1. Offense works in spots
It’s easy to look at Tech’s offensive production Monday night – 10 points, 238 yards of offense, 2-for-16 on third downs – and categorize it as a testament to the might of Clemson’s defense. And the Tigers are indeed physical, talented and well-schooled. It’s also true that the Jackets started a walk-on at right guard who was playing in his first college game (Joe Fusile) and a left tackle (Corey Robinson) also playing in his first college game. It was a poor matchup for the Jackets.
However, no power-conference opponent has been that ineffective on third downs (12.5% conversion rate) against Clemson since 2015 (also Tech, 1-for-12). And only one power-conference opponent gained fewer yards against the Tigers last season than the Jackets did Monday night.
In short, Tech was about as ineffective moving the ball against Clemson as any power-conference team can be.
That said, there were a few things that offensive coordinator Chip Long can build on on offense. Quarterback Jeff Sims was accurate (23-for-36 passing) and generally decisive in distributing the ball. His conversion of a fourth-and-6 with a 10-yard completion on a slant to slot receiver Malik Rutherford was a highlight, followed by an 11-yard keeper and, three plays later, a well-placed throw to wide receiver E.J. Jenkins for a 13-yard touchdown pass, Tech’s only touchdown of the night. There were three other drives of nine or 10 plays. Running back Dontae Smith ran with his standard mixture of strength and elusiveness.
But, obviously, there needed to be far more.
2. Jackets defense mostly holds its own
By and large, Tech’s defense made Clemson work for its yards. The Tigers averaged 4.8 yards per play, which is a number that defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker most likely can work with. Tech’s defensive average last season was 6.6, although the Jackets held Clemson to 4.3 last season. Defensive end Keion White (two sacks) got the better of Clemson freshman right tackle Blake Miller, as did other Tech defensive ends. Defensive end Sylvain Yondjouen and defensive tackle Makius Scott made plays on the defensive line, which has been an area of concern because of the inexperience of the group.
There were times when the Jackets were overpowered on the line, though, which often was an issue last season.
But the star for Tech on defense was linebacker Charlie Thomas, who was a playmaker with his speed and nose for the ball. He had nine tackles in two-plus quarters before he was disqualified for targeting, a penalty that will keep him out of the first half of Tech’s game against Western Carolina on Saturday.
“Demetrius Knight came in and played his role,” Collins said. “Really good player. But, obviously, when you lose a player the caliber of Charlie, that hurts.”
3. Mistakes abound
It perhaps was not a surprise that an inexperienced offensive line was going to be jumpy against Clemson’s defensive line. But five false starts can’t be acceptable in any circumstance.
The same goes for the two blocked punts in which Tech was breached by poorly executed protection. It was the second game in Collins’ 35-game tenure that the Jackets had two blocked kicks, the first being the 2020 season-opening win over Florida State. Before that, Tech had not had two punts or field-goal tries blocked in one game since 1989 (ironically against a Western Carolina team, whose roster included Collins, that blocked two Tech field-goal tries).
Collins said the team made adjustments to the protection after the first block “and then, the second one, the adjustment didn’t get made. We’ll get it cleaned up internally.”
Tight end Luke Benson dropped an on-target pass from Sims on third-and-4 late in the third quarter that would have gone for a first down. Jenkins dropped a catchable pass in the second quarter on a second-and-12 in Clemson’s end that would have set up third-and-medium. Unable to convert a third-and-12, Tech kicked a field goal instead.
“We know we beat ourselves a lot (Monday),” Jenkins said.
At the end of the first half, Tech trailed 14-3 with Clemson about to punt from its 43-yard line and 43 seconds remaining. Collins had three timeouts in his pocket. Tech had an opportunity to try to block the punt, set up a return and/or let the offense take one or two shots for more points. Further, Clemson was to get the ball to start the second half. Collins opted for none of those choices, letting the clock run down to eight seconds and then making a token effort to block the punt with no returner deep. The punt play ended the half.
Collins said there was discussion of a more aggressive strategy. His postgame explanation wasn’t entirely clear, but suggested that he was concerned about the possibility of Clemson going for a fake punt or of the offense getting pinned deep in its own end. On a night that called for aggressive play, as exhibited when the Jackets were successful on a fourth-and-1 on their own 37-yard line in the first quarter, the strategy on the punt didn’t appear to line up.
It was a first game, so mistakes were bound to happen. But 10 penalties, two blocked punts and multiple drops of catchable passes (among other errors) should not happen with that frequency.
“It’s very frustrating, very disappointing,” Collins said. “And it has been addressed, will continue to be addressed. And the guys in there (in the locker room) are committed to doing that. But it falls on me. And I will work relentlessly to get that cleaned up.”
4. More about the mistakes
The “if Tech just hadn’t had the two punts blocked and committed so many false starts” argument is, at least, understandable. Clemson needed only to cover 20 yards for 14 points in a game decided by 31. The false starts contributed to the Jackets’ 2-for-16 performance on third down, which returned the defense to the field sooner than it likely would have preferred. A clean performance and a 28-13 final score would have been far more palatable to Tech fans.
However, Clemson was ruing its own mistakes. Likely, quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei getting stripped of the ball in the first quarter by linebacker Ayinde Eley at the Tech 17-yard line and losing possession cost the Tigers at least three and possibly seven points. On the Tigers’ opening drive, a third-and-1 was spoiled by a bad snap, leading to a punt.
“We had some hiccups in the first half, even through the third quarter,” Clemson offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter said. “You take away two plays in the first half, we score more points. We shot ourselves in the foot.”
Tech’s errors probably were more costly and correctable than Clemson’s. But that the Jackets were the ones making them isn’t a good thing.
5. Assessment after one game
There are yet 11 games, but in a season in which the outcome of the 12 games will determine Collins’ future, each game is its own data point. The team can perhaps be best judged by objectives set by athletic director Todd Stansbury and Collins himself. Stansbury said in May that “we definitely need to be making progress.” Collins said before the preseason that his goal “is to build a football team that the entire fan base, former players and alumni can be proud of.”
There were hints of progress, namely in the play of White and Sims. With 5:41 left in the third quarter, in a game in which they were 24-point underdogs, the Jackets were down 17-10 with the ball against the then-No. 4 team in the country.
But a performance in which the team is outgained 378-238 (Tech’s average last season was 455-367 in its opponents’ favor, while Clemson’s was 359-306 in its favor), has difficulty successfully punting and commits 10 penalties doesn’t carry the aroma of progress, especially when its coach had said last week that his big focus was “getting (the team) ready to play at a high level.” As for whether the Jackets made their supporters proud against the Tigers, the near-empty stands at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the fourth quarter might have been a fairly indicative survey.