A sigh of relief engulfed Death Valley Saturday afternoon as the Tigers finally showed marked improvement after a sluggish start to the 2003 season. Clemson beat up on Middle Tennessee State to the tune of 37-14 by controlling almost every aspect of the game.
I had predicted a 27-13 Clemson win, which means I missed the accurate score by a pretty solid 14-point margin. I also moved to 2-1 on the young season in my prognostication of the winning team.
Clemson moves to 2-1 on the season during a day that the life of Jim Phillips was celebrated throughout campus and in Death Valley. Clemson also may have developed an ounce of confidence that they most certainly need as they enter ACC play next week in Atlanta versus Georgia Tech.
Here is how I graded the Tigers win on my 5 keys to the game.
For the first time this year, the Clemson secondary was put under the microscope as the Blue Raiders amassed 26 passing attempts from three different quarterbacks.
Clemson gave up a modest 170 yards passing against a team that can move the football through the air. The Clemson corners kept the game in front of them, never allowing a MTSU receiver to get behind them for a big play. While MTSU had moderate success on the short slants and drags across the field, the Clemson secondary did an outstanding job in not allowing the MTSU quarterbacks to throw the ball deep with much effectiveness.
Travis Pugh also made the first interception of the 2003 season for the Tiger defense in the 4th quarter as MTSU was driving for a score. The only bad news was the hip pointer Justin Miller suffered late in the game. Miller is being re-evaluated today in Clemson to determine his status for next Saturday.
Kerry Is So Very…
It was no secret that MTSU wanted to get the ball to their All Sun Belt wide receiver Kerry Wright. Wright did make 4 catches, but his 36 yards receiving was not what he had been able to do in the 1st two games of the season and most certainly not enough to keep MTSU in the game Saturday.
Clemson did not dedicate Justin Miller to Wright, possibly a sign that John Lovette is not going to place Miller on the opposing teams best receiver on every snap. The fact that Wright only averaged 9 yards a reception is evidence that Lovette wanted to make sure Wright did not catch the ball in a lot of space with the opportunity to make a big play.
Clemson will face much better wide receivers as the year goes on, but for this one Saturday the Tigers were able to completely shut down the marquee wide receiver of their opponent.
The light has switched on with both Airese Currie and the Clemson coaches. An underutilized receiver in his first two years in Clemson, Currie is emerging as an All-ACC candidate three games into the season. The lack of throws to Currie the last two years was also due to the fact Currie had butterfingers and could not be counted on to make the big catch.
Currie caught long balls, curl patters, slants, and one 25 yard out pattern on 3rd and 18. It is very obvious that Charlie Whitehurst trusts Airese and knows how to get him the ball. And on Currie's end, he is catching the balls thrown to him and making people miss that first tackle while amassing gaudy statistics in the process. Currie broke the Clemson record for receptions in a game with 12 on Saturday for 139 yards and a touchdown. Currie may have broken the 200-yard barrier had he grabbed the ball on his diving attempt on the 2nd series of the game. Whitehurst led Currie about 3 feet too far, but the athletic Currie almost made a spectacular catch while laid out.
Opposing teams are scratching their heads trying to figure out if they game plan to stop Currie, knowing Derrick Hamilton and Kevin Youngblood are waiting to chew up single man coverage. Touch decision, and I'm glad I don't have to worry about it!
Yellow Hankie Blues
Clemson had a good week versus Georgia in the penalty department before having a horrible week versus Furman. Clemson was flagged only 4 times for 20 yards Saturday, which is not only a huge improvement but a good day all around.
The two blots with regards to penalties had to be the two illegal procedure penalties on the same drive in the 4th quarter as the Tigers were trying to drive for another touchdown. But the mistakes in the return game were gone, and 20 yards in penalties in any particular game is acceptable to say the least. That is 2 weeks out of 3 where Clemson has played smart football with regards to being flagged, so let's hope the Furman game was an aberration.
For the 2nd straight week, Clemson took a step forward on the offensive line and running game. After stinking up the joint versus Georgia, Clemson took a baby step against Furman last week while still averaging only 3 yards per carry. Saturday, the Tigers were able to push around a beefy MTSU front line to the tune of 183 yards on 44 carries. That computes out to a 4.1 yard per carry average, a decided improvement and most certainly a step in the right direction.
The Clemson coaches also called several draw plays to Charlie Whitehurst. This is a brilliant move by the Tiger coaches because it forces defenses to stay in their lanes while rushing the quarterback…something that Georgia, Furman, and MTSU were not worrying about. If defenses choose to rush hard on the outside like most teams have been doing with Whitehurst as the quarterback, the middle of the field is going to be wide open for Charlie to run through and pick up positive yards.
There are still no long runs by the running backs, something that needs to happen as the competition increases in conference play. But if the Tigers can average 4 yards a carry the rest of the season (a big task, no doubt) Clemson has the chance to be a pretty good football team.
For one week, at least, Clemson was a pretty good football team.
Scott Rhymer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Scott and CUTigers.com publisher Roy Philpott are the co-hosts of the CUTigers.com Pregame Show on WCCP 104.9 FM, which airs 2 hours prior to the Tiger Tailgate Show on Clemson Gamedays.