Tigers can’t finish, didn’t deserve upset

Even with everything that was going its way, the Clemson football team couldn’t pull off the upset of top-ranked Florida State on Saturday night. After the performance the Tigers gave, it’s easy to see they didn’t deserve to win the game.

Florida State tried many times to hand the game to Clemson, but the Tigers didn’t want it.

First, Jameis Winston was suspended, meaning the Seminoles would turn to backup Sean Maguire, who made his first start.

Then, the Seminoles made mistake after mistake and finally gave the Tigers a chance to win the game in the closing minutes with a late interception. All Clemson had to do was drive a short field for a game-winning touchdown or field goal – more on the kicking game later.

But the Tigers couldn’t handle the big moment, and CJ Davidson gave the ball and the game away with a fumble in the closing moments. But the loss wasn’t all on Davidson’s mistake. There is plenty of blame to go around. There were just too many terrible mistakes – physical and mental, players and coaches – to win a game like this … even when the opponent is trying to help you do so.

The Seminoles settled for overtime after Davidson’s fumble, and they had all the momentum going into the extra period. They finally took advantage and put the game away after Clemson failed to do so many times on this night.

In short, the Tigers couldn’t handle the big moments, and they couldn’t pull off the upset, and they didn’t deserve to with all the silly mistakes they made.

RED ZONE PROBLEMS: Clemson’s offense dominated the game, running up and down the field on a Florida State defense that is one of the best in the country. But the Tigers couldn’t finish. The coaching staff uses that word a lot around this program, and in the two real games this year – South Carolina State doesn’t count – the Tigers’ players and coaches didn’t finish.

Against Georgia, it was the fourth quarter that the Tigers couldn’t finish. On Saturday, it was offensive drives.

In regulation, Clemson got into the red zone six times and came away with two touchdowns, one field goal, two missed field goals and Davidson’s fumble.

The Tigers set the tone for their red-zone issues on their second drive as they marched right down the field only to have senior quarterback miss a wide-open Jordan Leggett on third down. Leggett would have walked in for a touchdown, but instead, the Tigers had to turn to Ammon Lakip, who butchered the short field goal.

Lakip missed another short one later, and that makes three big misses in his only two real tests this season – against South Carolina State doesn’t count. All three of those misses were huge in the grand scheme of things as the Tigers sit 1-2. Dabo Swinney can’t keep running Lakip out there and hoping he’s going to make the kicks when it matters most. We have seen that’s not going to work. It’s time to move on.

THE TALENTED WATSON: It’s also time to move on to Deshaun Watson at quarterback. The true freshman was terrific throughout the night even when he was handcuffed by Chad Morris’ play-calling – more on that later.

Stoudt is a nice player, but Watson is special, and the nation got a glimpse of that Saturday night. The plays that Stoudt can’t make, Watson can, and with two losses, Swinney needs to make the move to Watson as the starter and keep this season from spiraling out of control. Yes, there are still nine games left, and the Tigers can still accomplish many things. But in a season that started with so much promise and after losing when Florida State tried to hand the program its first-ever win over a No. 1 team, this team could be in some trouble if changes aren’t made. Saturday was a disheartening loss, and there have been many college teams that have fallen apart after losses like that.

Watson completed 19-of-28 passes for 266 yards and moved the offense up and down the field throughout the night without much of a running game to speak of (Clemson averaged 2.5 yards per carry on 40 runs).

Stoudt is a solid leader for the program, and he’s a fine player who deserves to play some the rest of his senior season. But Watson is the player to get this team turned around. He’s that good. With the ball in his hand, special things can happen.

PLAY-CALLING: Fans are going to criticize Clemson’s fourth-down call in overtime, and rightfully so. The decision to go for the first down was the right one after the kicking woes throughout the night, but to call time out and come up with that play is ridiculous. On fourth-and-inches (not 1 yard, but inches), the Tigers decided to stay in the shotgun and run a slow-developing play that was easily blown up by the Florida State defense.

Why not get under center and run a quarterback sneak? Lean forward for six inches and get a first down, and the team still would have had a chance to win the game. The play that was called, however, was the final miscue in the many mistakes that simply handed the Seminoles the win.

I’m sure we’ll hear the “We do what we do line” from the offensive coordinator. Well, that didn’t work, and it didn’t work more than once.

In regulation, the Tigers were inside the 1 and went from the shotgun. After a Davidson run that appeared to be a touchdown but wasn’t called one and wasn’t even reviewed, the Tigers made another huge mistake.

“What they do” cost the Tigers on that drive as the ball was snapped over Watson’s head in the shotgun and led to Lakip’s second missed field goal – instead of a touchdown.

That series and the one in overtime – and many more throughout the night – are on Morris. Yes, Morris’ offense has put up a lot of big numbers throughout his tenure at Clemson, and he has helped turn the program around and win a lot of big games. But many times in showcase games against big-time programs (several losses to South Carolina, the past two losses to Florida State and this year’s loss to Georgia to be specific), his play-calling has left a lot to be desired.

WHAT'S NEXT? That’s the question we’re waiting to have answered, right? That will decide what happens with this season.

Can the Tigers recover from the Georgia loss and the Florida State loss, two games they should have won? Two games that could destroy their season if they let them? Two games that featured more mistakes, both from sloppy coaching and sloppy play, than fans would like to remember?

Imagine where the Tigers would be ranked this week if they had won both games. Instead, they likely won’t be ranked at all as they prepare to face North Carolina, N.C. State and Louisville all at home the next three weeks.

If Clemson can learn from the many mistakes it made against the Bulldogs and Seminoles, it can still have a fine season.

If not, and those mistakes continue (mistakes that good teams don’t make), the season could be in trouble.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter at @DM_Shirley and read his blog at macon.com/peachsports.

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