TALLAHASSEE, FLA. – We found out plenty about Clemson Saturday night, just as many had expected.
Clemson coaches, players and fans probably didn’t like much about what they saw.
The No.10 Tigers landed body blow after body blow on the most talented team on their 2012 schedule – No.4 Florida State – but the Seminoles ultimately rallied from a two-touchdown third quarter deficit to score a TKO in a 49-37 win, fueled by a 35-3 second-half run.
Clemson now must regroup, and quickly: this week will bring a 3:30 p.m. game at Boston College, a place the Tigers have won only once in program history.
Here are five things we learned from Florida State 49, Clemson 37:
1. The defense won’t be fixed quickly: The issues most observers were most concerned about entering the game – poor run defense, poor tackling, a propensity for allowing big plays – were only exacerbated by Florida State’s athletic, quick, talented offense. The Seminoles rolled up 667 yards of total offense, the second-most ever allowed by a Clemson defense. (The most? 771 yards in the Tigers’ last top-10 game, a 54-7 Florida State blowout in 2000). Quarterback E.J. Manuel became the first FSU quarterback to throw for 300 yards and run for 100 in the same game since Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward.
A three-man front didn’t work well, and players seemed to wear down in the second half, with poor tackling and poor pass coverage becoming issues as the game wound down. These are largely the same players who struggled under Kevin Steele’s watch, albeit with a much younger defensive line. New defensive coordinator Brent Venables said last month that he wasn’t comfortable with his depth, which makes the specter of personnel shuffles a dicey move at best.
2. Sammy Watkins can do it all: The star sophomore receiver had 110 yards of total offense and contributed all over the place, including his first career touchdown pass. After just missing fellow wideout Adam Humphries on a first-half pass, Watkins showed excellent touch on a pass to tailback Andre Ellington, who made a perfect cut to juke defenders and roll to the end zone. Chad Morris used him in a variety of ways, with quick tosses and quick passes out of the backfield. About the only thing missing was a true deep shot, but there’s always this week, right?
3. Kick coverage is a problem: Florida State has superior returners in Lamarcus Joyner and Rashad Greene, but Clemson kickers certainly didn’t help themselves with short kicks that encouraged returns. New rules that moved kickoffs to the 35-yard line give kickers a tremendous advantage if they can get the ball into the end zone; returners are likely to settle for a touchback at the 25. Joyner took a short Bradley Pinion boot 90 yards to the Clemson 10, setting up a touchdown that cut a 31-21 lead right back to three points. It was a crucial moment in the game. Perhaps the most crucial, as far as momentum went. Expect Benton and Pinion to compete for kicking duties this week.
4. When the offense suffers, the Tigers flounder as a whole: Following Chandler Catanzaro’s 50-yard-long field goal that built the 31-21 lead, here are Clemson’s next five possessions: three plays punt, three plays punt, three plays punt, two plays interception, three plays punt. Florida State, meanwhile, went touchdown, touchdown, touchdown, fumble, touchdown. There’s the game. Three-and-outs are inevitable in the course of a game, but with a struggling defense, Morris’ system has to stay on the field, run the ball effectively and chew clock.
5. We saw the de facto ACC title game Saturday night: Saturday marked the ACC’s first matchup of top-10 teams since 2007, and it certainly didn’t disappoint viewers. For three quarters, the Tigers and Seminoles marched up and down the field on each other, with exciting plays fueling an electric atmosphere. It was the perfect showcase for a league which badly needed one. The only shame was that it took place in Tallahassee in September, not Charlotte in December. Alas, Clemson must hope the ‘Noles slip up twice along the way, or not at all. If FSU can sneak into the national title game and Clemson stays unblemished, the Tigers could make a BCS game. I simply don’t see anyone in the mess that is the Coastal Division – Virginia Tech? Georgia Tech? –
challenging the Seminoles for league superiority. That’s a long ways off, however, and Clemson has more pressing issues – like stopping an opposing offense.