CLEMSON — As a college professor, Chad Morris would be a student’s worst nightmare.
You stay up all night polishing a 20-page term paper, making rock-solid arguments with phrases that sing. You drop it on his desk, expecting an A.
Three days later, it comes back, looking like a red pen has exploded all over it.
That’s how exacting Morris can be.
Saturday, Clemson put together one of the best offensive performances in program history in a 62-48 win over N.C. State. The Tigers rolled up their highest point total against an ACC foe since 1981’s 82-24 win over Wake Forest, and their 754 yards of total offense was two yards short of the program record, also set on that 1981 day.
Talk to Morris, however, and one concept overrides all others: improvement.
He criticized dropped balls. He criticized star receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins (who set Clemson's career receiving yards record and had a 11-catch, 110-yard day Saturday, respectively). No one was safe.
“You say, ‘Coach, you had 750 yards of offense,’” he said. “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, but we’re not going to pat them on the back and hand out Rice Krispie Treats. We’ve got to get better.”
It sounds silly, but those words ring true this week, given the opponent on deck Saturday night in Memorial Stadium. No.13 South Carolina will bring one of the season’s stiffest defensive challenges.
The Gamecocks rank No.13 nationally in both total and scoring defense (310.8 ypg, 17.5 ppg) and 16th in rush defense (116.4 ypg).
A year ago, they held Clemson to 153 yards of total offense in a 34-13 rout in Columbia – the lowest total of Morris’ two-year tenure.
“We’ve got a great opponent ahead of us we’ve got to prepare for,” Morris said. “(Our players), 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. But we e still have a way to go.”
Clemson’s offense has taken a step forward in Morris’ second season running the hurry-up, no-huddle scheme. The Tigers average 44.6 points per game, fourth-best nationally. Their 535.5 yards per game ranks sixth nationally, and their 332 yards passing per game ranks ninth nationally.
A year ago, Clemson averaged 33.6 points per game (33rd nationally), 444.8 yards of total offense (26th nationally), and 282 passing yards per game (21st nationally).
Those improvements – and the fact that South Carolina lost first-round NFL draft picks Melvin Ingram and Stephone Gilmore – make 2011 comparisons unnecessary, Morris said.
Under new defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward, the Gamecocks play more man coverage and blitz less, using a one-safety look to challenge teams deep.
“I’m not going to sit and cry about it, mope around,” he said. “Last year’s performance, that’s behind us. We flipped it on, looked at how they lined up, we’ve already critiqued last year’s team. It’s time to move forward. We looked at what they did. Things they did that may cause us problems, but last year and this year, it’s two different teams. Next year you’ll be talking about another team that’s different than this year’s team. Very unfair to compare it to last year’s team.”
South Carolina still has a potent defensive line, led by Lombardi and Nagurski Award finalist Jadeveon Clowney, a sophomore defensive end that Clemson and Dabo Swinney hotly recruited before he signed with USC two years ago. Clowney is questionable for this week with nagging knee and foot injuries that forced him to miss last week’s win over Wofford, but if he plays, he’ll be a major focus of Clemson’s game plan.
“You have to account for where he is,” Morris said. “They move him around. They want to put him at defensive end, where his base position is. They’ll put him at nose, they’ll put him at tackle. When they go (3-4) they’ll put him at their nose look. They’ll see him play across the front. At times they’ll let him be a stand-up guy.”
Morris called South Carolina’s line “as good as we’ll see all year.” It’ll pose the latest challenge for an improving offensive line. Over the last two weeks, both Maryland and N.C. State arrived in Clemson as the ACC’s sack leaders. Neither managed a single sack.
“I think you’ve seen improvement there,” Morris said. “They’ve really improved as a whole. I’m not just talking about the offensive line. But in particular, the offensive line, I think you see some guys maturing, playing with some consistency. They’re playing some of their best ball right now. A year ago maybe we weren’t doing that.”
Consistent improvement from junior quarterback Tajh Boyd has helped, too. Boyd was immobile by season’s end, weighing nearly 240 pounds. At 219 pounds, he’s a running threat. He has 466 rushing yards, eight rushing scores and ranks seventh nationally in total offense, averaging 348.5 yards per game.
“I think you had a quarterback that wasn’t running the ball very well. He was standing back there like a concrete deer. A statue,” Morris said. “He was hit early and often, he was hit in the latter part of the year, where he wasn’t playing his best ball. He lost his fundamentals, lost his technique, wasn’t moving as well. Therefore he was a sitting target.”