Monday thoughts: Did Newton's presence distract Watson?
|Monday, September 5, 2016, 7:01 AM- -|
Early in the hours of Sunday morning, long after the fans and teams had left Jordan-Hare Stadium, tired and sleepy members of the media trudged out of the press box, fought for elevator space with workers transporting seat backs from the upper levels of the stadium, and made the long walk back to their cars.
We were lucky enough to be picked up by a media shuttle and as I rode back to the parking space near the Auburn softball fields, I looked at social media and was shocked to see hundreds if not thousands of Clemson fans still awake at 3 a.m. Not only were they awake, they were angry. Mad. Frustrated. Irate. Throw your own word in there.
Head coach Dabo Swinney’s decision to not kick a field goal late in the 19-13 win over Auburn created a firestorm of emotion. What I couldn’t get my head around – and maybe I was too tired to really get it – was that it was a moot point. We will never know for sure what the right call would have been. The field goal could have been blocked. The snap could have been fumbled. The field goal could have been good. We will never know for sure, and Swinney’s decision – whether you like it or not – worked.
I think the debate over the call has overshadowed some of the things we saw and some of the moments that mattered, including the fact that Clemson went into a hostile road environment and came out victorious. There were mistakes aplenty. The play calling was perplexing at times. There were mental miscues and drops and Clemson got lucky in the fact that Auburn’s coaching seemed even more perplexing (what in heck is Gus Malzahn thinking?).
It was also the first game of the season, when mistakes are a common occurrence. There are no preseason games in college football, and coaches never really know what they have until the scoreboard turns for real. Clemson escaped a road SEC environment against a determined and talented opponent (at least on SEC) that has coaches that make a lot of money and happen to recruit very well.
The big questions now are can they get those things fixed and can they get quarterback Deshaun Watson back into some kind of groove? They have two weeks before a short week trip to Atlanta and a Thursday night date with Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech.
Some other thoughts:
*I wonder if some of Watson’s troubles didn’t stem from the fact that Cam Newton was in attendance. Watson is friends with Newton and looks up to him, and it would be understandable if he wanted to impress the one quarterback he really looks up to. When Watson threw the touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow he pointed at Newton, so he was very well aware of Newton’s presence.
*Brent Venables’ defense was better than I expected. This group is fast, and I think it has a chance to be good when it’s all said and done. There were some blips – pass interference penalty, the late hit out of bounds and the problems at the end of the game – but they held Auburn to under 100 yards rushing and just three of 17 third down conversions. And there were 13 tackles for loss.
*Dexter Lawrence is going to be fun to watch. It was evident early in the game he was going to be a force, and it didn’t look like the moment fazed him in any way. In the postgame interview area, Lawrence was all smiles (he has a baby face to go with his large frame) and looked very much like a kid who had just opened a new toy.
*The team word for the game was “dominate.” The Tigers didn’t dominate offensively, and a lot of that had to do with what Auburn was doing defensively. Kevin Steele ran more man coverage than I’ve seen him run in the past, and it took a while for Clemson to adjust. Once they did, the throws to Mike Williams were open and Watson and company took advantage. Williams dominated. The rest of the offense has to catch up.
*Speaking of Williams, he put the rest of the country on notice that he wants to be the best wide receiver in the country this season. Even Williams had a few moments, however. A fumble on third down and a dropped pass in the end zone were just as important as some of the other gaffes.
*For the record, I get the fans’ disappointment. Clemson has been a media darling since the end of last season, and when you get that kind of love it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you are going to win every game by three touchdowns. And then, when your team plays a tight game against a talented opponent, it’s a bit of a wakeup call. This team isn’t the best team in the country right now. But it’s week one.
*This game was eerily reminiscent of the game at Louisville last season. Even the stats were similar, and that game seemed to serve as a catalyst for Clemson’s offense. Perhaps this one will do the same. The coaches have plenty of tape to show the offense that they aren’t the best in the country, and it’s not even close.