RALEIGH, N.C. — It was frustrating. Stunning. And, if you’re a Clemson fan, infuriating.
Saturday afternoon, Clemson stepped into Carter-Finley Stadium with little to play for in the ACC standings but plenty to accomplish in the bigger picture.
The Tigers certainly didn’t play like it, and they’re surely kicking themselves today following another chaotic night on the national scene.
With Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Oregon falling, Clemson could’ve been No.4 in this week’s BCS national rankings.
Instead, they’re licking their wounds from a 37-13 stomping at the hands of an N.C. State team that entered 5-5 having scored 23 points over its last three games, including a 14-10 loss to a bad Boston College team.
Clemson has massive soul-searching before this week’s rivalry visit to South Carolina, with a promising season veering off course.
Here are five things we learned from the evisceration in Carter-Finley:
1. Dabo Swinney needs better motivators: All week, Swinney said his team had no reason to be flat, and challenged it to play with the intensity of superstars Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice, two intense competitors. Instead, the Tigers looked more like LeBron James – the fourth-quarter version. Clemson was flat, unemotional and uninspired. Once the Wolfpack – fighting for its postseason life – cashed in a pair of turnovers and a long punt return to go up 24-3, the Tigers were as good as done.
For a program which has spoken of culture change and improved all-around focus, it looked like “same old Clemson.”
2. The offensive line is an issue this season and beyond: The most underrated piece of Clemson’s offensive success? Senior left tackle Phillip Price. With Price watching from the sidelines thanks to a sprained MCL in his right knee, the offensive line was awful. Price’s replacement, sophomore Brandon Thomas, allowed multiple sacks, and State’s linemen shredded one of his blocks to force a Tajh Boyd fumble which led to the Pack’s second touchdown. Price could return for USC, and Clemson needs him; Thomas has been passable at left guard, but Saturday we saw why Price beat him for the LT job in August.
Thomas’ departure due to a knee injury, as well as Landon Walker sustaining a minor hamstring injury shuffled the line further, sapping continuity and consistency. With Price, Walker and right guard Antoine McClain gone after this season, OL coach Robbie Caldwell has a major rebuilding project on his hands, and given the second half’s results, I’m not sure there’s much depth in the pipeline.
3. The run game is a problem: This week, offensive coordinator Chad Morris ripped into his guard play, calling it “soft.” Saturday was a further indictment; Clemson had just 34 yards rushing – 1.2 yards per attempt. While six sacks subtracted 49 yards, the Tigers couldn’t run between the tackles. Clemson faced third and 3 or shorter five timd converted once – a four-yard Andre Ellington run. Three times, they were stopped for no gain or a loss, and a fourth time, a Boyd pass fell incomplete. Clemson finished 2-of-14 on third down, and that’s just unacceptable. Morris’ offense needs physical running that moves the chains, and it didn’t happen Saturday.
4. Sammy Watkins needs to be healthy quick: Watkins, the ACC’s leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns and the league’s all-time freshman leader in all three categories, watched from the sidelines, resting a sprained shoulder suffered against Wake Forest. Without him, the offense missed a critical deep threat and, quite frankly, looked a lot like 2010’s punchless group. DeAndre Hopkins had five catches for 124 yards, including a leaping 43-yard grab, but no one else stretched the defense. Boyd threw no touchdowns and constantly checked down with short screens and slants under pressure. Getting Watkins healthy is crucial for the ACC title game, but Clemson needs him at USC.
5. Turnovers are a major problem: Clemson had eight turnovers in its first eight games, and 11 in its last three. Making matters worse, this offense has a knack for making them at the worst times. Take Saturday’s four turnovers: fumbles at the Clemson 6 and 11 and a pair of Boyd interceptions that killed drives in the State red zone.
Earlier this season, the offense was efficient with big plays and minimal turnovers. Right now, it has neither. Clemson might be able to survive with one of the two elements, plus a slightly better defense. With both issues in play, it is a recipe for disaster.