CLEMSON — Inside Memorial Stadium, the mood wasn’t one of anger, or excitement. Just stunned surprise. Was this really happening? Was Clemson actually tied with Wofford – Wofford? at the half?
The Tigers eventually gutted out a 35-27 win, but the takeaway was clear: they’ve got a lot of work to do – and quickly, if they want to reach the potential inspired by Chad Morris’ offensive scheme and a much-hyped freshman class.
What did we learn from Clemson-Wofford? Here are five things I picked up:
1. Paul Johnson is rubbing his hands together with glee watching Clemson game film. So is Gus Malzahn: Clemson’s defense has looked utterly mortal over the first two weeks, giving up 399 yards to Wofford and keeping both Troy and Wofford in the game into the second half. Saturday, it gave up several key busts, allowing Wofford passes for 61 and 66 yards. On the Terriers’ first score, a 27-yard Mitch Allen run, a blitzing Jonathan Willard completely missed Allen in the backfield. Clemson’s line went without a sack for the first time in over a year, a function of Wofford’s option scheme, but they had only one against Troy. They miss Da’Quan Bowers’ production. The secondary was hurt by injuries (Rashard Hall) and suspensions (Xavier Brewer and Carlton Lewis), but defensive coordinator Kevin Steele liked the experience it afforded young players like safety Robert Smith and cornerback Darius Robinson, who made their first career starts.
Tackling remains a major issue for this team, and the first-string can’t afford injuries. There’s that much of a dropoff between the veterans and youngsters.
2. Special teams were atrocious: Special teams were a major issue for Clemson last year, and they came rushing back to the forefront Saturday. How bad were they? Let us count the ways. A fake punt, on which Clemson lost containment, leading to a 31-yard gain. A muffed snap on an extra point after a review of a touchdown (which was upheld) wiped out a successful attempt. A missed 43-yard field goal by Chandler Catanzaro. And one of the strangest fake field goal attempts you’ll ever see. Up 35-27 with a shot to extend the lead to two scores, Swinney decided a fake field goal – with Spencer Benton getting the pitch – was a good idea. Um, no.
3. Tajh Boyd is doing just fine: Boyd had a shaky first half against Troy, but rebounded to complete 13 consecutive passes in the second half and lead an offensive comeback. Saturday, he looked more composed and poised, completing 18 of 29 passes for 261 yards and three scores. He’s the first Clemson QB since Cullen Harper in 2007 to throw three touchdown passes in two consecutive games. Boyd showed grit – his 14-yard sideline pass to DeAndre Hopkins on third and 13 from the 50 in the third quarter was his best throw of the season – and isn’t afraid to scramble and show physicality on his runs, a key element of Morris’ offense. His real tests will start this week, but Morris and Swinney have to be encouraged by his effort so far.
4. The offensive line has some issues: Clemson’s veteran offensive line was expected to be a strength, but it has struggled at times in the first two weeks. Boyd was sacked four times Saturday, with right guard Antoine McClain getting beaten several times. Even more concerning, the offense has been stopped twice in two weeks on fourth-and-inches situations. Morris said afterward that his offense has to be more physical, and nobody needs to hear that message more than the offensive line. Right tackle Landon Walker said his unit struggled with some of Wofford’s unusual looks in the first half (and the offense improved in the second half), but they must protect Boyd better and block more physically against Auburn.
5. Sammy Watkins is for real: A week after his electric seven-catch, 81-yard, touchdown debut against Troy, Watkins was just as good, catching four passes for 56 yards. The highlight? A 38-yard touchdown catch seemingly plucked from the air as he moved from the right flank to the middle of the field. Watkins also had three reverses for 30 yards and contributed 196 yards of total offense. Combined with Hopkins, who had five catches for 73 yards and a score, Boyd has a formidable pair of downfield targets to throw to. It’ll be fun to watch them this fall.