Mondays on The Road: Just in time, Clemson's DJ Uiagalelei is a brand new man, and more from Week 4
Neil Blackmon’s weekly musings, trends and takeaways from the weekend that was in the ACC…
The maturation of DJ Uiagalelei has been a popular talking point for Dabo Swinney since ACC Media Days, but until Saturday, we hadn’t really seen it in a big game.
All that changed at Truist Field.
Uiagalelei impressed with his decision-making and accuracy, especially in the first half. Uiagalelei threw for 192 yards, averaging a quality 8.7 yards per completion with 2 touchdowns, in the opening half. Time and again, he made pinpoint throws, like this one to Jake Briningstool to open the scoring, a play where the Clemson quarterback showed tremendous patience in the pocket and ultimately, made a great decision to throw and not run.
DJ Uiagalelei throws a strike to the back of the end zone to put Clemson on the board first 👀 pic.twitter.com/yefc3s2DKs
— NFL Rookie Watch (@NFLRookieWatxh) September 24, 2022
Wake Forest was more than competitive.
They were brilliant. Dave Clawson’s team should have moved up in the rankings after Saturday’s performance; instead, they slipped 1 spot to No. 22.
Sam Hartman made big plays with his legs and even better plays with his arm, like this pass to Donovan Greene, lined up 1-on-1 against Clemson’s Jeadyn Lukus, a freshman corner, to tie the game at 20 and help the Demon Deacons lead a play later.
Sam Hartman is a magician in the pocket pic.twitter.com/U3b6GtC2kz
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) September 24, 2022
Or this touchdown pass, which came in part due to great protection from his offensive line, which played a terrific game in pass protect — to stake the Deacons to an 8-point advantage.
IT’S SAM HARTMAN’S WORLD AND WE ARE JUST LIVING IN IT
What a story he’s writing 🥲 pic.twitter.com/FOr6NqMazX
— The Transfer Portal CFB (@TPortalCFB) September 24, 2022
Clemson’s answer to that score, and its ability to get the game to double overtime, where it ultimately prevailed, was a testament to Uiagalelei’s growth. Take the lobbed touchdown pass to Davis Allen, which was thrown to where only Allen could get in a 50/50 situation, to help Clemson tie the game again at 28. That pass, along with the key play of that game-tying drive, a Uiagalelei post to Beaux Collins on 3rd-and-10 at the Wake Forest 33, came just one play after Uiagalelei made a terrible decision and threw into triple coverage on 2nd-and-10, nearly getting the ball intercepted. A season ago, Uiagalelei likely dwells on the bad play on the next play. Saturday, he did no such thing, instead delivering one of his best throws of the afternoon to set up 1st-and-goal for the Tigers. But Uiagalelei made tremendous back shoulder throws all day:
Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei excels for his arm talent, velocity and ball placement downfield.
If he finds a solid QB developer in the NFL, he has the tools to become a very good quarterback. There aren't many QB prospects that can make this throw.pic.twitter.com/dSG5o78SUl
— Luca Sartirana (@SartiranaLuca) September 24, 2022
Of course, Wake Forest never blinked. It’s time, The Road thinks, to set aside any notion that Sam Hartman can’t play quarterback in the National Football League. When you finish 20-29 for 337 yards and 6 touchdowns against a top-5 Clemson defense, you can basically dissect any defense you want. There’s no reason he can’t make the types of tight throws he made all day Saturday — like the one below — at the next level.
SLINGIN. SAM. HARTMAN.
— Collin Kennedy (@CKennedy247) September 24, 2022
NFL Draft boards don’t tend to rate the Demon Deacons senior, but his pinpoint accuracy and poise may have changed some minds Saturday.
Coming into Saturday though, we knew just how good Hartman was as a collegiate quarterback.
We didn’t know whether Uiagalelei had the “stuff” to lead Clemson to the College Football Playoff.
That debate should be put to bed. Uiagalelei produced 423 total yards and 5 touchdowns (all passing), and Clemson needed all of it. The most magnificent play came on a 2-point conversion, when, with a Wake Forest defender draped all over him, Uiagalelei maintained his composure and threw a falling down strike to Collins for 2 points.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) September 24, 2022
A year ago, he doesn’t make that play.
A year ago, Clemson doesn’t win Saturday’s game.
This year? Clemson has a quarterback.
When that’s been true in the Swinney era, it’s tended to be a serious problem for the rest of the country.
Preaching Like Dabo
Because no one preaches about pigskin better than Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, this section will revisit one topic a week in the ACC that should be the subject of a Dabo sermon.
The ACC featured multiple unbeatens entering this week that were not ranked, with Duke and FSU still on the outside looking in of the Top 25. That changed this week, as FSU jumped to No. 23 after dominating Boston College. But is the ACC as a whole underrated this season?
NC State and Clemson are both top 10 teams. The Wolfpack’s defense is the best Mondays on The Road has seen outside of Georgia or Alabama. Clemson has a quarterback all of the sudden. FSU hasn’t lost. Pitt, the defending conference champion, is formidable, having pushed an unbeaten, top 10 Tennessee to overtime.
The bottom of the ACC is lousy, to be sure, but isn’t that the case in every Power 5 league this season? Does anyone think Auburn would be considered better than say, Virginia Tech, if one wasn’t in the SEC and the other in the ACC?
While Georgia Tech is woeful, are they any worse than say, Arizona State in the Pac 12 or Nebraska in the B1G?
September football is always prone to quick take, hot take reactions, but it’s also informed, sometimes to its detriment, by longtime perception and history. No one disputes the SEC is the nation’s best league yet again. But how much better, really, is the B1G than the ACC this season? Ditto the Big 12, which just saw Oklahoma go down to a Kansas State team that lost to Tulane last weekend.
There have been some ugly losses for the ACC this year to be sure. Virginia Tech’s loss at Old Dominion was painful and Miami’s loss to Middle Tennessee mystifying. But as the Tulane win over Kansas State or the Appalachian State win at Texas A&M aptly demonstrate, no league is insulated from embarrassing losses. That’s part of life in September.
What might be part of life in November is two ACC teams with a legitimate claim to a College Football Playoff invite. For a conference that has relied so heavily on Clemson for street cred during the College Football Playoff era, that’s a refreshing change.
The Road to Charlotte
Syracuse 22, Virginia 20: Monday on the Road’s Ultimate ACC preview pegged Syracuse as the potential “surprise” team in the league. The reason? A salty, nasty, veteran defense. Lost in the misery of having a Sean Tucker and pray for something good offense a season ago was the fact that Dino Babers’ team was terrific on defense.
The Orange finished last season ranked 18th in total defense, 19th in success rate defense (the number of plays their defense kept an opponent “off schedule” or behind the chains given down and distance), and 24th in yards allowed per play. They did that despite spending more time on the field than all but 1 defense ranked in the top 20.
When Babers brought in Robert Anae (and his entire staff) from the University of Virginia, it was the ACC’s version of the small country coup you don’t hear about on television or don’t read about unless you get to page 22 of the World News section of the Sunday paper.
Anae’s Cavaliers offense, led by Brennan Armstrong, finished 3rd in the country in total offense a season ago, but Anae sought a new challenge when Bronco Mendenhall surprisingly stepped down last winter.
With competent leadership offensively, Syracuse can now move the football. That’s sparked a quick revival of the once-promising Babers era this season. The Orange are averaging 33.3 points per game, a dramatic improvement from 2021 (24.9) and 2020 (17.8). UVA, meanwhile, has plummeted. The Cavs are averaging 18.3 points without Anae after averaging 34.6 with him last year.
Anae is just getting started, too, which is frightening considering that quarterback Garrett Shrader, who has been Monday on The Road’s Offensive Player of the Week twice this season, has another year of eligibility, and Sean Tucker, Syracuse’s first-team All-American running back, has yet to really break loose.
Tucker didn’t get loose Friday night either, bottled up for just 60 yards on 23 carries by the Virginia defense. How did Syracuse overcome that?
That nasty defense showed up again.
Armstrong, the über-talented Virginia quarterback who, under Anae, set Virginia school records for passing yards, completions, total offense, and passing touchdowns in a single season in 2021, was harassed and harangued all night. Virginia launched media blasts all summer trying to generate support and attention for Armstrong as a Heisman candidate, but he looked pedestrian against Syracuse, completing 19-of-38 passes and averaging a woeful 3.6 yards per attempt. Syracuse did bend a bit in run defense, but they didn’t let Armstrong, who can be lethal with his legs, to beat them. The Virginia star gained just 29 yards on 11 attempts.
Syracuse needed every ounce of the effort they got defensively, as the offense’s inability to run the ball made it hard to finish drives. The Orange had their worst night of the year on 3rd down (5-15) and were forced to settle for 5 field-goal attempts.
That was enough — barely — in the end, thanks to senior Andre Szmyt, who connected on all 5 of his kicks, including this game-winner with just 1:14 remaining.
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) September 24, 2022
Szymt’s performance earns him this week’s Janikowsi Special Teams Player of the Week award (below). It also sends Syracuse to 4-0 and 2-0 in the ACC. Syracuse is likely in the wrong division to challenge for a surprise trip to Charlotte, but with Wagner visiting next week, the Orange will almost certainly be 5-0 when NC State comes into town on Oct. 15. Win that game, and the Orange become bowl eligible before they lose a game. Lose, and they’ll still have 6 chances to secure a bowl game — a terrific accomplishment for a team many pegged to finish last in the Atlantic.
Middle Tennessee 45, Miami 31: Good football teams and healthy cultures don’t let one loss beat them a second time, but that’s precisely what happened to Mario Cristobal’s Miami at Hard Rock Stadium. The Hurricanes let the disappointment of last week’s nationally televised loss to Texas A&M turn into a second consecutive loss, this time a stunner at home to Conference-USA’s Middle Tennessee.
The Road could spend pages on this loss, but it starts and ends with one question: What is the matter with Tyler Van Dyke?
Van Dyke, a consensus preseason All-ACC selection, was 16-32 for just 138 yards and threw 2 costly interceptions before he was benched. Van Dyke’s woeful 4.3 yards per attempt come just a week after he played a pedestrian game in College Station, averaging just 5.3 yards per attempt. But that was a great Texas A&M defense; this was Middle Tennessee, a 25.5-point underdog that opened their year with a 44-7 loss to James Madison. Yes — James Madison.
Van Dyke’s inconsistent play has left the Hurricanes with a quarterback controversy as the schedule hits October, an unthinkable thing after Van Dyke looked so comfortable and led the Hurricanes to win after win late in 2021.
Cristobal blamed the scheme change and adjusting to offensive coordinator Josh Gattis’ offense for the loss. But is a scheme change why Van Dyke missed wide-open receivers consistently Saturday even when he wasn’t under pressure? Yes, Miami lost 65 percent of their production at wide receiver from last year — but the new crew was open Saturday. Van Dyke just missed them, over and over.
Will Jake Garcia get the ball moving forward? That’s the biggest question now for a program that had so much energy on the recruiting trail and national stage over the summer.
That — and perhaps the honeymoon with Cristobal — is over now.
As for the program energy? Let’s stop selling that snake oil.
This was more of the same for the U: a mostly empty stadium thanks to a fan base that couldn’t be “energized” enough to show up to support its ranked team coming home off a tough loss.
Miami’s fans don’t care any more under Cristobal than they did under the prior regime.
Saturday, they played worse than that regime too.
FSU 44, Boston College 14: Mike Norvell’s program finds itself in the Top 25, which has been a long road for the Seminoles.
Jordan Travis, playing through an injury suffered at Louisville, continues to be the primary reason FSU is 4-0. Travis threw for 321 yards and a touchdown before being relieved with the game well in hand Saturday night in Tallahassee.
Good teams pummel bad ones, and the Seminoles did that Saturday, jumping out to a 21-0 lead after a quarter and not once taking their foot off the gas pedal.
The Seminoles’ 530 yards of offense, paced by 350 passing and 180 rushing, displayed again the balance of Norvell’s attack (31 passes, 35 rushes), a fact that makes FSU tough to defend for the first time in … well, it has been a long time.
Next week’s tilt vs. Wake Forest at Doak Campbell Stadium won’t get the pub of Clemson vs. NC State, but it will be a fascinating game and an even bigger game for FSU than the LSU game was from a program standpoint. Getting Wake Forest after their tough loss to Clemson will help, but Sam Hartman will move the ball against the FSU defense. Can Travis and the Noles keep up and go to 5-0? If they do, it’s time to reset expectations in Tallahassee, as this team’s ceiling may become special.
Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 32: What a difference 2 weeks makes for Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame.
Freeman made the wrong kind of history beginning his tenure in South Bend 0-3, but after gutting out a W against Cal at home last week, the Fighting Irish found their offensive footing in a less close than the final score win over North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Saturday.
Drew Pyne threw for 289 yards, the Fighting Irish finally unmoored their run game for 287 yards, and Notre Dame’s defense did just enough to keep Drake Maye and the Tar Heels off balance for a half, building a 38-14 lead from which North Carolina could not recover.
Maye is still a budding star: He threw for 301 yards and 5 touchdowns and was Carolina’s leading rusher on the afternoon as well. But Gene Chizik’s defense is a disaster, and it’s one that is hard to explain considering North Carolina has 20 blue-chip players on that side of the football from a talent standpoint, per the 247 Composite.
This game seemed like an inflection point for both programs this season — win, and you’re probably a good team headed to a quality bowl. Lose, and well, you likely have too many weaknesses to expect anything above .500 as a season outcome.
Mack Brown needs answers on defense and he needs them immediately. If he doesn’t get them soon, how long will he stick around Chapel Hill to figure out if he can get them in the future?
NC State 41, UConn 10: Devin Leary had his best game of the season, throwing for 320 yards and 4 touchdowns in leading the Wolfpack to a comfortable win over UConn in NC State’s final tuneup before they visit No. 5 Clemson next weekend.
NC State moved to No. 10 in the AP poll, matchng its highest ranking since 2002.
NC State’s defense remains outstanding. The Wolfpack limited UConn to just 160 total yards and the secondary, which might be the best in America, held the Huskies to just 39 yards passing at a staggeringly low 2.7 yards per attempt.
The one wart? The Wolfpack continue to struggle running the football. NC State ran for 169 yards at 5.1 per carry Saturday — their best effort this season. But on the year, the Wolfpack average just 4.4 per carry and they rank in the bottom third of the country in success rate in the run game.
That doesn’t mean they can’t beat Clemson: Wake Forest pushed the Tigers with no run game to speak of, really. But balance makes Leary lethal — without it this season, he’s been only good. Dave Doeren and NC State need “great” to win Saturday at Death Valley.
Pittsburgh 45, Rhode Island 24: Kedon Slovis returned for the Panthers at quarterback, but this is increasingly running back Israel Abanikanda’s football team. The junior from Brooklyn had 245 all-purpose yards Saturday in Pitt’s blowout of Rhode Island and scored 4 touchdowns, including this one:
— matthew luciow (@Luciow1992) September 25, 2022
Pat Narduzzi’s defense remains a mystery — you never want to give up 24 points to an FCS program out of the Colonial — but in fairness to the Panthers, the game was well in hand when Rhode Island added its final touchdown against Pitt reserves.
Abanikanda and the Panthers finish a 3 game homestand with games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech next, two struggling offenses that should allow Narduzzi to work out the kinks before the Panthers hit the meat of the schedule in late October.
Kansas 35, Duke 27: This battle of the basketball blue-bloods was the most unlikely battle of the unbeatens played in September.
Mike Elko’s Duke team was game, but Kansas quarterback Jalon Daniels was too good. Daniels totaled 407 yards of offense (324 passing, 83 rushing), and what had been an opportunistic Duke secondary surrendered 4 touchdown passes in a 35-27 Jayhawks win.
It was the first time all season that Duke played an entire game from behind: Kansas led 21-10 and 35-20, respectively, and the biggest difference, aside from the sparkling play of Daniels, was third down.
Duke allowed Kansas to convert 6-of-10 3rd downs. The Blue Devils converted just 5-of-15 attempts. Kansas extended drives, Duke didn’t, and the Blue Devils suffered their first loss of the Elko era as a result.
Louisville 41, South Florida 3: A week removed from nearly nipping Florida in The Swamp, South Florida laid an egg at Cardinal Stadium.
Louisville dominated the Bulls for 4 quarters, limiting a South Florida run game that managed 286 yards against the Gators to just 48 yards on 35 attempts Saturday.
It was just what the doctor ordered for Scott Satterfield’s program after their epic collapse against FSU a week ago. To see a defense that crumbled in the second half against FSU hold South Florida to just 158 yards, 11 first downs, and a stingy 2.5 yards per play Saturday was just what the Cardinals needed to inject some hope back into this team ahead of a winnable pair of road games against anemic offenses in Virginia and Boston College. Louisville closes with 3 ranked opponents in November; if the Cardinals hope to go bowling this season, Saturday’s win was essential, both to get one in the win column and build momentum for the final 2 months of the regular season.
West Virginia 33, Virginia Tech 10: After 2 weeks of solid defense and a slowly improving offense, the Hokies took a huge step back at Lane Stadium.
The Hokies were in the game through 3 quarters, leading much of the second quarter and trailing by just 6 during the fourth quarter. The window was open to ride a terrific home crowd to a quality win in year one under Brent Pry.
The offense just wouldn’t let that happen.
Virginia Tech simply can’t run the ball. They managed just 35 yards on 18 attempts against the Mountaineers. In their 3 prior games, they have run for just 136 yards (3.5 per carry) against Old Dominion, 144 yards (3.2 per carry) against Boston College, and 133 yards (3.3 per carry) against Wofford. Without a legitimate running game, the struggles of Grant Wells at quarterback are magnified. Wells was 16-for-35, averaging just 5.6 yards per attempt, with a touchdown and an interception Thursday night.
On the season, Wells is averaging just 6.4 per throw (bottom half of the country) and his 5 interceptions rank 12st among FBS quarterbacks. Pry has improved the defense in just a few months on campus. The offense, which was usually adequate to good under Justin Fuente, has fallen off a cliff. As a result, the path to bowl eligibility in Blacksburg appears quite narrow.
UCF 27, Georgia Tech 10: The Yellow Jackets hung in there and made it a game in Orlando, but UCF’s offense finally wore out Georgia Tech and secured the victory in quarter four.
Statistically, it’s difficult to look at the box score and wonder how this got away from Geoff Collins and Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets gained over 100 yards more than UCF, Jeff Sims threw for a career-high 314 yards, and Georgia Tech had an interception and rendered the Knights entirely one-dimensional, as John Rhys-Plumlee had only 49 yards passing at 2.7 yards per attempt.
But Georgia Tech did the things teams that need a coaching change do: they committed 5 more penalties than UCF, lost 2 fumbles that killed scoring drives, and they couldn’t convert on 3rd (5-for-17) or 4th down (0-for-3).
That’s how you lose a game when your defense gives up only 5 explosive plays — all in the run game (10-yard run or more).
Georgia Tech officials are meeting Monday. The end is near. The administration believes it can win in football, and a change next season is inevitable.
Every week, The Road pays homage to the ACC’s best ever- Bobby Bowden- by honoring the ACC’s best over the weekend
Charlie Ward Award (Offensive Player of the Week): DJ Uiagalelei, QB Clemson
What to write here that hasn’t been said?
Uiagalelei is the reason Clemson left Winston-Salem undefeated. The numbers (26-41 for 371 yards and 5 touchdowns) don’t really do the performance justice.
Every time Wake Forest threw a punch, Uiagalelei answered. He also avoided the huge mistakes that plagued him a season ago, a testament to his maturation and growth.
Clemson has a quarterback, y’all. Look out.
Prior Winners: Garrett Shrader, QB, Syracuse (Week 1 and Week 2); Johnny Wilson, WR, Florida State (Week 3)
Mickey Andrews Award (Top Defensive Player): Shyheim Battle, CB, NC State
Battle claims the award for a second time after dominating NC State’s 41-10 over UConn. Returning from an injury, Battle had 4 tackles, including a solo stop in the open field on a 4th down to force a turnover. UConn was 0-3 on passes Battle defended. A 3-star prospect out of high school, Battle is now appearing on NFL Mock Draft boards, and if he keeps his standard of play up throughout the fall, he’ll appear on All-American lists this season as well.
Prior Winners: Shyheim Battle, DB, NC State (Week 1), Brandon Johnson, DB, Duke (Week 2); Aydan White, DB, NC State (Week 3)
Sebastian Janikowski Award (Top Special Teams Player): Andre Szmyt, K, Syracuse
The senior All-American kicker has done everything there is to do in the sport, including winning the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s finest placekicker in 2018. But he hadn’t connected on 5 field goals in a game until Friday night, when he tied a Syracuse record with a 5-for-5 performance that included the game-winner, linked above.
It was, ultimately, a game decided by kicking performances — and last week’s Janikowsiki winner, Brendan Farrell of Virginia, missed both his kicks and ultimately was benched by Tony Elliott after the second miss. Special teams!! That was the difference between Syracuse remaining unbeaten and falling to 3-1.
Prior Winners: Matthew Dennis, Kicker, Wake Forest (Week 1), PJ O’Brien, DB, Pitt (Week 2); Brendan Farrell, K, Virginia (Week 3)
I Can’t Wait Until Saturday Because: No. 10 NC State at No. 5 Clemson (ABC)
The game of the year in the ACC?
It could be. The winner will functionally have a 2-game lead in the ACC Atlantic and remain in the thick of early season College Football Playoff conversation.
The best part of the matchup? College GameDay?
Clemson, we're coming to your city‼️
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) September 25, 2022
OK, that is almost the best part.
But I like that the game is likely to be decided by which defense plays to its elite strength. Despite Uiagalelei’s growth, NC State will be easily the best defense he’s played in 2022. That matchup is “Advantage NC State,”, plain and simple. The Tigers’ defense has an advantage over NC State’s offense as well, but the Wolfpack have Leary, the preseason ACC Player of the Year under center. If Leary avoids mistakes, there’s a path to a rare road team victory in Death Valley.
Clemson, however, is used to big games; Doeren’s program is not — and Swinney has crushed the hopes of many one-year wonders in his Tigers’ tenure. This game may be a “Clemson wins comfortably, or NC State wins tight and noting in between” matchup Saturday. Either way, it is must-see television.