Grading Clemson's Performance in Its 20-17 Victory over Louisville Thursday Night

Clemson won ugly on the strength of its defense in its first road game of the season Thursday night. Here is an analysis of Clemson's performance, as I grade each unit in the 20-17 victory for the Tigers.

Before beginning my analysis, a quick injury note. We still don’t have word on the extent of freshman RT Jake Fruhmorgen’s knee injury or a prognosis. Dabo’s weekly teleconference will be Monday instead of Sunday this week, so we should have some news on his status Monday evening. I did see him walking around after the game, and it would seem that no news is good news in this case. On to the grades….

OFFENSE:   C-

I know this might seem like a generous grade to some of you. The offense was certainly disappointing, but they were still able to generate 401 yards—Louisville, by comparison, only accumulated 272 yards—and Wayne Gallman had a terrific night running the ball. He rushed for 139 yards on 24 carries—an average of 5.8 yards per carry. And that was against a pretty good front seven. It’s not as if the offense went three-and-out over and over, but they just weren’t able to string together enough good plays to score on most of the possessions. It’s tough to score points when you’re only 5 of 14 on 3rd down.

Deshaun Watson didn’t put up the Heisman-type numbers to which we’re accustomed, but it was by no means a bad performance—bad for him, perhaps. He was 21-30 for 199 yards, with 2 TD’s and 2 INT’s. He also ran 12 times for 54 yards. The first INT was on target but was a bad decision, as Louisville had good coverage, and it was a first down play, making it that much worse.  His other interception was also a poor decision. It was 2nd and 8 at the start of the 2nd half, and Watson hung the ball up in the air for a well-covered Artavis Scott. Considering Scott is not typically a down field WR who wins jump balls, I’m not sure what Watson was thinking on that one. Deshaun is usually so sound both with his accuracy and his decision-making that it feels weird to see him play like a mere mortal, but the guy is only a true sophomore. Watson also short-armed a pass to wide-open Jordan Leggett at the end of the game.  A completion would have likely put the game on ice, but it seemed like Watson rushed it, and as a result the Tigers had to rely on the Defense once again to win the day. Again, seeing Watson hurry throws is not something we’re used to seeing, but I have a feeling he’ll make us all forget it in the very near future.

Jordan Leggett had a big game on Thursday. He had 3 catches, including the 25-yard touchdown. He was also wide open on the aforementioned play that might have sealed the game had Watson’s throw found him. Red shirt freshman Hunter Renfrow recorded his first career TD, and he is looking more and more like a Grisham/Humphries clone, which is a great thing! He will be an excellent possession receiver on third downs and will occasionally sneak behind the coverage with all the other weapons we have—just as he did on Thursday. Deon Cain continues to improve and made a couple nice catches for 26 yards, and Ray-Ray was solid again with 4 catches for 29. Disappointingly, Peake was rather non-existent on Thursday. He did make a great third-down catch on the sideline that set up Clemson’s first touchdown, however. He was drilled after the catch, but impressively held onto the ball, so it was a huge play that doesn’t show up in the box score. If Peake doesn’t make that catch, we settle for a FG and lose 4 points. Obviously, we won the game by 3, so thank goodness he made the play. However, we are going to need Peake to make more big plays on a consistent basis—especially down field—with Mike Williams on the sideline.

The offensive line did a reasonably good job, considering they only allowed one sack, and we averaged 5.1 yards per carry on the ground for 202 yards. We did allow 4 tackles-for-loss, and Watson was under duress a few times, but all-in-all I was satisfied with the O-Line play—especially considering we lost our first two RT’s for a period and started a true freshman at LT on the road for the first time.

The play-calling was somewhat of a disappointment in my opinion. I expected to see more exotic formations and plays, considering we hadn’t shown very much in the first two games. Several of the zone read plays by Watson were completely sniffed out by Louisville and put us behind the chains or resulted in a punt. Hopefully with two weeks to prepare for Notre Dame, we will see a little more creativity from Scott and Elliott. I also felt that we didn’t take enough shots down field, but I expect losing Mike Williams had a lot to do with that. I hope Peake, Thompson and/or Cain can step up in that department going forward because I don’t see Mike Williams playing anytime soon. We only ran 70 total plays on Thursday night, which is 10 below the staff’s target. For perspective, we ran 52 plays in the first half against App State last week!

 

DEFENSE:  A+

For the second year in a row, the defense won this game for us. There’s no other way to see it, folks. If you would have told me a month ago that we would only score 20 points at Louisville and give up a kick return touchdown, I would have chalked the game up as a loss for sure. I felt like our offense was living on borrowed time when we kept stalling on drives and punting. I thought it was only a matter of time before Louisville hit a big play for a touchdown, but the defense kept answering the bell over and over. Louisville was only 2 of 14 on 3rd down and 1 of 2 on 4th down! The defense also came up with 5 sacks and 7 tackles-for-loss, allowing only 10 points on 272 yards. Most impressively, the defense allowed a total of 19 yards on 28 rushes. WOW! That is a phenomenal performance for a home night game, let alone one on the road. Almost like déjà vu, the offense failed to put the game away, leaving it to the defense to get a stop with a 3-point lead, and they did just that. I was a little uneasy that they didn’t simply bat the Hail Mary down at the end, but it was a moot concern, and we ended the game with an interception for the stat sheet.

I thought Tankersley had a breakout game. He had a few nice pass-break-ups (PBR’s), a great interception and tackled well. Shaq had his usual great game, although he needs to use a little bit better judgment on making late contact with the QB. He was hit with two penalties for that, which ended up costing us. I thought the first penalty was a bad call, but he should have known better on the second one. Boulware was everywhere, as we have become conditioned to seeing. He drilled the QB a few times and recorded 6 tackles with a couple of PBR’s. It was great to see Kevin Dodd record his first sack-and-a-half, including the big one at the end that put Louisville in a desperate Hail Mary situation!

 

SPECIAL TEAMS:  C+

Let’s start by saying the special teams did a good job for the most part. Huegel passed his first career road test with flying colors by making two absolutely pressure-packed FG’s. I have a feeling Dabo was on the fence about whether to let him attempt that first 36-yarder or go for it on 4th and 3. I believe he called that timeout to think it over. Apparently, he made the right decision! Huegel’s 27-yarder in the 4th quarter wound up being the difference in the game. Teasdall did a reasonable job on punts, averaging 35.5 yards and pinning 3 of his 6 inside the 20 with no touchbacks. We didn’t have any good returns, however, and Scott made an ill-advised play in the second half when he tried to return a kickoff out of the back of the end zone and only made it to the 10 yard line. 

Having said all of that, the 100-yard kick return for a touchdown in the 4th quarter was nothing short of a catastrophe. It simply cannot happen in a tight game—especially on the road. The stadium was pensive after Huegel’s FG gave Clemson a 10-point lead, and suddenly the crowd was absolutely rocking and the loudest it had been all night. The coverage was pretty good except for that one break down—as opposed to the App State game, when there were several long kick returns allowed. There is clearly a weakness on the left side of our coverage unit because all of the long returns in the last couple games have been up the right sideline. Dabo and the staff were well aware of the problem after the App State game, and obviously it will be a focal point over the next couple weeks of practice leading up to the big Notre Dame game. Greg Huegel has done an outstanding job with FG’s and a pretty good job on kickoffs, but he needs a crash course in tackling and containment. He has taken poor angles and diving at air on 3 different kick returns now, rather than funneling the return man out of bounds or toward support. Ideally, it shouldn’t be up to your kicker to tackle the return man, but as the last line of defense he needs to learn how to simply provide enough of an impediment to slow the return man down or knock him out of bounds. Huegel told me that he loved contact and admired Spencer Benton’s tenacity in coverage, so perhaps he’s trying a little too hard to emulate his predecessor and make the big hit. We also allowed a 17-yard punt return on the only attempt by the Cardinals.

The good news is that Danny Pearman knows what he is doing. He had a hand in special teams with Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech before coming to Clemson, and the Hokies have consistently had one of the best special teams units for decades. I have confidence that Pearman will shore up the holes in the coverage unit over the next couple of weeks.

In the end, a win is a win. I’ll take a road win against a tough divisional foe with 3 days rest any way you can serve it up! The positive that comes from winning an ugly game like this is that it exposes a lot of deficiencies that need attention without suffering a loss. Winning by a large margin always feels great, but sometimes it can be a detriment if it conceals weaknesses on your team that aren’t discovered until you do lose. The other bright side is that this bye week comes at a perfect time. Norton and Fruhmorgen get to heal up, and the staff has extra time to prepare for two of our biggest games of the season—Notre Dame and Georgia Tech.

Two weeks seems like a long wait, Clemson Nation, but it will be worth it! Prepare yourselves because I have a feeling the ESPN College Gameday crew will be coming to town for one of the biggest games in Clemson history. 


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