, and Napier said it was the same things that have hurt the offense all season.

"We couldn't get much going when their front moved,” Napier said of the running game. “I think we had the one big negative. Overall we didn't rush it very effectively. Credit goes to South Florida. They did a good job. I'll know more when I look at the tape. It was the same old thing when it comes to the red zone – missing one field goal and having to kick another.

“I think South Florida's defense did a heck of a job. The things under our control, turnovers and penalties, were disappointing. Because we had a couple of procedural penalties and that was unusual. I stay up late thinking about those things. Execution was good at times and at times it wasn't. Their defensive front played well. I'll know more based off the tape."

The Tigers threw the ball more than 30 times in seven games – all seven losses –and Napier was asked what the stat meant.

"I think a lot of it has to do with being behind. I think it's a good stat,” Napier said. “The New York Jets try to run it 31 times a game because they feel it helps them win the game. When you get down two or three scores, you get in a situation where you have to throw the ball. Another thing you need to look at when you throw that stat out there is did you have two-minute situations before the half, which we did in the Miami and UNC games. There's definitely some legitimacy to that deal."

He was also asked if philosophical changes will be a part of the off-season.
“Obviously we have to do some things different,” he said. “There are some things we have to take a good look in the mirror at, but through personnel we're going to get better quickly. The one thing I think we need to take a good look in the mirror about is something I learned this year. Leadership is something you have to put a lot of emphasis on. In terms of the contributors we had in the senior class on offense, which affected our leadership."

*Center Dalton Freeman spoke for the offensive line following the game, and he said that a 6-7 record is not acceptable.

"None of us came here to have a losing season and be 6-7,” the sophomore said. “But I can promise you we're going to have our best off-season. These guys, we're going to step up. We're not going to give them a choice. We're going to turn it around. I am very disappointed. Disappointed. This is very unacceptable."
*Freshman wide receiver Nuke Hopkins had eight catches for 94 yards, and he said the comeback was simply a case of players refusing to give up.

“Guys just knew we weren’t going to give up,” Hopkins said. “We could only do what was in our hands, so when guys got the ball we just tried to make plays. In the first quarter we got a couple of field goals. The first half was alright. The second half we knew we had to step it up. We weren’t going to let the seniors go out like that, so every time we got the ball we tried to make something happen. Everything doesn’t go our way. It’s the game of football. I’m proud of my teammates. We could’ve easily given up. South Florida played a good game, so give them credit.”

He also gave credit to Boyd for stepping into a tough situation and making plays.

“Tajh played a great game for what he was in,” he said. “He had a couple of mistakes, but that’s just from inexperience. Tajh stepped up. Even though Andre Ellington, our best running back is out, we are still better than our record says. We can only control what’s in our hands. We can’t control everything.

“That’s just football. You can be down by 30 points in one half and come back. It’s just about the fight and will that the team has and didn’t want to lose like that. Against South Carolina guys kind of gave up and we knew it could’ve easily ended like that, but we didn’t give up.”

*One final thought on the offense. I have a very good friend who is an offensive coordinator, and with all of the consternation regarding the play-calling, I asked him to take some time out from his duties to watch the game. In a nutshell, he said that it was obvious after the first three series that South Florida’s defense was very fast to the boundary – faster than anyone Clemson had offensively – and that certain plays weren’t going to work.

Those plays are sweeps, end-arounds and bubble screens. The defensive line, especially South Florida’s defensive ends, were making mincemeat of the Tigers’ tackles and getting upfield. In that situation, the offense needed to run draw plays and call passes that were three-step drops or fewer, the same kind that the South Florida offense was running. Quick slants, quick curls, etc.

South Florida’s linebackers and safeties were playing close to the line of scrimmage, and in situations like that, the bubble screens are simply not going to work because of how close to the line the defensive players are. The play calling was simply playing into the hands of the defense, and it wasn’t until late in the game that the Tigers went back to the seam routes that were working earlier in the game.

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