Clemson football: Stock Report after Week 5
Clemson rolled past Syracuse 31-14 Saturday afternoon at the JMA Wireless Dome.
The win was Clemson’s 6th straight against Syracuse and handed the Tigers their 1st ACC victory of the season after dropping league games at Duke and at Death Valley to then-No. 3 Florida State. The Tigers have a steep road to climb to get back into the ACC Championship game picture, but performances like Saturday’s against an unbeaten Orange should serve as a reminder to write the reigning ACC champions off at your own risk. This is a Clemson team that is getting better every week, and with perimeter playmakers emerging on offense, a long winning streak seems possible, if not likely.
Let’s take stock of the Tigers after 5 weeks of football.
Player of the game: Wide receiver Tyler Brown won the hearts of Clemson fans in Week 4, laying his body on the line with catches like this during the overtime loss to FSU.
The “Justyn Ross before the knee” vibes picked up even more Saturday, with Brown strafing a quality Orange defense to the tune of 9 receptions and 153 yards receiving. Speaking of Ross, Brown’s receiving yards also were the most by a Clemson true freshman since Ross’ 153 against Alabama in the 2018 national title game. Brown was tied for Clemson’s longest reception (47) and had the most yards after catch of any Tigers receiver in the victory. The freshman now leads the Tigers in receptions (21) and yards (316) and his 15 yards per reception average ranks 2nd on the team behind Beaux Collins’ 15.2.
Clemson entered the season openly acknowledging the hunt for perimeter playmakers to complement the 1-2 running-game punch provided by Will Shipley and Phil Mafah. Brown’s emergence is helping solve that problem, and should make the Tigers a more difficult team to defend during October and November.
Freshman of the week: Clemson’s defensive line played its 2nd consecutive quality game, helping the Tigers post season highs Saturday in sacks (5) and tackles for loss (7). Defensive end T.J. Parker was the best Clemson defender on the field, registering 5 tackles, 2 sacks and 5 total pressures.
Parker had been playing well all season, as his 7.5 tackles for loss demonstrate, but getting 2 sacks of a mobile quarterback in Garrett Shrader was incredibly impressive.
“Shrader can run the ball and does a lot and they run things offensively through him,” Parker told the media after the win. “We did a good job of containing him and once we did that, it opened up a lot of things for us from a scheme standpoint.”
The Orange entered Saturday’s affair averaging 44.3 points per game, but with Parker playing at a high level, the Clemson defensive front shut down the offense, putting any risk of an 0-3 ACC start to bed in the process.
Biggest surprise: This shouldn’t be a surprise, really, but Clemson’s 5 sacks were a breath of fresh air for a defensive front that wasn’t up to program standards from a pass rush standpoint during 2022 and struggled out of the gate this fall. The 5 sacks were Clemson’s most since last November’s victory over Miami, and Saturday marked the 4th consecutive game in which the Tigers have collected at least 2. Is the Clemson front dominant yet? No. But the Tigers are starting to improve up front — and with double-digit pressures against back-to-back mobile quarterbacks in Jordan Travis and Shrader, it is safe to say this unit has a chance to be back to the elite program standard by season’s end.
Developing trend: The Tigers did hit some explosive plays in the run game, including Mafah’s win-sealing, 32-yard touchdown run during the 4th quarter.
But beyond 5 runs of 10 yards or more, the Clemson offensive line and run game struggled, posting just 3.6 yards per attempt, much of which came after contact. The Tigers also had multiple negative run plays during the 2nd half as the offense stalled and slowed, keeping the margin within reach for Syracuse.
This wouldn’t be “developing trend” territory yet for Clemson, especially because the Orange ranks 22nd in the country against the run and 20th in success rate against the run. Syracuse can slow an opponent’s ground game. But after a FSU run defense that struggled against everyone a season ago limited the Tigers to just 3.6 yards per attempt at home a week earlier, a better performance in the run game was expected from the Tigers. Instead, Clemson struggled to sustain the run, and the game became interesting again late.
Clemson should run the ball better against Wake Forest next weekend, but the diminishing returns running the football are a trend coach Dabo Swinney and the staff will want to fix before they visit Miami Gardens to play the Hurricanes on Oct. 21.
Biggest concern: How good is this offensive line, really? In addition to the run-game inconsistency, Clemson also surrendered 3 sacks Saturday, bringing the season total of sacks allowed to 9. That number ranks 62nd in the country, and while some of the sacks have been about sophomore quarterback Cade Klubnik holding the football too long, the Tigers have given up 35 pressures through 5 games, a higher per-game pace than during any of the prior 5 seasons.
Clemson has big tests coming up when it will face talented defensive fronts at No. 17 Miami and Nov. 4 against No. 10 Notre Dame. Can this offensive line, which ranks 8th in the ACC in PFF grade, improve? There’s not much time to make a leap, but it will need to better to beat the Hurricanes and Fighting Irish.
Up next: The Tigers will continue conference play at 3;30 p.m. ET Saturday (ACC Network) when Wake Forest visits Death Valley. The Tigers have won 14 straight against the Demon Deacons, 1 away from tying the longest win streak in series history (a 15-season run from 1977 through ’91). Wake Forest hasn’t won at Memorial Stadium since 1998. While Wake Forest is 3-1, it lost its lone ACC game to date, falling 30-16 to Georgia Tech on Sept. 23. Wake Forest’s biggest issue during that game was blocking — it surrendered 8 sacks and allowed 19 pressures. Under constant duress, Mitch Griffis tossed 3 interceptions. The Demon Deacons had a bye week to prepare and fix the issues up front, but the line of scrimmage has long been where Clemson has dominated this ACC matchup and the Tigers should overwhelm Wake Forest again Saturday afternoon.