CLEMSON — Saturday, a true rarity occurred near Memorial Stadium’s east end zone.
As Clemson junior quarterback Tajh Boyd pushed inside the Maryland 5, he stretched and spun for extra yardage. The football was punched away, and a Terrapin fell on it at the 2.
Such failures have been few and far between for the Tigers this fall.
Clemson has turned 45 of 48 red zone chances into scores, a sparkling 93.75 percent. That’s third-best in FBS, behind only Louisville and Ole Miss.
“We always talk to our guys about anytime you get inside the 25-yard line, you’ve got three points,” Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “Don’t screw it up. Give us a chance. Be smart with the football.”
Of those scores, 35, or 72.9 percent, have been touchdowns. That ranks 13th nationally and second-best in the ACC, behind only Wake Forest (73.9 percent).
That success is also one of the biggest reasons why Clemson is thriving offensively. Through 10 games, the Tigers are sixth nationally in scoring offense (42.9 ppg), seventh in total offense (513.8 ypg) and 12th in passing offense (312.6 ypg).
“Our mentality when we get down there, we’re hungry,” said senior tight end Brandon Ford. “The thing about it this year, we’ve got a year behind us of being in this offense. We know what to expect, what to do. No excuses. Guys take that upon themselves as a challenge. We’ve got to execute, no matter if it’s fourth and inches, fourth and one. When we’re in the red zone, we want to score.”
Morris’ second season has brought dramatic red-zone improvement. A year ago, the Tigers were 73rd nationally in red zone scoring, converting 80.3 percent of the time. Only 57.1 percent of those were touchdowns, which ranked 83rd nationally.
The comparisons are even more striking when you look at 2010, the final season of Billy Napier’s ill-fated offensive coordinator run. Clemson was 111th nationally in red zone scoring, converting 73.9 percent of its opportunities, and turning 54.3 percent into touchdowns (95th nationally).
“Two years ago, wow,” Ford said. “We had a lot of struggles. Things would go our way some games, some games they wouldn’t. I actually felt bad for the defense. They were always playing their butt off and we couldn’t get things going on offense. From where we were two years ago to now, we’re a long way ahead.”
That red-zone improvement can be directly tied to the emergence of junior Chandler Catanzaro as one of the ACC’s best kickers. Two years ago, Catanzaro made only 14 of 22 field goals, missing five from inside 40 yards (or the 25-yard line).
Last year, Catanzaro made 22 of 27, with only two misses coming from 40-in.
This year, he has made 21 of 22 field goals; his only miss, from 48 yards at Wake Forest, snapped a Clemson-best streak of 20 consecutive attempts.
“We’re a pretty good red zone team,” said sophomore receiver Adam Humphries, who scored his first career touchdown Saturday on a diving 13-yard grab. “And part of that is having a great kicker.”
“Coach Morris always says every drive ends in a kick,” he said. “Even if we don’t score, we need to get a field goal, so that’s been our big plan this year.”
Equally important has been Clemson’s progress in short-yardage situations. The Tigers have converted 53.1 percent of their third downs, third nationally behind Texas A&M and Marshall. They’re also third nationally in fourth-down conversions, successful on 11 of 13 (84.6 percent) behind Kansas State and East Carolina.
A year ago, Clemson converted 43.3 percent of its third down tries, 35th nationally, and 47.7 percent of its fourth-down tries, which ranked 73rd nationally.
Clemson is also 38th nationally in rush offense, with 191.8 yards per game. A year ago, the Tigers were 59th nationally, averaging 158.5 per game.
Not coincidentally, criticism of the offensive line’s physicality has decreased exponentially.
“I think it’s been our ability to convert short yardage. I really do,” Morris said of the red-zone success. “That’s been critical for us. Our ability to keep the chains moving. Tajh has been able to run the football more effectively this year. To convert the third and short, fourth and 1, fourth and 2, that’s been instrumental in us scoring points.”
It all comes back to mentality. And the Tigers’ mentality has clearly changed.
“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Humphries said. “We know when we’re in the red zone, we have to get points and just take care of the ball.”