CLEMSON — Saturday unfolded like each of the last two weeks had for Clemson. A big early lead, Chad Morris taking his foot off the gas and Cole Stoudt leading the Tiger backups’ charge into the game by the fourth quarter.
Clemson’s 45-10 win over Maryland didn’t impress pollsters – the Tigers dropped from No.10 to No.11 in the Associated Press top 25 – but it was another solid piece for a 2012 season that has been all about consistency. Clemson doesn’t play down to its opponents; it obliterates them. Saturday marked the Tigers’ ninth consecutive game with at least 37 points, an ACC record. They’ve won six consecutive games by at least 14 points. It might not raise eyebrows nationally, but they just win, and comfortably. Here are five things we learned from Saturday’s latest tour de force:
1. This team has focus unseen in these parts in a while: Clemson was a 31-point favorite over Maryland even before the Terrapins announced freshman receiver Stefon Diggs and tailback Wes Brown would miss the game with ankle injuries; converted freshman linebacker Shawn Petty is the Terps’ fifth quarterback of the season. Four are out with injuries, including three torn ACLs. Thoughts of a letdown would have been natural, but Dabo Swinney said his team was focused all week, a testament to the Tigers’ leadership and drive. Wake Forest, Duke and Maryland are hardly world-beaters, but Clemson has won its last three games by an average of 33.3 points. We’ll find out a lot more about this team when South Carolina comes to town next week, but this bunch is just taking care of its business with no drama, which says plenty about its overall mindset.
2. Turnovers are a concern: When Maryland scored following an Adam Humphries muffed punt return in the second quarter, it marked the first time the defense had allowed a score in 10 Clemson turnovers. That minimizes the impact and concern over recent turnovers. Over the last two weeks, the Tigers have committed seven turnovers - five from Tajh Boyd (three interceptions and two fumbles). They’d committed just eight turnovers in their first seven games, which mirrors 2011’s troubling season-end trend. It didn’t matter much Saturday, but ball security will be an issue moving forward.
3. This offense has lots of weapons: No Clemson receiver had more than five catches or 60 yards Saturday; sophomore Sammy Watkins had four receptions for 60 yards before missing the second half with an ankle injury. But Boyd continued to spread the ball around; nine receivers caught passes, and Humphries and Stanton Seckinger got their first career touchdowns. Sophomore Martavis Bryant showed more deep-play ability, grabbing a 48-yard reception that flashed his immense talent. Senior tight end Brandon Ford continues to keep defenses honest, out-battling a Maryland safety for a pretty 22-yard touchdown down the left sideline. That’s the beauty of this offense: between the motion, movements and all the talent, it gives opponents plenty to think about.
4. Brent Venables’ defense continues to improve: Clemson allowed an average of 523 yards and 37 points to its first three ACC opponents, but the Tigers have consistently improved defensively over the last month, playing with great focus, intensity and much better tackling. The last three weeks have marked the three lowest yardage totals of the season; Maryland managed just 10 points and 180 yards of total offense. In fact, it was the lowest opponent yardage total since Coastal Carolina had 179 on Oct. 31, 2009. The Terps converted just one of 13 third downs.
Over the last month, Clemson is allowing 304 yards and 15 points per game. After just seven sacks in the first six games, Clemson has 13 in its last four. The opposition hasn’t been world-class, but you can’t argue with the results.
5. This group can have a sweet destination without ACC glory: Florida State’s comeback win over Virginia Tech all but sealed Clemson’s ACC fate: the Tigers must beat N.C. State and hope Maryland can upset Florida State in College Park, a near-impossible task given the ineptitude the Terps showed in Death Valley. However, a BCS at-large bid is very much within reach. CBS Sports and ESPN project the Tigers into the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, whose 2008 season-opening beatdown marked the beginning of the end of Tommy Bowden’s run and the beginning of Swinney’s rise. Clemson must beat South Carolina, but New Orleans is a better destination than an Orange Bowl matchup with Louisville, coming off a 19-point whipping at Syracuse’s hands.