What a game in Death Valley! The weather may not have been the maelstrom in which the Tigers played against Notre Dame, but the conditions were still very challenging. In my preview last week, I predicted a final score of 41-17, but I’ll admit I had my concerns that the rain and wet conditions could affect our ability to throw the ball effectively and cause turnovers. Those concerns were quickly allayed, as the offense was able to score on its first two possessions just like they did against Notre Dame. This was the most complete performance that we have seen from the Tigers in all three phases. Here are my grades for the Tech game.
There has been much ado about Clemson’s conservative play-calling in the Louisville and Notre Dame games. However, I attributed the play-calling to a myriad of circumstances in those two games and expected the offense to look better against GT. While the bad weather was still influential, I think you can say the offense looked much better in this regard. Tony Elliott set the tone right from the first snap with a successful reverse play to Ray-Ray. There was tremendous balance between the running and passing game—201 yards rushing and 336 yards passing.
Watson had season highs in completions, attempts and passing yards, going 21-30 for 265 yards and 2 TD’s against one INT. He should have had a third TD pass, but Peake dropped the ball in the back of the end zone. He was very sharp when he needed to be—that touchdown pass to Leggett in the corner of the end zone was a thing of beauty. Watson also spread the ball around a lot—he had completions to 7 different players in the first half! He did have the bad interception and threw a pass off the wrong foot to Leggett’s feet that cost us a 3rd down conversion, but other than that, Watson had a good game.
Gallman continues to run like a man possessed. He is the first Clemson player to rush for over 100 yards in 3 straight games since Andre Ellington did it at the end of the 2011 and beginning of the 2012 seasons. Gallman’s 66-yard run on the opening touchdown drive was the longest of his career. He is averaging 6.0 yards per carry now and added a pair of TD’s to his stats, for a season total of 5. The thing that has been the most impressive about him to me is the ferocity with which runs and hits the hole. He has the ability to run over or by defenders, and that is something we haven’t seen at Clemson in a while. The exciting thing is that he is only a sophomore and is getting better by the week!
Zac Brooks has also shown flashes in the past couple of games that he might be ready to fill that #2 spot behind Gallman. In his lone touch against Notre Dame last week, he had a 12-yard run on 3rd down that came up inches short of a first down, and he had 41 yards and a TD in only 3 carries against Tech. That is an encouraging sign!
Another very encouraging sign is the development of Deon Cain. His talent was apparent in the first week of camp in August, but it has taken him a little while to be ready to play a significant role on the offense. However, Saturday was a big leap forward for him in that respect. He made a couple of big plays in that critical 2-minute touchdown drive before halftime, and he made a phenomenal 38-yard catch in the 4th quarter, high-pointing the ball over a defender. Trevion Thompson also had a long reception in the 4th quarter. The only element of this offense that has been lacking since the Mike Williams injury and prevented it from maximizing its explosiveness is a true down field threat at WR. If Deon Cain and/or Trevion Thompson are ready to fill that void, look out. At the very least, those two plays late in the game should give BC something to think about and make them respect Clemson’s vertical passing game. I should also note that Hunter Renfrow continues to make an honest man out of Dabo. He told us several times in camp how impressed he was with Renfrow, and I think we can all see why. Renfrow made an outstanding catch away from his body on Saturday and just continues to make fearless, big plays.
Leggett has been sensational the last few games. He now has 4 TD’s in the last 3 contests, and obviously the scores against Louisville and Notre Dame were both huge. He somewhat underachieved last season and has battled injuries a bit, but it appears he is on his way to having that special season we all hoped he would have this year. I had Leggett on my first-team ballot at the ACC Media Days, and so far he is on pace to earn that honor.
The offensive line continues to show that it is a strength of this team, not the weakness many anticipated it to be. They again allowed just one sack on Saturday, and for three games in a row, we have been able to run the ball when the opponent knew it was coming. Having an explosive passing attack is great, but there is nothing like having the ability to demoralize a defense and salt away the clock with a running game in the second half.
The only negative, aside from Watson’s interception, was the bad snap by Falcinelli, which gave GT a touchdown. Falcinelli has done well as a blocker, but he has had chronic issues with bad snaps going all the way back to camp, and we have seen it a couple of times in games now. We have to keep in mind that he is young and has moved to center from guard, but it is nevertheless disconcerting that he has the issue with snaps. Norton has been injured, and Falcinelli is just one play away from being the starting center. Norton will be out for the BC game and is expected to play at Miami.
Finally, I would be remiss if I neglected to give credit to Nick Schuessler for coming in and putting the game on ice. It would have been nice to get one more score at the end, but he was put in a tough spot on the field, near the goal line, but was able to drive the ball 90-some yards and use 8:30 of the clock to close the game. That will probably be our longest drive of the season, folks! He made two big completions on that drive to Cain and Thompson, and his QBR for the game was an eye-popping 398.2! Kelly Bryant has all kinds of talent and potential, and he is pushing Schuessler for the backup spot, but it was good to see Nick get some confidence in a meaningful game. We all remember what happened when he came into the GT game last season.
The offense did, however give the ball away 3 times, including a bad snap into the end zone for a touchdown. Hence, the A- grade.
It’s getting repetitive, but this defense just keeps dominating. They have to be one of the top surprises of the season so far—not just at Clemson, but in the entire nation! Absolutely no one thought this unit would be one of the top defenses in the entire nation, but that is exactly what they have been—week in and week out. They held GT to 71 total rushing yards and 1.7 yards per carry. 71 rushing yards and 1.7 yards per carry. I had to repeat that because it’s hard to overstate how remarkable that is. That would be a phenomenal effort against ANY team, let alone Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets, who have racked up 500 rushing yards against teams over the years without breaking a sweat. Tech was averaging 311.8 rushing yards per game coming into this one.
The defense also did a great job in quick change situations. After a couple of turnovers by the offense, the defense held Tech to a FG on a short field and forced a three-and-out on the second one. On the subject of the latter, for the third straight year against GT, the Clemson defense forced three-and-outs over and over. They had 8 of them on Saturday, and Tech did not convert a first down until mid-way through the 2nd quarter when they faked a punt for a 9-yard gain. The Yellow Jackets were 1 for 12 on 3rd down! Kearse had an incredible game, with 3 tackles-for-loss, including arguably the biggest hit of the season thus far. Dorian O’Daniel also recorded 3 TFL’s and had a big game for the second straight year against the Jackets. His discipline and open-field tackling ability are both great assets against that offense. Boulware had his usual disruptive game, and both Shaq and Dodd collected a sack apiece. Tankersley continues to be a presence in the secondary, making a nice interception on Tech’s opening possession and allowing the Tigers to jump out to an early 10-0 lead. Mackensie Alexander is like a ghost out there because teams simply do not try to throw the ball in his direction. They are also finding that it’s not much easier to throw on Tankersley.
The only reason the defense doesn’t get an A+ is the fact that they had a few missed assignments on Saturday that gave Tech big scoring plays. That is not unusual when you play GT, however, and at least it will provide learning examples for improvement.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A+
Like the defense, Andy Teasdall continues to be a pleasant surprise. He averaged 45 yards per punt on Saturday and was able to really flip field position. Many expected the punting game to be a weakness this season when Bradley Pinion announced he was going to forego his senior year for the NFL, but it has instead been a strength. Huegel made his one field goal attempt, and Lakip drilled his first attempt of the season from 42 yards. Once again, the long snaps by Jim Brown were good despite the conditions, and Seth Ryan did a good job getting the hold down on one snap that was a bit errant. The coverage unit was solid all day, and for the second consecutive game, the special teams was able to generate points in unusual ways. Lakip forced a fumble against Notre Dame that led to a huge touchdown to start the second half, and on Saturday they blocked a punt that almost resulted in a touchdown but went for a safety instead.
Tech may have been struggling coming into this game, but make no mistake: this was a thorough butt-kicking and a great statement win. Many wondered if Clemson would have a let-down after the emotional Notre Dame win, given the struggles Tech was having. It was anything but. The Tigers went out and took care of business, playing its most complete game in all three phases. That makes 33 straight wins against unranked opponents—more than any team other than Alabama. I think it’s safe to say at this point that this Clemson team is going to show up with effort and focus no matter who the opponent is and no matter how much noise there is in the outside world. The celebrating is over, and the team is back to work preparing for BC.