Inside Clemson football: Red zone woes a matter of perspective

Clemson's Roderick McDowell reaches to score a three-yard touchdown during the fourth quarter at Maryland.

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson's Roderick McDowell reaches to score a three-yard touchdown during the fourth quarter at Maryland.

There was a time in the not too distant past when 40 points, 98 plays, 540 yards of offense, a 13 point victory on the road, a 7-1 record and top 8 BCS ranking would have Tiger fans cartwheeling towards the Esso Club in a celebratory mood.

These days those results have some Clemson fans questioning the quarterback, offensive line, offensive coordinator and head coach.

Such is the price of success in college football, where the margin for error is razor thin and a single loss crushes a year’s worth of hopes and dreams with the painful reality of the current season.

To be sure, the Tigers struggled through the first three quarters in College Park before turning it up late in the third to pull away and win comfortably.

Most notably, red zone ineptitude kept Clemson from blasting Maryland out of Byrd Stadium early. On their first 3 drives the Tigers accumulated 39 plays and 185 yards, but only 9 points as drives ended at the Maryland 13, 12 and 8.

Taking a second look at those first three drives I noticed a little bit of everything: a play call that limited an explosive receiver to the boundary side of the field, penalties, missed blocks and overthrows.

If the Tigers end one, or certainly two, of those drives in the end zone the game is probably a blow out of Wake Forest proportions. But that didn’t happen.

Who’s to blame for the red zone struggles? Many eye offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ red zone play calling. What if Morris called the same plays, but they were executed better and resulted in touchdowns? Would the fans still be unhappy with the calls?

Depending on whom you ask the culprit is Tajh Boyd, the offensive line, the wide receivers or the tight ends. Everyone has their favorite scapegoat.

The fact is, this team has not performed as well in the red zone in 2013 compared to 2012 when the Tigers scored touchdowns on 76.79% of the time in the red zone.

But Clemson is exceeding the 57.14% mark of Morris’ first year in Tiger Town in 2011.

Looked at in that light, is it surprising that this team, the one that lost Dalton Freeman, Andre Ellington, DeAndre Hopkins and Brandon Ford, is less effective in the red zone?

For all their struggles the Tigers are still scoring touchdowns almost two-thirds of the time they reach the red zone and are in the top half of the NCAA in the statistic.

The problem is being in the top half of offensive metrics is not the standard that Dabo and Chad Morris have set. The expectations are higher, much higher. As they should be.

Moving forward is scoring touchdowns on two-thirds of red zone possessions enough? Is it enough to beat Virginia, Georgia Tech, South Carolina and win a Bowl game?

Or will this problem come back to haunt the Tigers at some point in the next 5 games?

The current perception is something is missing from this offense, especially in the red zone. Perception is often reality in college football and that perception is replayed, rehashed and reemphasized ad nauseam until it becomes reality in the minds of many.

Of the 114 offensive drives Clemson has had none are fresher in fans memories than the struggles inside the 15 on three drives versus a depleted Maryland team.

But the Tigers have a chance in the coming weeks to alter those memories.

If the Tigers continue to struggle in the red zone, it will raise many questions and create doubt during the offseason in the minds of players, coaches, fans and analysts.

The last 5 games will determine how this team is remembered, not those 3 drives in the first half of an October game against Maryland that are currently fresh in our minds.

If Clemson wins out the conversation won’t be about what happened in College Park. Those struggles will be long forgotten as the hopes and dreams for next season begin coming to life.

Check out the latest on Coleman's site, including detailed breakdowns on Tajh Boyd and the Clemson receivers' play this season

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Comments » 2

DerrikB writes:

Refreshing article, thanks for writing it. Clemson is a good team that is just going through something and i expect them to jump back and end this season with a bang.

columbiabill writes:

Another interesting point: do we remember when we were counting and looking at the schedule to see if there were enough wins to become bowl eligible? It hasn't even been mentioned this year and to me that is the mark of a program that has arrived. It is just something that is expected every year. With the talent in the pipeline, I have no doubt that Clemson will be in the discussion next year for the 4 team playoff. Will we win it all? Who knows. The point is that with the program in place, as it is now, that sweet moment will come sooner or later. Currently 8th in the BCS and looking ahead we likely will finish around 5 or 6. Yea, I know there is a game in Columbia, but please guys don't worry about that one, it's in the bag. At the end of the season and 11-1, how bad can the offensive line, red zone offense, and all the other negative points that have been raised be?

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