CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Entering Saturday’s game at Boston College, Clemson fans had good reason to be concerned. The No.17 Tigers were coming off an emotional loss at No.4 Florida State, playing for the second consecutive week on the road, and playing without star wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who was back in Clemson working through what coach Dabo Swinney called a “scary” abdominal virus that “had his bloodwork all out of whack.”
Clemson persevered, turning a second-quarter deficit into an eventual 45-31 win thanks to 576 yards of total offense. There were equal reasons for excitement and concern entering this week’s 3:30 p.m. home date with struggling Georgia Tech, fresh off a 49-28 whipping at Middle Tennessee’s hands.
DeAndre Hopkins talks big day
Hopkins' 197 yards sets Clemson record
Here are five things I learned from Clemson 45, Boston College 31:
1. DeAndre Hopkins does not get nearly enough attention: We wondered how Clemson would handle Watkins’ absence, and the answer was second verse, same as the first: Hopkins. In the opener against Auburn, he set a program single-game record with 13 catches. This time, he set another program record with 197 yards receiving, breaking Rod Gardner’s 12-year-old mark of 182 set at North Carolina. Scary part is, it could have been more: Hopkins nearly had a 36-yard touchdown, but the play was ruled an incompletion when he brushed a foot against an end zone pylon before making an acrobatic grab.
As it was, he still had an incredible 58-yard grab and another 36-yard touchdown catch and kept the chains moving all day as Tajh Boyd’s favorite target. He has 42 catches through five games, and once Watkins gets back to health and game speed, he and Hopkins will be a dynamic duo. The former D.W. Daniel star doesn’t love talking with reporters – Saturday marked his first media appearance in three weeks - but he should get used to the attention. He’s that good.
2. The defensive line can get pressure: Three sacks in a single game shouldn’t be cause for celebration, but such is life on the Tigers’ defensive line. Saturday’s total nearly doubled the season tally entering the game – four in four games. Sophomore defensive end Vic Beasley and sophomore defensive tackle DeShawn Williams picked up their second sacks on the season, and both were disruptive inside. Beasley largely supplanted starter Corey Crawford following the first series, and the trio of Williams, Josh Watson and Grady Jarrett all made impacts. Williams said BC quarterback Chase Rettig took notice, making deeper shotgun drops to deal with the pressure. There needs to be more – senior end Malliciah Goodman is sackless through five games – but Saturday was a nice start.
3. The defense still has issues: Defensive coordinator Brent Venables was quite displeased following the game, calling his unit’s consistent fundamental breakdowns “Groundhog Day.” Rush defense – a problem all season – improved against BC’s anemic ground game, allowing 51 yards in 28 attempts. But Rettig threw for 341 yards and consistently had men open in coverage; he had completions of 31, 42 and 49 yards. Sophomore Garry Peters replaced benched junior corner Darius Robinson and was largely effective; his first career interception sealed the game. But defensive backs continued to take bad angles and only rarely looked for the ball in the air. They won’t be tested against Georgia Tech, but the defense as a whole needs better discipline and fundamentals, both this week and going forward.
4. The power running game is good, but not great: Senior tailback Andre Ellington returned to form, picking up 132 yards on 25 carries, averaging 5.3 yards per tote. He blasted a key third-down conversion right up the middle, something that didn’t happen last week against Florida State’s imposing defensive front. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris felt confident enough to run Rod McDowell over right guard on a fourth-and-inches at his own 48 in the fourth quarter, but McDowell was swallowed, raising Morris’ ire afterward. Clemson still rushed for 209 yards as a team, an acceptable number on any day, and converted 10 of 16 third downs. But you’d better believe the fourth-down failure will be highlighted in WestZone film sessions this week.
5. This can still be a 10-win team: While Clemson was busy handling Boston College, the rest of the ACC was going to the dogs. Georgia Tech lost to Middle Tennessee. Presumptive Coastal favorite Virginia Tech lost to Cincinnati, and Virginia lost at home to Louisiana Tech. Florida State is the clear league favorite, but Clemson appears to be the ACC’s clear No.2. October brings home games with the Yellow Jackets and Hokies, sandwiched around an open date, and a month-ending trip to Wake Forest, which lost to Duke and lost top receiver Michael Campanaro to a broken hand Saturday. That’s followed by a trip to Duke and home dates with Maryland and N.C. State before South Carolina comes in for a season-ending showdown. Do you see a loss before the Gamecocks come calling? Assuming the Tigers improve defensively and get Watkins back on track, I most certainly do not. The rhetoric floating around the WestZone this week centered around the fact that 2012 can still be special. And that’s completely true.