Clemson football: Stock report after Week 3
In Clemson’s 1st complete performance of 2023, the Tigers pummeled visiting Florida Atlantic 48-14 Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, improving to 2-1 on the season and 2-0 on their 3-game September homestand.
It’s the 3rd game of that homestand that matters most, of course, but the positive news for Clemson fans is that for the 1st time this season, the Tigers looked capable of winning when Florida State rolls into Death Valley next Saturday.
The Tigers jumped to a 20-0 lead, playing easily their best opening quarter of the season, and didn’t surrender any points until a reserve-heavy 4th quarter, cruising to a 41-0 advantage before the Owls finally found the end zone late.
With a top-5 Florida State team headed to town next weekend, Saturday Road takes stock of where the Tigers are through the season’s first 3 games.
Player of the week: Quarterback Cade Klubnik played his best game as a Clemson Tiger, accounting for 204 total yards of offense (169 passing, 35 rushing) and 4 touchdowns (3 passing, 1 rushing) in the victory. Klubnik doesn’t lack for confidence, but it had to feel good to play quality football a week before facing 1 of the nation’s most formidable defensive fronts in Florida State.
Klubnik was sharp as a thrower, connecting on 8 of his opening 9 throws during the 1st quarter to help the Tigers build their 20-0 lead. All told, Klubnik was 13-for-17 through the air before halftime and added a rushing touchdown during the 2nd quarter to power the Tigers to 34 1st-half points.
After a rough opening night at Duke and an up-and-down performance against Charleston Southern, a sharp, accurate Klubnik during the 1st half Saturday night was sweet medicine for Clemson fans, who keep waiting for the former 5-star recruit to turn the corner. The 3rd quarter was a different story for Klubnik, as the Tigers went 3 and out twice and turned the football over once, but the Clemson sophomore’s 1st half was his best as a Tiger, and that’s a start.
Freshman of the week: Wide receiver Tyler Brown’s performance Saturday night was a reminder why it’s fair to wonder why coach Dabo Swinney doesn’t consistently play more freshmen.
The 3-star freshman caught his 1st touchdown pass during the opening quarter and added another scoring catch late to finish with 2. He also thrilled the 81,295 in attendance with a dynamic 44-yard punt return. Yes, Brown had a fumble during the 2nd half, muffing a punt. But he played through it and responded with the big punt return, which is exactly what you hope a freshman will do after making a mistake. As Clemson continues to search for perimeter playmakers, Brown’s performance was a breath of fresh air and among a handful of outstanding efforts by Clemson freshmen Saturday evening.
Khalil Barnes, who started for injured Andrew Mukuba for the 2nd consecutive game, also was marvelous, collecting his 1st interception during the opening quarter and adding 6 tackles, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry to his stat line by night’s end.
Biggest surprise: Florida Atlantic arrived at Clemson allowing a stingy 3.1 yards per attempt on the ground. That’s good run defense, but it also came against Football Championship Subdivision Monmouth and Group of 5 Ohio. Clemson figured to be a different animal and a tougher challenge for Florida Atlantic.
Instead, the Tigers sputtered on the ground, struggling to block Florida Atlantic’s interior defensive line duo of Evan Anderson and Jacob Merrifield, who both generated a consistent push and helped the Owls limit Clemson to less than 5 yards per carry. Only Phil Mafah averaged more than 5.8 yards a carry for the Tigers, and Will Shipley’s struggles continued, as the junior managed just 3.8 yards per carry on a team-high 10 attempts. To slow FSU’s ferocious pass rush, the Tigers will need to turn up the physicality and run the football more effectively next Saturday. The good news? The Clemson run game looked dominant in weeks 1 and 2 — so the chance this was an aberration is relatively high.
Biggest concern: Clemson knew that it would be a challenge to replace program leading scorer BT Potter, but it’s hard to imagine Swinney thought things would be this difficult. After missing 2 kicks against Duke, freshman Robert Gunn III struggled again, missing his lone field-goal attempt and shanking an extra-point try in the victory. Gunn now is 1-for-4 on the season in the field-goal department, and the lone make came inside of 29 yards. That’s deeply concerning and there does not appear to be another option on the roster, given Swinney keeps running Gunn out there despite the frequent mistakes and misses.
Developing trend: Shipley still is the team leader in rushing attempts (36) and touches on offense (47), but Mafah is better in yards per attempt (6.6), explosive run percentage (32%) and rushing touchdowns (3). Shipley does have 9 explosive runs (10 yards or more), but his long run is 19 yards (compared to Mafah’s 49), and his lone touchdown came as a receiver, not as a runner.
The Tigers depth chart hasn’t gone as far to list Mafah ahead of Shipley, but the analytics, raw numbers and film study suggest Mafah is the team’s best ball-carrier. It’s a good problem to have, and Clemson has never sold out to the notion that the offense needs 1 bellcow, as carries were shared even during the Travis Etienne era. But the results suggest Mafah should touch the football more, especially as the competition ratchets up again over the next month.
Key stat: Clemson forced 4 Florida Atlantic turnovers Saturday, including Nate Wiggins’ interception for a touchdown, which opened the scoring early. That interception helped Clemson win the turnover battle by a plus-3 margin Saturday.
The Tigers now are 72-4 when winning turnover battle during the Swinney era, an astoundingly good statistic and 1 that portends good things for this opportunistic, ball-hawking Tigers secondary. Clemson still needs to improve the pass rush, but the 3 interceptions it registered Saturday all came with pressure, suggesting what the secondary and linebackers in coverage are capable of doing when the Tigers’ pass rush does get home.
Next game: Clemson will welcome No. 3 Florida State to Death Valley in a marquee matinee matchup at noon next Saturday on ABC-TV. The Tigers have won 7 consecutive matchups against the Seminoles but could find themselves home underdogs for the 1st time since 2013 come Saturday. FSU is led by a tenacious front 7 defensively and the nation’s best playmaker in quarterback Jordan Travis.
Plenty more will be written about this huge game, but from a macro-level perspective, the Florida State game will be a chance for Clemson to quiet cynics who continue to suggest Swinney’s dynasty is over. It also will be a huge opportunity, in the ACC’s 1st season without divisions, for the Tigers to stake their claim the title race and erase the sting of their Labor Day loss at Duke. A Clemson loss, however, likely would mean the Tigers are out on the road to Charlotte, N.C., and would create more existential questions for a program seeking its first College Football Playoff appearance since 2020.