The N.C. State game was one I wasn’t too sure about last week. Their strengths – a good defensive front and a mobile quarterback – matched up against Clemson’s weaknesses – a young offensive line and linebacker corps – very well on paper.
I thought all the Wolfpack needed was a little early momentum and a couple of turnovers to turn what the experts (the boys in Vegas) deemed an easy game into a fight. As Nate Irving crossed to goal line on an interception return for a touchdown on the first play of the game, I experienced one of those rare moments where I felt like I knew what I was talking about.
But as usual, I was proven wrong.
The Tigers regained the momentum by answering with a touchdown and proceeded to control the game from that point.
The offensive line started three freshmen and played at least one seldom used reserve (Bobby Hutchison) and another who was playing out of position (Jamarcus Grant played left tackle).
The good is they did not yield a sack and looked more comfortable as a group. There was much more continuity than I saw in the first two games.
The bad is they still didn’t look like the unit Clemson needs them to be in order to be successful.
The lack of sacks by the Wolfpack is somewhat deceiving. Yes, Clemson’s protection was very good at times, but the offense also benefited from receivers getting open early in their routes and Cullen Harper making some quick decisions.
The young line struggled mightily when trying to pick up some of the twists N.C. State used. Too many times a defensive end or tackle came free after the Clemson linemen failed to recognize the twist.
When a defensive tackle crashes to the outside on a pass play, the center, guard, and tackle to that side have to recognize that the end is likely going to make a move to the inside. Instead, there were times when all three linemen were blocking one tackle. Had Harper not found receivers who were able to find spots in the zone, he would’ve had a lot more soreness Sunday morning.
There were also a number of times that the tackles were caught leaning instead of moving their feet. That enabled the NCSU ends to either toss the Tigers’ tackles like rag dolls or blow by them with a speed rush.
In terms of run blocking, the group moved more like a cohesive unit. Their footwork was still a step slow at times, and they continue to play too high. There were also too many instances in which a linemen didn’t come off of a double team to pick up a linebacker at the second level.
The former will improve with time as they begin to rely more on their technique rather than their strength. The latter will also improve with time as they begin to develop more trust in the scheme.
A good example of not coming off to the linebackers was on the third-and-two play in which James Davis was stopped for a loss. It appeared the guard to that side didn’t anticipate the linebacker filling the hole as quickly as he did, essentially allowing him to run untouched to Davis. If that block had been made, Davis would’ve easily made his cut and picked up the first down.
As I’ve said before, I see enough good things from the line that makes me think that unit is going to be pretty good in due time. The question is when will that time come.
As for the rest of the offense, I thought Rob Spence did a good job of getting the ball to his playmakers and taking advantage of the speed those guys have. Some of his calls, such as the pitch to Jacoby Ford who was lined up at running back on third-and-two, were great.
Having Ford lined up at running back with Spiller at fullback isn’t a typical short yardage personnel grouping, but it was and can be effective because of Spiller’s renewed commitment to running instead of dancing.
By spreading the defense and putting those two back there, the defense has to decide if Spiller is going to get it on a quick hitter up the middle for the couple of yards that are needed or will Ford try to get to the outside. I doubt you’ll see that formation too often, but good luck to the linebackers that see it.
Speaking of those two, both had very solid performances. Ford showed just what a weapon he can be when healthy and Spiller broke enough ankles that a M.A.S.H. unit on the Wolfpack sideline would have been justified.
The screen game, which for some reason seems to be hated by a faction of fans, was very productive Saturday. I’ve said for a couple of years now that Clemson probably averages close to eight yards per attempt on the bubble and slip screens, although I’ve never taken the time to officially research it.
Clemson ran eight slip or bubble screens Saturday and averaged 10.25 yard per attempt even with one of the plays going for zero yards. The other seven went for 4, 14, 21, 7, 13, 17, and 6 yards. And that doesn’t even factor in Spiller’s 28-yard touchdown reception that was set up by a fake of a screen.
Cullen Harper made a poor decision on the first play of the game and missed a throw on the next drive, but he settled in and ended up having a very productive day.
I have never liked anyone running out of bounds but quarterbacks do get somewhat of a pass, especially quarterbacks that aren’t known as being elusive. I’m not saying his decision to step out of bounds instead of dropping his shoulder in a attempt to get the first down was the right one but I do understand. He’s been battling a shoulder injury and, after watching the replay, I just don’t think he would’ve gotten it with a LB and DB being right there.
Critiquing a defense that just gave up three points feels about as awkward as doing the same for an offense that just put up 56 points.
The theme this week is the same as it was the first two weeks – linebackers, or the lack thereof.
I’ve tried to think of a nice way to put it but I can’t. The linebackers simply aren’t getting it done through the first three games.
When their fits aren’t tentative, they’re usually bad. When they do make a good fit and get in position to make a play, they tackle like they’re trying to bring down their grandmother.
I watched a linebacker on more than one occasion look as if they were taking drops when tackles were coming out on them three and four yards from the line of scrimmage on obvious runs. And even if they thought the tackles were releasing to block on screens, they have to explode up field and get by them.
Stanley Hunter logged a lot of snaps due to the absence of Brandon Maye. He looked good when he was allowed to go after the quarterback on some of the scrambles and rollouts. His closing speed was exceptional and he didn’t seem to have a problem trying to decide if he should rush or drop.
Still, there were too many times in which he looked like his mind was made up before the play began. He’d just take off running right before or at the snap. Sometimes he guessed right and sometimes it looked like he was running to nowhere. It was almost as if he was playing backyard football at times.
Much like the offensive line, I see some good things. Cooper and Hunter have pretty good speed and both seem like they love to hit. They just need to get more comfortable with the scheme and their assignments. They, along with McDaniel and Maye, must continue to improve.
The defensive line, despite all of the injuries, really surprised me.
If the last two weeks are any indication of what to expect in the future, Tiger fans should be really excited about Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson. Watching those two over the next couple of years could be a lot of fun.
I’ve been really surprised by the quickness and athleticism each of them have displayed.
A lot of defensive linemen have fairly quick spin moves, but many of them are more of a lateral move. Jenkins and Thompson have great lateral spin moves, but they also have the ability to continue getting a push up the field while executing theirs. That’s a lot easier said than done for someone that’s over 300 pounds.
They also do a very good job of standing up offensive linemen and shedding blocks by gaining leverage. They didn’t just come free on their tackles for loss. They defeated blocks and made great plays on the ball.
The defensive ends continue to improve and show a lot of potential. I love the speed Ricky Sapp and Da’Quan Bowers have. Bowers also has the size and strength to develop into a player that can be very solid against the run. I look at him as a guy that has the potential to be a combination of Gaines Adams and Phillip Merling.
The great thing about the speed rush the ends generate is it can wreak havoc on offensive tackles and make quarterbacks jumpy. The bad thing is they have a tendency to get too far up field too often because they rely so much on their speed. It opens up cutback lanes on runs and allows quarterback to easily step up in the pocket and buy another second or two, if not more, to make a throw.
The secondary continues to perform well.
I still love Chris Chancellor and think he doesn’t get enough credit from fans and the media. He’s solid in pass coverage, provides really good run support, and he’s not scared to get physical with the bigger guys.
Michael Hamlin has been asked to play what is essentially a linebacker in the nickel package this year and he’s done a good job. I’ve been impressed with how natural he looks making fits and how physical he can be from that position.
Jimmy Maners wasn’t even scheduled to start until Dawson Zimmerman pulled a hamstring during pregame. Given the opportunity, all he did was average 47.7 yards per kick on three attempts while pinning the Wolfpack inside their own 20-yard line twice. It was an outstanding performance by the senior.
Mark Buchholz was perfect on his two field goal attempts and three extra points. He had a couple of kickoffs that went deep into the end zone and the others had very good hang time. Still, I think the kicks that are short of the end zone should be closer to the numbers instead of the middle of the field.
Both the kickoff and punt coverage units did a pretty good job. Byron Maxwell made a great open field tackle on a punt inside of the 10-yard line just before the half. The punt coverage unit also did a great job of keeping a punt out of the end zone by downing it at the four-yard line.
And a tip of the hat goes to Tyler Grisham. The senior from Birmingham was a kamikaze on the kickoff unit. He blocks his tail off on offense, is not scared to take a hit while going across the middle for a pass, and then he runs out there on the kickoff team and treats it like it’s the only time he sees the field.
Clemson struggled with N.C. State’s pooch kicks early in the game but adjusted after the first couple and Spiller ended up with one good return that put them across midfield.
And a good job by Jarvis Jenkins to block the N.C. State extra point. In some respects that was a momentum changing play and could have been the difference in the game if a few more plays had gone against the Tigers.
The offense moved the ball pretty well most of the day. One could argue the two turnovers were worth a 13-point difference in the score. Clemson was putting together a very good drive when Harper had his fumble.
The offense deserves a lot of credit for putting together that 13-play, 96-yard drive for a score to end the game. They really needed to burn some time and work the field position at that point but they took it a step further by punching it in.
The defense gave up some big plays but managed to keep the Wolfpack out of the end zone. N.C. State was 7-of-17 on third down conversions, one of which came via a bad call on a penalty, which isn’t good. The bright side of that was they didn’t give up any third down conversions for points. In fact, N.C. State had a third-and-three at the Clemson six-yard line once and couldn’t get anything more than a field goal out of it.
With S.C. State coming up this week, all the Clemson faithful can hope for is some of the younger guys gain some more experience and continue to improve as they get ready for their second conference game against Maryland next week.