Robbie Tinsley: Warning bells need to be heard, heeded by Tigers
|Tuesday, September 26, 2017, 7:01 AM- -|
Yes, all wins look the same in the standings.
Yes, 27-point conference wins are meant to be savored, rather than critiqued.
And yet, after Clemson’s 34-7 win over Boston College on Saturday, there are warning bells that the defending champions need to hear.
Because for the first time this year, quarterback Kelly Bryant’s limitations in the passing game, were brought to the forefront by an opposing defense.
Because for the four rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the offensive line struggled to give Bryant adequate time to throw, especially against the blitz.
Lastly — and perhaps mostly — because what separated the 2015 runners-up from the 2016 champions, was the ability to heed those warning bells.
Granted, it was easier for Dabo Swinney’s 2016 team to take a moment to reflect on their issues during the regular season — losses tend to be better at making you focus on what you’re doing wrong than wins. It’s fair to say the best thing that could’ve happened to last year’s Tigers was the gut-wrenching loss to Pitt on a last-second field goal in mid-November.
In a previous version of the college football postseason, it may have been a death-blow to the Tigers’ title hopes. In this current College Football Playoff, it was a blessing delivered by the Panthers — and the Iowa Hawkeyes and USC Trojans, who dealt losses to playoff hopefuls Michigan and Washington later on that same November night.
The warning from the Panthers’ came in loud and clear: you can’t keep losing the turnover battle and expect someone not to punish you.
For all of Deshaun Watson’s wondrous abilities, he forced far too many throws during the majority of his junior campaign. Never was that more evident than during the Tigers’ loss to Pitt, as Watson threw three interceptions — two in the red zone — including one on the goal-line that elicited a titanic momentum shift in the fourth quarter that ended with Chris Blewitt’s 48-yard game-winning field goal.
Watson had displayed similar issues during wins against Louisville, N.C. State and Florida State, but after the loss to Pitt, he didn’t force as many passes during the memorable stretch run, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The year prior, the Tigers’ inability to defend against the deep pass and inadequacies on kick return defense were well documented going into the national championship game, and yet Alabama was able to take advantage of those weaknesses en route to the 45-40 victory for the Crimson Tide. That Clemson team didn’t get a chance to learn from its only loss of the season.
Again, as the lede sentences suggested, we’re talking about a 27-point win in conference play against a team that — despite all of its faults — is driven by its toughness and its ability to make you make plays to beat them. After giving up countless big plays in a loss to Notre Dame last week, Boston College was able to keep a lid on the Tigers’ offense — well for three quarters anyway — and take advantage of the superior field position to ensure Bryant had to go nearly the length of the field if he wanted to find the end zone.
However, there’s a reason the fine folks in the Nevada desert saw fit to make the Tigers a 34-point favorite against the 1-2 Eagles on Saturday. There are vastly superior teams on Clemson’s schedule the rest of the way, starting with No. 12 Virginia Tech on Saturday night in Blacksburg, Va.
The questions have been asked, and it’s now up to a coaching staff that’s done nothing but build teams who are built to provide answers to such questions.
Co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott moved to 32-2 since their promotions to their current roles in December 2014. They’re well aware that their offense picked up 27 first downs on Saturday —19 on the ground and eight through the air. They see that their offensive line is much more comfortable opening up holes than providing a pocket for Bryant to stand in — or run out of. And they see that they have a freshman running back in Travis Etienne with an uncanny ability to shed tackles and make defenders disappear into his rear-view mirror, to go along with a pair of sturdy between-the-tackles running backs in Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice.
This is an offense that has the ability to run to set up the pass after a few years of being just the opposite. It’ll play into the strengths of its mobile and downfield-oriented quarterback, its deep running back core, its big-play-threat wide receivers, its run-block-comfortable offensive line and its tenaciously stingy defense.
This team is built to make a run.
And it’s ready to run.
Robbie Tinsley is a lapsed sports writer, currently residing in Cambridge, Mass.