The Tigers lit up the scoreboard against the Tar Heels – 59 points, aided by defensive end Kourtnei Brown’s two touchdowns, and in the process became just the third team in ACC history to score 56 points or more in consecutive games.
The thing is, the Tigers are pretty sure they should have had more. There were a couple of early-game misses that Tajh Boyd would like the have back, and on another occasion Sammy Watkins was just a step away from taking a kickoff for the distance.
However they come, whenever the Tigers rack up points they way they have the past two Saturday, they’re going to be a tough team to beat.
The challenge facing opposing defenses appears to be getting progressively deeper and more complicated.
Here’s a look at some of what worked for the Tigers against the Tar Heels:
Spreading the wealth: Five different players caught touchdown passes against UNC. That’s nice balance (and a reward for the receiving players for all their hard work); but more importantly, it’s a major headache for teams as they attempt to game-plan for the Tigers. Sammy Watkins certainly deserves extra attention, and has shown that without it, he can single-handedly beat you. But try to put a blanket on Watkins, as North Carolina did, and Nuke Hopkins pops up with nine killer receptions for 157 yards. Then there’s Dwayne Allen, described by opposing coaches as the best pass-catching tight end in college football. And game-by-game, confidence is growing – a two-way street – in the Tigers’ youngest playmakers. Chad Morris said after the game that the Tigers were able to create, and then exploit, mismatches. And that was against a very talented and physically gifted collection of defensive players.
Second-half surge: Clemson’s string of strong second halves has moved beyond coincidence. The second-half surge is becoming a trademark of this team. After the game on Saturday, Clemson’s coaches and players talked a bit about ‘why.’ The Tigers are taking each opponent’s best shot early, a product of a week of intense preparation. Clemson then tweaks and adjusts, and the game becomes something of a chess match. At halftime, the Tigers go into the locker room and share feedback and information. They settle on a second-half game plan, and then go out in the third quarter and execute with confidence. At some point, the Tigers’ physical conditioning – a product of their fast-placed practices – kicks in, as indicated by a string of late-game, clinching daggers.
Playing takeaway: The Tigers spent the week before the North Carolina game concentrating on ways to force more turnovers – things like getting their hands up at the line of scrimmage, breaking on the ball in coverage, and challenging UNC’s ball-security. Against the Tar Heels, the turnover margin turned out to be the game’s biggest mismatch – six to one, Clemson. The Tigers’ points off turnovers ended up accounting for the winning margin.
Kourtnei Brown: Every time a player like Brown steps out of the shadows and into the spotlight via game-changing plays, it makes the Tigers a little better. Earlier in the week, Dabo Swinney lamented the fact that while the Tigers’ first-line defense is solid, depth-building and confidence in the second unit has been slow in coming. If the foursome of Andre Branch, Malliciah Goodman, Corey Crawford and Brown becomes a true tag-team unit over the final third of the season, it makes Clemson’s defensive front all the more tough to handle.
Unbalanced offense: The Tigers want more from their rushing attack than they got on Saturday. But the game plan acknowledged up front that running yards would be tough to come by against a UNC front seven that Chad Morris described as clearly the best that Clemson has played so far. So the Tigers took to the air early and often, and built their attack on exploiting mismatches in the secondary. The fact that Clemson has shown that it can work the balance equation from either side is just one more preparation nightmare for defenses.
Rushing defense: North Carolina wanted to run the football, and the Tigers said ‘no.’ UNC finished with 102 yards on 28 carries, but a third of it came late against Clemson’s defensive reserves. Brandon Thompson, Rennie Moore and Tyler Shatley controlled the middle, allowing others to make plays against the UNC running game.
Third-down defense: The Tigers slammed the door on UNC’s first nine third-down plays, and the game was all but over by the time the Tar Heels converted two of their last three for a 2-of-12 bottom line. That’s winning football, plain and simple.