Running Scared

One of Tommy Bowden's goals for his offense has always been to run for 2,000 yards and pass for another 3,000. He believes that if the Tigers could achieve those lofty numbers, his team would be in the hunt for a Bowl Championship Series game.

He surpassed the passing number last season with the strong arm of quarterback Charlie Whitehurst, but he fell more than 400 yards shy of obtaining the rushing mark. And by coming fairly close to reaching both benchmarks, the team finished a very solid 9-4.

This season, however, it's pretty much guaranteed that Clemson will fall far short of 2,000 yards rushing. In fact, the Tigers are on pace to have the fewest amount of rushing yards in school history. The 1946 team rushed for 995 yards. But that was also in just nine games.

The running game thus far in the 2004 season, to say the least, has been disappointing. But what may be even more discouraging is the fact that the Clemson's tandem of four running backs (Reggie Merriweather, Duane Coleman, Kyle Browning and Yusef Kelly) has carried the ball just 51 times in four games, or 12.75 carries per game.

And as a result, the statistics say it's no coincidence that the Tigers are 1-3. Heading into this season with Whitehurst as the starting quarterback, the running backs have averaged 29.17 attempts in Clemson's 12 wins and 17.50 attempts in its six losses.

The stats show that when the Tigers make a concerted effort to get the ball to the tailbacks, they win. They haven't done so this season and the Tigers are struggling.

"Right now, with the great quarterback and the great wide receivers, we're just using the run to set up the pass," Merriweather said. "I think basically that's what's wrong. We have a lot of formations with three wide and four wide, so I put it on that."

When the four back have carried the ball this season, their production has been outstanding, as they've combined for 320 yards, or 6.5 yards per carry.

"We approach every game the same way," running backs coach Burton Burns said. "We know what our system is and we have a role in this system and we just try to prepare ourselves every week, because it could be a week-to-week thing, depending on whatever the defense gives us.

"We just try to maintain our ready stats. If it calls for us to pass protect or running routes, then we have to do a good job, which they have been doing. If it calls for us to run the ball, then we have to be prepared. That's part of our system. That's the system that we're in now. And as long as you understand that then those guys can prepare themselves accordingly."

Most recently against Florida State, the running backs only ran with it a measly 11 times. And it's not because the Tigers were so far behind that they had to pass (they only trailed by nine heading into the fourth quarter).

To be fair, two kickoff returns for touchdowns did have a helping hand in the low amount of carries. But it's very doubtful there would have been more than three carries per possession.

"Down 10, that's just two quick scores," Bowden said. "Down 10 with eight minutes to go, nine minutes to go, that's not too bad. But you do have conversations (with the other coaches) make a conscientious point (where you discuss) at what time do we give up on the run. But it's never in the first half and it's hardly ever in the third quarter. I don't know if it's ever in the third quarter, at least not until late in the third quarter."

Even so, the tailbacks haven't carried it as much as in years past in the Bowden era. And it's hard for the running backs to not be able to get a chance to do what they came to Clemson to do.

"It always a struggle when you have to rely on the pass," Merriweather said. "You see schools like Texas, Tennessee, (South) Carolina, Miami and Florida State, they're always running the ball and running the ball and then they throw it just to keep you on your toes. Obviously we have a good game plan, but the run is just in there sometimes and not all the time.

"I'm not worried about it. When I'm in the game, I've got to do what I've got to do. As a running back (group), we've got to bring some fire to this team. We haven't a good decent offensive game yet and we're still waiting for that breakout running game."

In Bowden's system, the quarterback and receivers are often called upon to carry the ball as well, which takes carries away from the tailbacks. So, maybe one should look at total rushing attempts and not just those by the running backs.

Entering this season, Clemson, not including quarterback sacks, has run the ball an average of 37.58 times in each of the 12 wins and 23.83 in the six losses in the Whitehurst era. This season, the Tigers are averaging 26.5 running plays per game.

The lack of carries has caused the backs to discuss the matter with their position coach.

"As a running back, you want the ball in your hand," Burns said. "I think that's normal. If they weren't asking for the ball, then something would be wrong. But yes, they want the ball just like a receiver wants the ball thrown at him. Yes, they have been (asking). But again, as long as they understand what their role is, when they do get that opportunity, they've got to take advantage of it. Yeah, they want the ball. There ain't no doubt about that.

"All these guys have been around and they understand that now. They're disappointed. They'd love to carry the ball 20, 25, 30 times a game. But they've got to understand what our overall philosophy is. And there might be one or two games where that might happen."

Coleman hopes the opportunity to carry the load is fast approaching.

"Maybe this might be the game we get more chances," he said. "But going into the first four games, that was just the game plan and how it was all drawn up."

But neither he nor his cohorts are going to hold their breath waiting for that day to come.

"I feel the same way I felt coming into the season: I have four guys that can play," Burns said. "They understand their role and they know whenever they're called on, they have to be ready to go.

"In this system, you're only going to get so many carries a game. You don't have a whole lot of time to get adjusted to the tempo of the ballgame.

"I've haven't had any problems with those guys. They're not selfish by nature. They're just willing to accept whatever it takes to help this football team. Winning is the bottom line for those guys."

The following is a look at Clemson's rushing stats the last two seasons compared to those of this season:

Average carries per game by running backs
in Clemson wins
2002 28.43 (7 wins)
2003 28.22 (9 wins)
2004 19.00 (1 win, 2 OT)

Average carries per game by running backs
in Clemson losses
2002 19.83 (6 losses)
2003 18.00 (4 losses)
2004 17.00 (3 losses)

Average carries per game by running backs
in Clemson wins under Whitehurst
2002 32.00
2003 28.22
2004 19.00

Average carries per game by running backs
in Clemson losses under Whitehurst
2002 16.50
2003 18.00
2004 17.00

Average carries per game by team in Clemson
wins under Whitehurst (sacks not included)
2002 37.33
2003 37.67
2004 34.00

Average carries per game by team in Clemson
losses under Whitehurst (sacks not included)
2002 24.00
2003 23.75
2004 24.33 Top Stories