Clemson was money in the bank last season when it came to scoring in the red zone.
Not this year.
Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris has been working to find ways for the country's former gold standard in the red zone to regain its edge when Clemson gets inside the 20.
No. 9 Clemson led the FBS in red-zone scoring a year ago, capitalizing on 56 of 59 chances. Points have been much harder to come by this fall for the Tigers (7-1, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference), who are tied for 58th nationally in red-zone offense.
Clemson faces struggling Virginia (2-6, 0-4) on Saturday
The red-zone issues cropped up again last week at Maryland, where the Tigers settled for three field goals in their first four trips to the Terps 20. Clemson was able to breakaway late for a 40-27 victory, but the problems of getting past the goal line have Morris working overtime to correct.
"While we would've liked to have scored touchdowns every time we get inside the 5 yard line," Morris said. "It didn't happen that way."
It's has happened fewer and fewer times for the Tigers this season. They've managed 24 TDs in the 37 times they've reached the opposition's 20. Clemson under Morris the past three seasons has used a quick-strike offense to put games away by halftime. Instead, team leaders like quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins have been pressed into action late to secure victories.
"We had some guys that were open, we had some underneath cutters coming that we didn't hit," Morris said, detailing his team's red-zone failures. "That's an area that we've got to continue to emphasize and we've got to get better at."
Clemson looked like its high-scoring, old self for the season's first month, averaging nearly 43 points a game in a 5-0 start. The scoring problems that began in a 24-14 win over Boston College were exposed to the nation a week later in Florida State's 51-14 dismantling of the then-third-ranked Tigers. During one series, the Seminoles held Clemson out of the end zone from a yard away after the Tigers first-stringers ran eight plays inside the 20.
When the faults resurfaced early against Maryland — the Tigers were up just 19-13 in the third quarter after a fourth field goal from inside the 20 — it set off concern for Morris whose been accustomed to offensive success since arriving before the 2011 season.
Things eased at Maryland after Boyd and tailback Rod McDowell scored short-yardage TDs in the second to give Clemson a comfortable margin at the end
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said the effort was a strong sign the Tigers had put the crushing Florida State loss behind and were pointed toward a special season.
"They responded. We had a chance to take control of the game early (but didn't), and that was disappointing," he said. "But I was really pleased with the way we competed and just kept playing."
Virginia coach Mike London sees a Clemson offense that's been highly productive throughout the season. The Cavaliers faced a similar attack, London said, earlier this year in a 59-10 loss to No. 2 Oregon.
London thought the Ducks had more speed than the Tigers, "but they're comparable in terms of the athletic skill and what their offense allows them to do with those players."
Part of Clemson's offensive issues came from Boyd's sore ankle suffered against Florida State that forced Morris to limit his runs, which has been an effective part of the attack. Boyd still finished with 13 carries, several when he scrambled away from Maryland's pressure.
Boyd banged up his knee against Maryland, but nothing serious enough to keep him from playing in his homestate against Virginia, Morris said.
"He'll be running," Morris said. "That's part of our offense."
Boyd bounced back after getting held to just 156 passing yards against Florida State, throwing for 304 yards and a touchdown. He also became just the third ACC quarterback (North Carolina State's Philip Rivers and Duke's Thaddeus Lewis are the others) with over 10,000 career passing yards.
Morris also hopes his quarterback starts to smile a bit more on the field as his career comes to end. He believes Boyd is his own toughest critic and few are as hard on the one-time Heisman Trophy candidate as he is when the Tigers aren't perfect.
The coach said, "That has been my emphasis to Tajh, 'You came back, so now just go out and have fun.'"