Back to the basics

CLEMSON – This week, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris talked repeatedly about fundamentals. About going back to basics.

With good reason: the Tigers' hurry-up, no-huddle offense is sputtering. Over the last two weeks, it has generated just three touchdowns and turned the ball over six times.

Well, what's more basic than solving the problems with the running game?

The lack of a true second receiver behind star junior Sammy Watkins has been a major issue, but to get the offense back to the heights it reached a year ago, Clemson needs a vibrant, powerful running attack.

That really hasn't been the case this fall, and Morris' offense has suffered as a result.

A year ago, the Tigers averaged 191.8 rushing yards per game, 36th-best nationally and fourth in the ACC.

Entering Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game at Maryland, Clemson averages 165.4 rushing yards per game. That's 67th nationally and ninth-best in the ACC. The Tigers average 3.9 yards per carry, down from 4.2 a year ago.

In fact, Clemson has met last season's average only once in its first seven games, piling up 197 yards in the season opener against Georgia. Since then, the run game has gone into a near-constant decline: 183 yards, 171, 166, 156, back up to 162 against Boston College and down to a season-low 123 against Florida State.

It is the eighth-lowest rushing total of Morris' 32-game tenure as Clemson offensive coordinator: the Tigers had two games lower last season (99 yards against LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and 101 against Wake Forest) and four in 2011 (119 yards at Virginia Tech, 77 against North Carolina, 95 at Georgia Tech, 34 at N.C. State and 70 at South Carolina).

It is a troubling trend, and not what Morris had hoped for in his third season as offensive coordinator with four of five starting offensive linemen returning from a year ago (two-time Rimington Award finalist Dalton Freeman the only loss).

Although the line's overall depth is improved from a year ago, its consistency has been a major concern outside of senior left tackle Brandon Thomas, who is in line to repeat his first-team All-ACC performance from a year ago.

The same starting five has repeated for only three consecutive games: Thomas, left guard Kalon Davis, center Ryan Norton, right guard Tyler Shatley and right tackle Shaq Anthony started from Wake Forest through Boston College.

Thomas and Norton are Clemson's only two linemen to start every game this season. Left guard and right tackle have been revolving doors between Davis and David Beasley and Anthony and Gifford Timothy, respectively; Timothy leads Anthony 4-3 in starts, as does Beasley over Davis at guard. Behind them, Clemson's running game has struggled to find openings as consistently as it did a year ago.

It's clear just how much Andre Ellington – now pushing for the Arizona Cardinals' starting tailback job as a rookie – is missed.

A year ago, Rod McDowell averaged 5.4 yards per carry as Ellington's primary backup. This year? Five yards a carry and 63.7 yards per game. Quarterback Tajh Boyd is running less – 11.4 carries per game this fall as opposed to 14.2 a year ago – but also less effectively. He's averaging 27.9 yards per game and 2.4 yards per carry after averaging 39.5 yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry last fall.

As Clemson's run game has slipped, so has the emphasis placed on it within the offense. A year ago, 55.3 percent of offensive snaps were run plays. This year? 51.9 percent.

That's similar to the balance in 2011, when the run-pass was nearly 50-50: 50.2 percent of Clemson's snaps were run plays.

Now, you know the stats and the trends. How do you fix the problem?

It starts with committing more to the run game, and in different ways. What happened to the jet sweeps with Sammy Watkins out of the backfield? As a freshman, Watkins ran 32 times in 13 games for 231 yards, averaging 7.2 yards per carry. This fall, he's carried the ball four times for eight yards.

Watkins is Clemson's most dynamic offensive weapon: treat him like it.

Use Boyd with more designed runs as opposed to simply allowing him to scramble free when plays break down.

And find an offensive line combination that works and stick with it. I believe that familiarity breeds success, and Robbie Caldwell's line has not had familiarity this fall.

McDowell and Zac Brooks have the speed to succeed if the holes are opened correctly.

A more consistent run game could also take pressure off Boyd, the passing game and the search for a quality No.2 receiver.

If Morris and Swinney want to get back to the basics, there are worse ways to do it than embracing more smash-mouth football.

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