Inside Clemson-USC: Tigers' run game, balance keys to win

Football - Roderick McDowell & Strength coach Joey Batson

Photo by Mark Crammer

Football - Roderick McDowell & Strength coach Joey Batson

Conventional wisdom says Clemson can’t run the ball against South Carolina. That wisdom says the Tigers only chance is for Tajh Boyd to have a great day throwing the ball. After all, there is no Andre Ellington, C.J. Spiller or James Davis in the backfield.

But, what if Clemson could run the ball against South Carolina?

Lost in the aftermath of a fourth consecutive loss to South Carolina is the fact that Clemson actually ran the ball successfully and led at halftime last year. I’m not attempting to downplay the whipping that occurred in the second half, just pointing out that sometimes you don’t see the forest for the trees.

Excluding sacks from the rushing totals of last year’s game means the Tigers ran for 175 yards on 29 carries, an average of 6.0 yards per attempt. Remember – there was no garbage time – the Tigers had the ball in Carolina territory trailing by 3 in the fourth quarter, so it’s not like those 175 yards were gained when the game was out of reach.

We know Boyd hasn’t been successful throwing the ball against South Carolina in his two starts – a combined 22 of 53 (41.5%) for 266 yards, 2 TDs and 3 interceptions. Two of those interceptions came in South Carolina territory in last year’s game.

Maybe it’s not the running game that’s the problem.

Why does it seem like the Tigers haven’t run the ball well against the Gamecocks? Sacks. Eleven of them in 2 years for minus 64 yards. In designed runs (and scrambles) Clemson has gained 279 yards on 54 carries (5.2 average).

What I’m suggesting is that Clemson can win if, and it’s a big if, they can run the ball. Seems farfetched, I know. From my vantage point it looks like the Tigers have been pass happy and don’t trust the running game, despite McDowell comparing favorably to Ellington of 2012.

But if you look at the numbers over the last two years Clemson has been more successful running the ball against the Gamecocks than passing the ball.

Boyd needs to be an effective runner (outside of sacks against SC Boyd has rushed 11 times for 56 yards, 5.1 average) and McDowell needs to be on his game, similar to Georgia way back in August.

Running the ball does a couple of things: First, it neutralizes the large negative plays: Five of those 11 sacks came on first downs leading to 2nd and 12, 15, 14, 19 and 11. Secondly, it extends time of possession for the Tigers. Under Morris when the Tigers have the ball for 28 minutes or more they are 20-0, otherwise they are 10-7.

I’m not suggesting the Tigers forget about the passing game, just that they use the run to set up the pass. Run in passing situations, pass in running situations and don’t be predictable.

Most say a big day from Sammy Watkins is required, but Watkins has been ineffective against the Gamecocks – 14 targets, 8 receptions, 0 TDs, 1 explosive play in 2 years. He’ll likely be blanketed and double covered. He’ll get some, but will it be enough?

The X factor in the passing game – or perhaps the M factor – is Martavis Bryant. In two seasons Bryant has been non-existent against South Carolina, totaling 21 snaps and 0 targets across the two games. That has to change. Bryant can stretch defenses and a deep ball or two could open up underneath passes and the running game.

An underused portion of the Tigers passing game is Rod McDowell. McDowell has 23 receptions on 27 targets (85.2%) and 2 touchdowns and we know what happens when McDowell gets in the open field.

The Tigers need to execute a game plan similar to the Chick-fil-A Bowl against LSU. Remember that game where the Tigers were so balanced that they ran 50 times and passed 50 times and had the ball for 36+ minutes? Balance and ball control. That’s the recipe come Saturday.

The question is do the Tigers have the ingredients and chef to make the recipe work?

Check out more Clemson stat breakdowns on SeldomUsedReserve.com

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Comments » 6

TigerNE writes:

Running against SCar gets a little more difficult with Brooks not fully up to speed and Morris saying he will be available "as needed". I think Morris would put Brooks in only as a near last resort.

Flip side is they may continue experimenting with McCullough. THAT could be a game changer for us.

seldomusedreserve#284867 writes:

Tajh needs to run effectively and not just on third and 1, in my opinion.

TigerFan95 writes:

The thing I find most encouraging about running the ball against SC is the way UF ran the ball at them the entire game against them...Even when SC knew it, they were completely unable to stop it most of the night. Granted, our O-line is nowhere near as good as UF’s and we don’t have two dynamic RB's like they do in Taylor & Brown, but our WR’s and QB are infinitely better than theirs. They’ll have to respect that so I feel good about our chances of finding enough holes to have an effective running game to keep the pressure off of Boyd. My biggest question is whether we can stop their running game with Davis & Shaw. From my understanding Davis is a bit banged up, so his health could be a big factor in this game.

TigerNE writes:

in response to TigerFan95:

The thing I find most encouraging about running the ball against SC is the way UF ran the ball at them the entire game against them...Even when SC knew it, they were completely unable to stop it most of the night. Granted, our O-line is nowhere near as good as UF’s and we don’t have two dynamic RB's like they do in Taylor & Brown, but our WR’s and QB are infinitely better than theirs. They’ll have to respect that so I feel good about our chances of finding enough holes to have an effective running game to keep the pressure off of Boyd. My biggest question is whether we can stop their running game with Davis & Shaw. From my understanding Davis is a bit banged up, so his health could be a big factor in this game.

We've been able to slow down some capable runners this year. Andre Williams. GT's Godhigh. What is less clear is how well we can prevent the midfield and long field pass action. We've blown a number of coverages this year. And Godhigh beat us in the air not on the ground.

We even kept FSU's Freeman down mostly. It didn't matter because we couldn't stop rest of the offense, but still.

tigerrob44 writes:

SC defense is vastly overrated due to Clowney. They are lousy for the most part and we should be able to run the ball a will against them. If they can't stop us any better than they have stopped any other team this year, Tajh and Sammy will burn them a new one. I know that's big talk but it's the truth. They are not very good on defense. Look back at their games this year and you have to come to that conclusion. Bad, bad Cocky. Need to have neck rung!!!

seldomusedreserve#284867 writes:

Godhigh had 126 yards rushing and averaged 10 yards per rush, but I agree in general that the Clemson defense is improved from 2012 and the SC defense is not as good as last year.

Unbelievably after 11 games I'm still not sure what I'm going to see from the Clemson offense though.

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