Clemson football: Stock report after Week 4
For most of 4 quarters Saturday at a sold-out Memorial Stadium, Clemson was a better football team than then-No. 4 Florida State.
The Tigers outgained the Seminoles by more than 100 yards and produced 9 more 1st downs during the contest. Clemson dominated time of possession, 35 minutes to 25 for Florida State. The Tigers’ pass rush, dormant most the season, harassed and harangued All-American quarterback Jordan Travis all afternoon. Clemson even overcame its early-season kicking woes — or so it appeared — during the 1st quarter, when Jonathan Weitz, personally called back into action by coach Dabo Swinney, nailed a 30-yard kick to give the Tigers an early lead.
All of that came to naught, though, as Clemson’s self-inflicted errors, from quarterback Cade Klubnik’s 3rd-quarter fumble to Weitz’s shanked 29-yard field-goal attempt, proved too much to overcome. Clemson, which has won plenty of close games during the Swinney era, was on the reverse end of the old adage that if you let a great opponent hang around long enough, it will find a way to beat you if you can’t get out of your own way.
Florida State’s 31-24 overtime win at Death Valley allowed the Seminoles to dream of a 2nd College Football Playoff appearance for their program, a narrow escape on a day they should have lost. As for the Tigers? At 2-2, Clemson’s College Football Playoff dreams are over. Their ACC title hopes likely are kaput as well, barring a 3-conference loss collapse by 17th-ranked Duke and plenty of help from No. 15 North Carolina and No. 18 Miami.
Relegated to Pop Tarts bowl pursuits, Clemson appears unlikely to have an opportunity to win another ACC Championship. Whether that is the latest sign the Swinney dynasty is over or just a periodic bump in the winding road, time will tell, but what isn’t up for debate is the Tigers are hurting badly as we take stock of Clemson after 4 weeks of the 2023 season.
Player of the week: Running back Will Shipley played his best game of the season, producing 151 all-purpose yards and 2 touchdowns in defeat. Shipley’s rushing touchdown was his 27th at Clemson, placing him among the top 10 in school history in that category. His leg drive on his rushing touchdown was the difference between being stuffed at the 1-foot line and a Clemson lead, raising questions as to why the Tigers declined to hand him the ball on 2 plays with a yard to gain during the overtime session.
Clemson did ride its 2 stars, Shipley and his backfield mate Phil Mafah, for much of Saturday’s game, an ultimately smart move that nearly was enough to help the Tigers win. Why did they decline to do that late?
Freshman of the week: The emergence of freshman wide receiver Tyler Brown, a relatively unheralded 3-star recruit who has put together back-to-back terrific games, continues to be an encouraging story in Clemson’s otherwise dismal start. Brown caught 5 passes on 7 targets Saturday afternoon for a team-high 84 yards receiving. He now has caught 12 passes this season on 15 targets, gaining 163 yards and scoring 2 touchdowns. On a team desperate for perimeter playmakers to stretch defenses vertically and horizontally, Brown’s breakthrough could define this offense’s ultimate ceiling in 2023.
Biggest surprise: The biggest concern entering this game, aside from Clemson’s shoddy kicking situation, was undoubtedly that the offensive line would wilt against Florida State’s marvelous defensive front. That didn’t happen. Yes, the Seminoles registered 3 sacks. Yes, Klubnik was strip-sacked during the 3rd quarter, resulting in a defensive touchdown. And yes, FSU’s pressure resulted in 2 errant Klubnik throws in overtime. But Florida State had just 8 pressures and 1 quarterback hurry in the game, per Stats Solutions. Clemson also ran the ball effectively, grinding out 177 yards rushing (before sacks), including multiple explosive runs.
That type of performance from your offensive line should help you win most games, and Swinney knew it, crediting his line for the way it competed against a ferocious FSU front.
“Proud of our offensive line and that position group. They fought and held their own against probably the best defensive line in the country. Not easy. We had a couple errors in protection, but they did a good job,” Swinney said after the game.
Why Swinney didn’t trust that group to hold up for 1 yard rushing on 3rd- and 4th-and-1 in overtime, we’ll never know, but it should not have been because he didn’t trust his team up front. Clemson’s offensive line played well enough to win.
Biggest concern: Weitz was money on his 1st attempt, a 30-yarder, but shanked what likely would’ve been a game-winner from a yard closer during the 4th quarter. Robert Gunn III was a highly touted kicker out of high school but struggled out of the gate, including a momentum-changing blocked kick that was far too low against Duke.
Gunn’s struggles led Swinney to coax Weitz out of retirement to kick against Florida State. The move appeared to be a stroke of Swinney mad genius until the final attempt, which had no chance from the beginning. Weitz’s body language told the whole story, as he immediately put his hands on his head and stared at the ground almost instantly after toe met leather.
Clemson is not good enough to avoid close games as the season moves on, and at some point, either Weitz or Gunn will be called on again to deliver in a key moment. Will they?
Developing trend: Clemson’s secondary is scary good. Florida State struggled all afternoon, unable to create space to run the football and rarely able to free up either of its monster 6-foot-5 receivers down the field. Clemson registered 5 pass breakups and limited FSU’s splendid duo of Keon Coleman and Johnny Wilson to just 10 catches on 20 targets. Coleman’s touchdown catch in overtime was well-covered too — the Seminoles star just made a tremendous play.
Through 4 games, Clemson’s pass defense ranks 29th in the country, despite playing 2 of the nation’s better quarterbacks in Duke’s Riley Leonard and Florida State’s Travis. The Tigers should have better than a 2-2 record to show for it, but costly mistakes have doomed this team instead.
Up next: The Tigers will head north to play their 2nd road game of the season at noon Saturday at unbeaten Syracuse in another nationally televised ABC game. Syracuse features 1 of the nation’s better defenses, allowing only 10.75 points per game in 4 victories. The Orange is especially good against the run, ranking 22nd nationally in rushing defense and 10th in success rate against in the run game. Any hopes of an ACC title game appearance ride on Clemson running the table in conference play and getting plenty of help elsewhere. That journey will begin Saturday.