They are affectionately called the “Big Uglies”; offensive lineman on football teams that are responsible for making an offense good, great, or bad. With all due respect, at Clemson they have been “big” and “ugly” but it is a stretch to look at this group the past two years and use the term “affection”.
Let’s introduce the disclaimers right from the start. Each of them could snap me in half with their fingers without too much effort on their part. I certainly don’t want to run into any of them in a dark ally when they read this. Hopefully, they would show mercy if we see each other on the sideline this fall.
The other disclaimer that we should acknowledge is that the 2009 version of this offensive line had to play as youngsters last year. Maybe they had to play too early to be effective.
Ok, with the disclaimers on the table, I must say that we have a culture of passive offensive lineman that have not been able to man-up against good defenses.
The past two years, our Tigers have had arguably two of the most talented tandem running backs that Clemson has ever had. I’ve seen Kevin Mack, Cliff Austin, Terry Allen, and Kenny Flowers. James Davis and CJ Spiller are the types of running backs that programs win championships with, just like those mentioned above. That is, unless you don’t have any blocking to give the running backs a chance.
Clemson has been amazingly inept in running the football against good football teams the past two years. A quick browse shows that Clemson has faced eleven teams from major conferences the past two years that won eight or more football games in a season. I don’t know that you can necessarily constitute winning only eight games as a good football team, but I think that is a fair starting point. I threw out any team like The Citadel, SC State, and bad ACC teams with losing records from the calculations. To win championships, you have to run the football against good teams, not just a team coming to Death Valley to receive a paycheck. Lost in the numbers of Rob Spence’s offense was the fact that we padded our rushing stats the past few years against bad football teams that we could have won the games even if we threw the ball every down.
I also looked at net rushing yardage, not just yardage gained from rushing the football. Sometimes our rushing numbers were lowered because of the number of sacks given up (which counts as negative yards towards rushing statistics). Again, good offensive lines can run the football and protect their quarterback and maintain healthy net rushing yards per game.
So I examined how we have run the ball against good football teams the past two years. In those eleven games the past two years against teams that finished the season with eight or more wins, Clemson has rushed for more than 100 yards only three times (Maryland in ‘08, Wake Forest in ‘07 and Auburn in ‘07).
Amazingly, Clemson has rushed for less than 52 yards in those eleven games more times than the Tigers have rushed for more than 100 yards. Clemson has rushed for less than 52 yards a mind-boggling six times (Alabama, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Nebraska in ‘08 and Virginia Tech and Boston College in ‘07).
In 2008, Clemson had a great game rushing the football against Maryland, netting 221 yards in a losing effort. Even with that effort against Maryland, Clemson still managed to average only 66 yards rushing per game against teams with 8 or more wins. If you were to take the 221 yard game against Maryland out of the data, the Tigers managed a paltry 40.3 yards per game in the other six games against teams that went on to 8 or more wins.
Don’t be mistaken in thinking that 2008 was the exception to the rule. In 2007 Clemson managed only 97.5 yards rushing per game against teams that won eight or more games. In the biggest game of the year, a game against Boston College with the ticket to Jacksonville for the ACC Championship game on the line, Clemson struggled for only 47 yards rushing. Against Virginia Tech earlier that year, the Tigers rushed for only 8 yards in the lopsided loss to the Hokies. Amazingly, the 47 yards against BC and the 8 yards against VT came in games at home! To think in two football games in front of sold out crowds in Death Valley that Clemson would only muster 55 total yards rushing would make Danny Ford throw up on his tobacco juice and Frank Howard roll over in his grave.
I don’t think I’m making an outrageous claim when I suggest the reason we have not played in a championship game the past two years is because we can’t run the football against good football teams. It really is that simple, and yet that difficult to explain.
I can’t recall many games in the Tommy Bowden era where I felt we were the tougher football team. South Carolina in 2002 and Georgia Tech in 2006 come to mind. But faced with the overwhelming statistics in the opposite direction, you almost have to think those games were flukes instead of the norm.
So you think that winning championships in this day and age of fast-paced offenses is not critical? Think again my friend.
The last three ACC champions have all rushed the football against good football teams at a rate much better than Clemson. Last year, Virginia Tech averaged 172.1 yards per game rushing against teams that went on to win 8 or more games. During Virginia Tech’s 2007 march to the ACC Championship, the Hokies average 123.5 yards rushing per game against teams that won 8 or more games. In 2006, Wake Forest stunned the nation by capturing the ACC Championship. And by the way, Wake averaged 125.2 yards rushing per game against teams that won 8 or more games.
Tommy Bowden loved to talk about how we were one play or one game away from playing for an ACC Championship. My math suggests that we were more like 50 yards per game on the ground from playing for an ACC Championship.
I’m not smart enough to know whether the two-point stance or the three-point stance is a reason, a contributing factor, or irrelevant to the lack of production in the running game against good teams.
Sometimes, especially at the line of scrimmage, attitude and heart equates to success as much as technique.
I’m sure it is a sore spot with those offensive linemen. They want to be tough. I’m sure they take pride in beating the man across from them. I don’t think any of them lie awake at night and take pride in the sobering rushing statistics that have swamped this program into the mediocrity of 7 and 8 win seasons.
But whether it is a sore spot with them or not, the sobering facts are staring us right between the eyes. Clemson is not going to win an ACC Championship until we can run the football. Clemson is not going to win an ACC Championship until we get tough on the offensive line. That’s right…I said tough. And folks, the fact is we have been far from tough for way too long.
So I suppose you can say the onus is on the big fellas up front to man-up and start performing at a level that Clemson football used to expect every year. Those “Big Uglies” have got to start blocking somebody if we are going to get over the hump and be a championship team.
While the sexy storylines this fall camp have centered on Kyle Parker and Willy Korn, how many carries CJ Spiller will get, and what kind of impact the tight ends are going to have, the bottom line is that all of those things don’t matter if Clemson’s offensive line can’t block good football teams.
All the other storylines, subplots, and bylines are so insignificant they are almost not worthy of any media attention. And you can also disregard what the offensive coaches and the offensive lineman tell you about how good of an offseason they had. I don’t want to hear about how their offseason strength program was the best it has ever been. I don’t want to hear about how the offensive lineman bonded during the offseason. I don’t want to hear about how a year of experience is going to make them better. I don’t want to hear about how we must avoid injuries at certain positions. I don’t want to hear about how the three point stance is going to change the entire mentality and production of the offensive line.
In fact, I don’t want to hear anything. I want to see it on the field. I want to see Clemson line up on third and five and hand the ball off left guard for 7 yards and a first down. And I want to see Clemson do it against somebody other than The Citadel.
Dabo Swinney has spoken at length about changing the culture of this football program. He needs to look no further than up front on the offensive line.
It’s time to man up. It’s time to play like Clemson offensive lineman on our championship teams in the 70’s and 80’s. It’s time to control a game. It’s time to stop saying how good the defensive lineman are on the other team. It’s time to do better than 66 yards per game.
It’s time to block somebody.