Tigers look lost without Watson

One player shouldn’t make this much of a difference, but the Clemson football team looked lost after Deshaun Watson’s stunning knee injury Saturday against Georgia Tech.

It is obvious Clemson is just not the same team without Watson, and it’s not clear when he will be back.

Watson looked as dynamic as ever early against Georgia Tech, but then Clemson’s biggest fears came true with Watson’s injury.

But things were worse than fans could have ever guessed. Cole Stoudt was awful. He threw two terrible interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, and another interception led to a Georgia Tech field goal.

Simply put, he made mistakes that a fifth-year senior should not make, and it’s harder and harder to believe every time he plays that the Clemson staff decided before the season he should be the starter. It makes you wonder.

He completed 3-of-11 passes for 19 yards and had the three interceptions. And he actually looked worse than those numbers would lead you to believe.

Stoudt looked like a young quarterback who was stepping on to the field for the first time in his college career instead of a quarterback who should know the offense well after being in the system for several years.

He made bad decisions and even worse throws – when he finally decided to throw the ball after holding it too long.

But it wasn’t just Stoudt. The entire team, players and coaches, looked shocked by Watson’s injury, and they never overcame that. That’s on head coach Dabo Swinney – for the team’s dependency on one player -- and offensive coordinator Chad Morris -- for the offense not having a better plan without that player.

I’ve never been a fan of the quarterback running as much as it does in this offense, and that was true even when Tajh Boyd was having so much success as the quarterback because he got beat up so much as the offense was lacking at running back and on the offensive line. My thoughts about that are even stronger with Watson, who doesn’t have the same body type as Boyd; Watson’s body just isn’t built to be beat on as much as he will be in this offense.

And while Watson is a “dual-threat” quarterback, he is a thrower first and should be used in that manner. He was getting pounded even before he got hurt Saturday, and there’s no reason to put him in those kinds of situations.

Offensive line troubles
Swinney and Morris have praised the offensive line in recent weeks. But anyone watching Clemson’s offense knows the line is not good.

It’s not physical enough on run blocks, and it puts its quarterbacks in bad spots with pass blocking (although Stoudt certainly doesn’t help with that by holding the ball too long and being slow in his decision-making).

Boyd, who was unfairly criticized throughout his career, overcame a lot of the issues on the offensive line and covered up for mistakes made up front with his play and determination. I bet those folks who did criticize Boyd wish they could have those words back.

Georgia Tech’s defense hasn’t been good against the run this year, and it has been just as bad – if not worse – against the pass. But without Watson, the Tigers couldn’t move the ball either way. They couldn’t run it because the line didn’t get any push, and they couldn’t throw it because the line couldn’t give the quarterbacks any time to throw.

The game plan without Stoudt consisted of short throws or swing passes that didn’t threaten the Georgia Tech defense, and when he did throw the ball down the field, he made game-changing mistakes.

Defense solid but had issues, too
The defense wasn’t great Saturday, but 14 of the Yellow Jackets’ points fall directly on the shoulder of the offense, in particular Stoudt. Holding Georgia Tech’s high-powered offense to 14 points is something the coaches and players likely could have lived with entering the game.

Still, the defense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain either Saturday. That might be understandable after having so much put on it the past few weeks. It’s just human nature that there is eventually going to be a letdown, and having one against Georgia Tech is the perfect recipe for a disaster – in this case the rout the game turned out to be.

Clemson’s cornerbacks have been really good all season, but DeAndre Smelter and the Georgia Tech wide receivers got the best of the cornerbacks all game long. Yellow Jackets quarterback Justin Thomas went right at Mackensie Alexander throughout the game in key spots, and Alexander had probably his worst game of the season.

Also, the Tigers had breakdowns in assignments that they haven’t had since the Georgia game. Those are mistakes that teams can’t make against Georgia Tech because they lead to big plays. The Yellow Jackets’ offense feeds off those miscues, and it certainly did Saturday.

What’s next?
Who knows what’s next. This team is in trouble without Watson, and that was obvious Saturday. And it’s not clear when he will return.

Stoudt was so bad Saturday that no win – not even against an awful Georgia State team this week – is a given, and the game against South Carolina looks like a loss at this point … if Watson doesn’t play. And then you have to worry about next year. If Watson’s knee injury is serious enough, he likely won’t be ready for next season, and then what happens? This season certainly took a negative turn early in the first quarter with Watson’s injury, and it could be an ugly end to this season and offseason, especially after the way the team responded – or didn’t respond – Saturday at Georgia Tech.

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