CLEMSON — A year ago, Chad Morris endured the worst night of his tenure as Clemson’s offensive coordinator. Behind a patchwork, beat-up offensive line, the Tigers’ offense managed just 153 yards of total offense in a 34-13 loss at South Carolina. Saturday, Morris gets another shot at the Gamecocks’ defense when they visit for a 7 p.m. rivalry game, and he feels his offense has improved significantly. The Tigers rank in the top 10 nationally in total offense, passing offense and scoring offense.
An edited version of the conversation follows:
On South Carolina’s defensive look: “They haven’t quite been as much rabbit package as they were a year ago, with (Melvin) Ingram. But they’re very talented up front, no question about that. Playing a lot of man free. It’s been the same thing we’ve said each week. They’ll play their safety extremely deep and try not to let anything get behind him, try to out-physical you on the edge. They’ll try and play the run with the guys they’ve got up front and man you up and have had a lot of success with that this year. Defensive front wise it’s as good a defensive front as we’ve seen. We all know about (defensive end Jadeveon) Clowney, the caliber of player he is, the best in the country. They do a few things different than me last year. They’ll get in the odd and third down package.”
How are they different from Florida State: “Kind of hard to say. Florida State, they’ll do a lot more movement. South Carolina hasn’t moved their guys as much. That’s what we’ve seen over the past few weeks. But they, for the most part, are a base four-down team. Florida State played two safeties deep with man underneath it. They’re playing one safety deep a lot of the time with the extra hat in the box. That’s what they’re trying to get to, and that’s what they want to be. That’s who they are.”
On using safety D.J. Swearinger: “They’ve moved him all over the field, he’s played corner, he’s played nickel safety, he’s played Sam, they’ve played him all over the field. The last few games he’s played back deep as the safety, they’re not letting anything get deep and let him flow to the ball. “
On last year’s 34-13 loss at USC, which saw Clemson garner only 153 yards of total offense: “We had an opportunity early in the game to have a dropped touchdown (from Sammy Watkins), which would have really given us a lot more momentum. We knew going in last year they were extremely physical up front, and very veteran in the secondary, at the corners. That’s the biggest thing I remember the most about it. We had some success running the ball at times, and some drops, but that’s about it. There wasn’t a whole lot pretty out of it.”
On Clowney: “You better know where he’s at, got to account for him. As you look through all the games in the course of the year everyone’s tried to do that. He’s done a good job fighting off two defenders. There’s no question about that. Go back, say it over and over, not who we play, it’s how we play.”
That’s our biggest challenge to our guys, remain on that standard we’ve set for this team. We’re excited about this op, why you get in the business, for environments like this, games like this. We’ll be excited about this and ready to go Saturday night.”
Rivalry: “Well, going into it last year, being new to it a year ago, listening to everyone talk, everyone knows the significance of this game. Being part of it, going there last year, you have a better understanding, since you’ve been through it a year. This is a game that’ll affect every household in this state, and even those outside it. Understand that, but again, I go back to it again. It’s about how we play, how we perform, how we prepare Saturday night. This is going to be a great opportunity.”
On how last year’s result affected him: “I think with any rivalry game, someone’s winning, and someone’s losing. Someone’s happy, someone’s not. Knowing the prior history over the last 3 years, absolutely. We were as disappointed, let down about last year’s performance as anybody. Sure, you’re out there, speak at functions. It goes back, affects, has results in everyone’s household in this state.”
On how USC’s D has changed under Lorenzo Ward: “I think there is some difference. They’ve got a different identity. Last year they may not have played as much man as they have and they were not as big a blitzing team. They’re going to play physical, that’s what we’ve seen this year as opposed to last year. More two-safety look at times. There’s some difference in what’s going on defensively.”
What this week means: “You go back to a rivalry game. If you can’t motivate the guys this week you better check their pulse. For our seniors this is their last game, not counting the bowl game, obviously. Last game in Death Valley, it’s going to be very emotional for our guys, very emotional to send the seniors out. If we’ve got to get in there and give a rah-rah speech… these guys have been a part of this, they understand this, they grew up with this rival, and they’ll be ready. There’s no doubt about it. You’ll see guys playing at their best.”
On Nuk Hopkins: I was excited for Nuk, to break that (career receiving) record. I thought Nuk probably played his worst game of the year to be honest with you. He didn’t quite have the focus, the lock he’s had all year. He had some uncharacteristic drops. But for him to break the record on a touchdown pass was huge. I was excited for him, and definitely well-deserved. He’s played very well this season. Another play for me, but it was big for him. I was excited, gave him a hug after. Should have had another one, but that’s OK.”
Will South Carolina’s defense change the way he calls his game: “You’ve got to be who you are. That’s where as a coach you get into … at this level, you’re not going to try and come in and do something, be somebody you’re not. If you do it’s going to cause problems. You can’t come out here and try to invent something. You’re not going to invent anything. You’ve got to be who you are, play the way you’ve been playing, put your players in the situation to make plays. Do what you’ve been doing. Is it going to affect the way you call plays? Absolutely not. There are going to be some things we do to account for things. It’ll be like a chess match. We’ll do a few things different that they haven’t seen. It’s going to come down to protecting the football, which is critical. It’s going to come down to blocking, tackling and winning third down.”
On South Carolina’s defense without Ingram and Stephon Gilmore: “Two very good players, extremely good players (gone). They’re not changing who they are. They’re playing a little more man than last year. They’ve got some good guys who are playing very well. It’s about how we play, how we execute, that’s our biggest deal going into this week.”
Was Saturday as well as the offense has played in your time here: “I think there were definitely some things we could have done better after watching the film. We didn’t do a very good job up front as far as picking up their movement. We picked it up later in the game but I thought early we were very sloppy in picking up their steps, their defensive-line movements. I thought as the game went we got better as that regard. Our pass protection hasn’t been great but it’s been very good. It’s getting better each week in regards to giving Tajh a chance to throw the football.
“I thought Andre (Ellington) and our running backs ran inspired, it was as strong a run as I’ve seen for him. Hot Rod (McDowell) continues to come in and give us the boost to take pressure off Andre. Tajh is running the ball extremely effective with a lot of confidence right now. Something he didn’t do last year. It’s helped his overall game. From a wide receiver standpoint, Nuk it wasn’t his best game, wasn’t Sammy’s best game, I think those guys didn’t play to their capability, need to step it up a little more. We’re going to challenge those guys this week.
“Adam Humphries continues to come in and be solid. Jaron Brown is effective, he’s really efficient out there on the edge. Those are things, you say, coach, you had 750 yards of offense, but you left so many yards out there, we had so many other things we could do to get better. I haven’t seen our players today, we haven’t seen them in a while, but we’re not going to pat them on the back and hand out Rice Krispie Treats, we’ve got to get better. In the same sense we’ve got to move forward. We’ve got a great opponent ahead of us we’ve got to prepare for. They’ve seen it themselves. They’ve come up here and watched it on their own. Am I excited, am I pleased with the way we’ve been executing? You bet. It’s a credit to our offensive line. We still have a way to go. You’ve got a group of guys that are having fun, enjoying practice, enjoying playing this game, and that’s a big plus.”
Where can Watkins improve: “In all areas. Route-running, being more physical, getting better breaks on the ball. Consistency. He had 100-some yards, 11 catches, but he can do more. He’s an All-American. Let’s go. I think Nuk’s done great for us this year. But he had a bad game, maybe not to the standard he’s set for himself, we’ve set for him. It’s going to happen. Happens to Tajh, happens to everyone. Sometimes you don’t have a great game. Get that out of your system and let’s move forward.”
On Brandon Ford: “Brandon has been beat-up, he hasn’t been 100 percent healthy. Therefore he hasn’t been playing as physical as he needed to play which has caused him not to have the production he needed to have. So it snowballs. But Brandon is a guy who probably played his best game. He was physical as I’ve seen him. He made some critical catches at critical times in the game. And that was good to see. That’s a position that needs to perform at that type of level.”