Second Look: Grading Clemson versus NC State
|Monday, November 6, 2017, 2:07 PM- -|
Inconsistency in all phases marked a game where the No. 4 Tigers escaped a raucous environment at NC State with a win.
Here’s how the Tigers grade:
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called Saturday night in Raleigh Kelly Bryant’s worst game of the season. That’s a point that’s hard to disagree with after a second look at the game, as opportunities were there against a much-hyped NC State defense that looked beatable.
Right out of the gates, Bryant didn’t complete a pass to a Clemson receiver in his first five attempts and couldn’t connect on eight of his first 11 throws on first and second down, setting up tough third down conditions.
Passes were underthrown. Passes were overthrown:
Now, there may not be an opponent the next the four weeks or so that will make Clemson pay for it, but improved accuracy is a must against better competition down the road.
When the passes were on target, Bryant and his receivers weren’t without some moments of brilliance:
In the running game, it’s fair to dock some points off the grade for Bryant too, as well as the playcalling decision-making that left the game largely in Bryant's hands.
He was Clemson’s far-and-away leader in rushing attempts (20), and that yielded two of only three chunk run plays (10-plus yards) in the 224-rushing yard night.
Bryant attempted his most career passes and suffered his worst completion rate this season (52.6), and those 20 rush attempts were his second-most of the season too (22 v. Boston College the most).
Neither Travis Etienne nor Tavien Feaster have reached double-digits in touches since the Oct. 7 Wake Forest game, and the Spartanburg speedster Feaster showed what he could do when he reaches the second level untouched:
One of the weaker points of the Clemson run game came in a chance to close out game after an onside kick recovery. On third-and-short, Bryant feeds Etienne right to a NC State blitzer up the middle, where another QB keeper might’ve got the job done. It appeared to be a standard read-option play, but Etienne was getting the ball no matter what from Bryant’s body language:
The stretch run for this offense will be interesting one way or another, with plenty to correct for building momentum in Clemson's championship phase.
Numbers to know: 18 – Deon Cain targets in the last two games, with 13 catches for 141 yards and two touchdowns. 3.4 – Bryant’s yards per pass in the first half on first and second down throws. He recovered to average 9.3 per in the second half, including a 12-yard TD to Deon Cain. 5 – Clemson games with 200-plus rushing yards in nine games this season, which is one short of 2016’s 15-game run. 59.4 – Clemson’s conversion rate on third-and-short runs this season, despite going 2-of-4 Saturday. They are up from 55.8 percent last season on third-and-short but far behind the 2015 campaign (67.9).
It wasn’t pretty, but they faced some challenging circumstances.
NC State’s offensive line looked as strong as any Clemson’s faced in pass protection. Wolfpack QB Ryan Finley made up for running back Nyheim Hines’ absence as a playmaker (ankle) by dropping dime after dime in on receivers (There could be a highlight reel just from passes perfectly placed into the good coverage – some that were simply dropped by receivers at key moments).
And then there’s the ever-diminishing secondary depth, which made the Tigers go off-the-depth-chart to Ray Ray McCloud at cornerback on the final NC State drive.
It all made for an uncommonly bend-but-don’t-break-but-it-did-break-too-often Brent Venables’ defense.
Facing a number of four-receiver sets like the Syracuse game, Clemson – by a combination of adjustment and necessity – left all three of its linebackers in most of the game instead of going to an extra defensive back. Finley ripped the look to shreds early with short, intermediate and deep passes, including two of his three touchdowns, in a 15-for-15 start.
Finley’s hot streak became more hit-and-miss on connections over the rest of the game, competing only 16 of his next 35 throws, but even in that run, there were some big ones, including this TD that prompted K’Von Wallace to enter at safety and Van Smith to switch over to replace temporarily one-handed Tanner Muse:
Clemson’s starting cornerbacks saw plenty of targets and largely contained big plays, with Trayvon Mullen totaling eight solo stops with a pass breakup and Ryan Carter flipping momentum late with a pick, in addition to three pass breakups and a tackle for loss:
The heavier personnel for much of the game did accomplish something Clemson struggled with versus Syracuse: stopping short-yardage runs.
Versatile NC State athlete Jaylen Samuels touched the ball 15 times and averaged 2.9 yards per play. Clemson was ready for Samuels to take direct snaps in short yardage and contained it – no bigger than a late-third-quarter stop at midfield where NC State punted and Feaster took the next play 89 yards for a touchdown.
In the final two drives, the Tiger ‘D’ made up for early struggles by bowing up backed up to the goal line, giving up three points in two-straight trips inside the Clemson 30. The late-game sub Wallace delivered a knockout blow to stave off overtime:
Venables' group gave up more yards and more points (491 yards/31 points) than the Syracuse game (440 yards/27 points), but that road performance – the win-loss result taken out – still felt worse than this road performance. NC State made plays when Tiger defenders were in position, but also out-schemed and out-executed at points like that prior road trip. When a critical stop was needed, the defense delivered late, and there isn’t an offense that will stress them like that for at least the rest of the month.
Numbers to know: 2 – NC State sacks allowed in conference play, a total which Clemson added to with Clelin Ferrell’s sack Saturday. 3.4 – Clemson’s chunk pass plays allowed per game, going into the game, before surrendering nine to the Wolfpack. 2-for-10 – NC State on third and fourth down in the second half, after starting 3-for-6.
Special teams: B-
There was a lot going on here in this one.
One of the areas addressed in ‘Second Look’ in previous weeks is what a big play in the return game could do for this team, and a 77-yard Ray Ray McCloud TD provided some much-needed punch through the first-quarter struggles:
Also on the plus side were three punts inside the 20, including Bryant’s quick-kick to the 1 yard-line. An onside kick recovery late set the Tigers up to run out the clock (with better execution on offense). On Clemson’s kickoffs, NC State returner Jaylen Samuels was limited to 16 yards per on three tries.
More in the middle on the spectrum was Etienne averaging 24 yards per kick return.
On the downside, Alex Spence made his first field goal try (26 yards), but was successfully iced by NC State, after two timeouts, on a 39-yarder going into the half. Two kickoffs went out of bounds as well, including one that gave NC State a shorter field for their final touchdown in the fourth quarter.
With inconsistency a trademark of the day in all three phases, getting a couple special teams scores could very well have been the difference in keeping the Playoff hopes alive.
Numbers to know: 101 – Punt returns between Clemson scores, going back to 2014 and a 72-yard return from Adam Humphries to open the Tigers’ scoring in a 23-17 win over Louisvlle. 1-of-4 – Spence’s field goal attempts from 30-39 yards out now this season.
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