Second Look: Grading Clemson versus The Citadel

by - Staff Writer -
Tee Higgins breakout game could pay dividends down the road.
Tee Higgins breakout game could pay dividends down the road.

The keyword is confidence – and that’s just what Clemson takes into a two-game playoff to make the College Football Playoff for a third-straight season.

Here’s how the Tigers graded against The Citadel:

Offense: A

The grade isn’t for the production – because Clemson should put up 600-plus yards and 60-plus points on The Citadel. It’s more for how effectively the coaches and players used the tune-up game with championships on the line ahead.

This Clemson offense needed to see some deep passes connect, and the Bulldogs took the brunt of the extra aerial attack getting there.

A week after Kelly Bryant connected on 3-of-9 passes of 10-plus yards, the QB trio of Bryant, Hunter Johnson and Zerrick Cooper completed nine throws of 15-plus yards Saturday.

Of that group, Bryant building confidence passing downfield could mean the most to Clemson’s title chances.

Early in the first quarter, Bryant backed up a questionable throw into coverage by dropping-in a ball on the numbers to Deon Cain the next play, for a 53-yard TD:

On the day, Bryant completed 4-of-7 throws of 10-plus yards for 106 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t perfect, but with some help from the receiving corps, Bryant showed he can connect downfield, demonstrating that dangerous element to go with his running game.

Saturday was maybe as big a confidence-booster for five-star freshman Tee Higgins’ play. His opportunities had come few and far between through 10 games, but Higgins made the most of eight targets Saturday, including two highlight-reel catches:

Higgins is Clemson’s top jump-ball receiver already – and with more snaps, he can complement Deon Cain’s speed on routes to give opposing defensive backs fits. Those two did their part in accounting for seven chunk pass plays Saturday (15-plus yards). Just get the ball in range of these playmakers downfield and good things will happen.

Backup QBs Hunter Johnson and Zerrick Cooper each played their part on those deep throws, with Johnson connecting on 7-of-8 passes overall for 144 yards and a score and Cooper completing 7-of-11 for 105 yards and a TD. Johnson looked particularly sharp, showing off his progress from stepping on campus back in January, through early-season action to now.

Bryant only took a couple hits on the day – another ideal part of the gameplan. He attempted a season-low two rushes while Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster ran the show. Bryant’s legs bring another aspect to the offense, but a few more carries distributed to the running backs going forward could yield more explosive runs like Saturday.

With some good tape to break down, Clemson takes some momentum on the road to Columbia facing a Gamecocks defense efficient in containing scores and then one of the bigger challenges this season versus Miami in Charlotte.

Numbers to know: 3 – Clemson rushers over 600 yards currently, led by Etienne’s 679 yards and 11 touchdowns. In 15 games, Wayne Gallman topped 1,100 yards (1,133), followed by one other 600-yard rusher (Deshaun Watson, 629) and the next-best at 221 (Feaster). 22.3 – Higgins’ yards per target average Saturday. Higgins had 15 targets going into the game, averaging 5.5 yards per prior. 100 – Cain’s catch rate, going 5-of-5 on pass attempts his way for 140 yards and a touchdown. Cain held a 61.2 catch rate going into the game.

Defense: A

Down key starters again, the next-in-line stepped in and stepped up to contain another offense.

Brent Venables’ defense is the antidote to the any option offense and that made the performance versus The Citadel less than surprising, holding the Bulldogs to 4-of-19 on third and fourth down conversions.

Redshirt freshman James Skalski led Clemson in tackles (9) in his first career start, in place of Tre Lamar (shoulder). Reserve Judah Davis came off the bench to grab a tackle for loss and three solo stops. In the middle, Albert Huggins built on his impressive performance versus Florida State with five tackles – 1.5 for loss.

The big-picture out of this stretch run is how much experience the second and third groups on Clemson’s defense has gained, while allowing rest-and-recovery for starters before big games ahead. Venables’ defense is trending in the right direction in a number of areas right now, but now the task is knocking off the rust for those playmakers returning in a rivalry matchup Saturday.

Numbers to know: 4 – The number of times Clemson’s held a team under 100 yards passing this season, after giving up only 61 to The Citadel (and all on just one completion). The best mark in the Brent Venables era at Clemson is five (2015). 164 – Rushing yards per game under their averages Clemson held run-centered Georgia Tech and The Citadel, with one touchdown this season. 28 – Number of Clemson defenders with at least one tackle Saturday, despite three starters sitting out in Mark Fields, Dexter Lawrence and Kendall Joseph.

Special teams: B

Like offense and defense, special teams featured some younger players getting experience.

Freshman Amari Rodgers took a kick return 36 yards and also fielded a couple punts (one return for eight yards). Redshirt freshman Will Spiers basically got the day off with only one punt for 46 yards, as redshirt sophomore Carson King pinned one attempt later in the game inside the 20.

Punt returns were tricky all game, with even a steady Ray Ray McCloud (this season) fumbling-but-recovering on one attempt.

Alex Spence knocked through a 26-yard field goal attempt to bring the grade up, as well as senior Christian Groomes hitting Clemson’s longest attempt since Greg Huegel’s injury, at 38 yards.

Numbers to know: 2 – Clemson made field goals, the first multiple-attempt-made game since Huegel’s injury after the Sept. 16 game at Louisville. 2 – Clemson punts, the lowest amount since the opener. The Tigers had averaged 5.7 punts a game from the Auburn game on.

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