CLEMSON — Seemingly every time you looked up Saturday, Clemson and N.C. State were setting offensive records. The teams combined for 110 points and 1,351 yards in one of the most prolific offensive games in Clemson history.
Clemson rolled up 754 yards of total offense – two yards off the program single-game record – and scored its second-most points ever against an ACC foe (62), behind only 1981’s 82-24 rout of Wake Forest. Quarterback Tajh Boyd accounted for eight touchdowns (an ACC record) and 529 yards of total offense (a Clemson single-game record).
Following Clemson 62, N.C. State 48, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic, but also reasons for concern heading into this week’s epic rivalry visit from South Carolina.
Brent Venables’ defense took a clear step back against the Wolfpack’s passing attack, but Chad Morris’ offense showed it can score with anyone. Here are five things I learned from Saturday’s ACC finale.
1. The culture has changed: All season, national pundits talked about Clemson “pulling a Clemson” or “Clemsoning”: i.e., losing a game that was an obvious victory. 11 games into the season, it’s fair to say that won’t be happening in 2012. Poor defense dug the Tigers a 24-13 first-half hole, but they responded by scoring 42 consecutive points, a run fueled by explosive offense as well as defense-generated turnovers. Players and coaches said there was no panic on the sidelines – just a feeling that the deficit was entirely within control. Which it was. Morris’ offense has created a major confidence level that wasn’t evident two years ago, when a 10-point deficit felt like 1,000. The Tigers believe in themselves, which will be tested this week against the Gamecocks.
2. The offensive line is pretty solid: One of the underlying factors behind 2011’s late-season collapse was a sieve-like offensive line. That isn’t the case this fall. Maryland and N.C. State entered Memorial Stadium leading the ACC in team sacks. They combined for zero sacks against the Tigers’ line. Two of the program’s three 700-yard offensive games have come behind this line, and Clemson ranks in the top 10 nationally in total offense, points per game and passing yards per game. They’re physical and tough and durable. Funny how you don’t hear anyone calling for Joey Batson’s job anymore.
3. Clemson’s secondary is still a concern: A secondary weakened by season-ending injuries to cornerbacks Martin Jenkins and Darius Robinson took another blow Saturday when starting corner Bashaud Breeland left with a groin injury. Even before that, N.C. State senior Mike Glennon riddled the secondary with an impressive attack. Glennon completed 29 of 53 passes for 493 yards and five touchdowns, including 49 and 77-yard touchdown strikes to Tobias Palmer (who finished with a Memorial Stadium-record 219 receiving yards). Wolfpack receivers were alarmingly open time and again, with corners and safeties sharing the blame. Alshon Jeffery no longer roams college secondaries, but Connor Shaw is perfectly capable of hurting Clemson with his arm, which will be an issue this week.
4. Kickoff and kickoff coverage needs work: Palmer rolled up 277 yards of kickoff returns, which, combined with his receiving yardage, made for the best all-purpose day in ACC history. His 81-yard return set up a third-quarter score, and the ‘Pack consistently had good field position thanks to his legs. Bradley Pinion replaced Spencer Benton – who had no touchbacks in four kicks – and managed three touchbacks in seven tries. With the dangerous Ace Sanders waiting this week, the Tigers need deep kicks and far better coverage.
5. Tajh Boyd is the Tigers’ No.2 rusher: Boyd has matured as a passer and leader this season, but the biggest difference in his game is a smaller waist. Swinney said Boyd weighed in at 219 pounds this week, about 20 pounds less than he did this time last season. Boyd took a licking and kept on ticking Saturday with 103 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries. His footwork and ground game have improved significantly, making him one of the nation’s most complete quarterbacks. With Boyd a threat to scramble and gain yards on any third down, defenses have that much more to think about, which is a positive for Clemson’s offense.