Ellington: Missed opportunities shows 'sky's limit'
CLEMSON — In these parts, open dates have been filled in recent years with reflection, dismay, and misery.
Dating back to 2006, Clemson was 0-6 in games heading into an open date on its schedule. Since taking a 20-14 win over N.C. State on Nov. 11, 2006, the Tigers have headed into time off with their heads down, losing in 2007, twice in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011.
This week will be different. Saturday, Clemson blew past Georgia Tech, scoring the game’s final 17 points for a 47-31 win at a raucous Memorial Stadium.
As the Tigers hit a superbly timed open week, they have reason to be excited. Despite a shaky defense, Dabo Swinney’s bunch is 5-1, 2-1 in ACC play and poised to take advantage of a second-half schedule which features four of six games at home.
Late Saturday night, they got the biggest lift of all when struggling N.C. State stunned No.4 Florida State 17-16 in Raleigh.
The ACC won’t have a national title contender this season, but Clemson is firmly back in the hunt for a second consecutive league championship.
Following a 49-37 loss two weeks ago in Tallahassee, the Tigers needed to win out and hope Florida State lost twice, a daunting task.
Now, they have hope: take care of business, and perhaps the Seminoles will slip up again.
The schedule is certainly favorable – struggling Virginia Tech at home, followed by a Thursday night trip to Wake Forest, a trip to Duke and home games with Maryland and those pesky Wolfpack.
Florida State has Boston College at home, a trip to Miami, Duke, a Thursday night trip to Virginia Tech and a trip to Maryland left on its ACC slate.
Can you pencil in a loss? No. Is it possible? Sure.
Following the FSU defeat, Swinney told anyone who would listen that his team could still accomplish all its goals this season; quarterback Tajh Boyd called a players-only meeting to send the same message.
In Swinney’s words, the Tigers were still in the car; they just weren’t driving it.
Saturday night, the Wolfpack gave them a boost from the back seat to riding shotgun.
This group is young, and it still has serious defensive issues. Following two weeks of live tackling in practice, fundamentals were as atrocious as ever. Clemson is allowing 202.6 rushing yards per game, 102nd nationally. Its 445 yards per game allowed stands 96th nationally. Its 27.3 points per game allowed ranks 71st nationally.
That said, the offense can mask many faults. The Tigers’ 525.8 yards per game ranks 10th nationally in total offense; 41.3 points per game ranks 13th in scoring offense, and 201.1 yards rushing per game ranks 31st nationally.
A young-but-improving offensive line has protected Boyd well; while Sammy Watkins fights off a sophomore slump, junior DeAndre Hopkins has emerged as one of the nation’s top receivers, averaging 129.5 receiving yards per game, fifth-best nationally. And don’t forget about senior tailback Andre Ellington, quietly averaging 99.5 yards rushing per game, among the top 30 nationally.
All of this with a roster which features 62 freshmen and sophomores on scholarship.
In August, Swinney said he didn’t expect this team’s true character to emerge until a month to six weeks into the season. A resilient bunch has emerged, and it is easy to imagine a 10-1 Clemson team facing off with an undefeated South Carolina group in an epic end-of-season showdown in Death Valley.
That alone should be reason to spend this open date smiling.