In Clemson’s season opening win over Georgia, Rod McDowell ran over, through and around Bulldog defenders on his way to 132 yards on 22 carries as the Tigers racked up 197 yards rushing.
Six games later that 197 yards is still the high for Clemson despite blowout wins over South Carolina State, Wake Forest and Syracuse and the Tigers have thrown more than the 30 passes they threw against Georgia in every game since.
Chad Morris came to Clemson talking about his “smash mouth spread” offense. The offense was intended to feature the running game despite “spread” being in the moniker. Theory being that a sound running game would eventually open up the passing game.
I’m not sure when it happened, but Clemson appears to have forgotten the run. Over the first seven games of the season the Tigers have had 299 running plays to 277 passes. When you include sacks, taking them out of the run category and add them to passes (they were obviously called passes, but the NCAA includes sacks as “rushing attempts” in official statistics) that means the Tigers have had 294 passing plays and 282 rushes.
Of course, there could be various reasons for this including injuries to McDowell, depth at running back, offensive line play, game situations, defensive alignment and quarterback decisions among them.
Clemson efficiency (through seven games)
But the eyeball test tells me that the Tigers have largely abandoned the run when the game is in doubt. Last Saturday night on the first play of the first seven drives against Florida State before the game got out of control, the Tigers passed the ball four times and had three runs. Every single run was by Boyd.
In the first seven series of the biggest game of the year a running back never carried the ball on the first play of a series.
I first noticed this trend during the Syracuse game. After that Syracuse game Morris mentioned that the Tigers took what the defense gave them and the Tigers continued throwing the ball even when well ahead.
Up 35-14 starting the second half at Syracuse the Tigers threw passes on the first play of their first two possessions of the half. On the third series McDowell had rushed for eight yards on the first two plays before Boyd was sacked on third-and-2.
Since the beginning of that game the Tigers have had 122 rushes and 123 passes. Add in the 8 sacks and those numbers change to 114 rushes and 131 passes.
The running game has become an afterthought.
As mentioned above, there could be logical reasons for this shift, but my eyes tell me the quarterback and/or offensive coordinator have fallen in love with the pass and/or they don’t trust their running backs or offensive line to run block.
Games situations could force Morris’ hand later in the game, but on early series of the game it would be nice to see a running back get the ball. Then get it again.
And if come the third quarter it’s third-and-2 and the Tigers are up by 21 similar to Syracuse, I expect McDowell or Brooks to run for a first down.
This week I’m looking for the Tigers to get back to the basics and put the smash mouth back into the smash mouth spread.
Check out Coleman's detailed look at Tajh Boyd's passing game this season here