After the numbing loss to Florida State, ninth-ranked Clemson’s final ACC game against Maryland could not have come at a worse time.
Historically, the series is a virtual wash on Maryland soil, and the last couple of visits have been precarious. In his first start two years ago, quarterback C.J. Brown nearly led Maryland to a win against eighth-ranked Clemson. Before that, Maryland upset a team that played for the 2009 ACC championship, a pure example of “pulling a Clemson.”
Dabo Swinney continues to tout the team’s experience as an advantage, but the weakness in that discussion was identified weeks ago, and Florida State virtually shot it full of holes.
Clemson’s run production is off 30 yards per game from a year ago. Rod McDowell had 132 yards against Georgia and 91 against Boston College. The next highest total was 69 by Tajh Boyd. Further reflecting the offensive line’s limitations are Clemson’s diminished numbers on third down (42.7 percent from 52.6) and in red zone scoring (83.3 from 94.6).
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Defenses discovered they can commit more resources to Clemson’s pass and hope to minimize the big-play potential. Further compromising has been Boyd’s tendency to lock on a primary receiver, sometimes in pre-snap, and not “look off” the secondary.
And there’s the issue of trust beyond Sammy Watkins. After catching 17 balls for 266 yards the previous three games, Adam Humphries was seldom targeted last week, and what became of Martavis Bryant and Germone Hopper with the game on the line?
Add the issue with turnovers, Clemson’s weaknesses are undeniable, and Maryland isn’t an ideal opponent to begin fixing them. Swinney spoke at length about the difficulty of preparing for Maryland’s injury-riddled roster.
Maryland does well in areas that could be problematic for Clemson. Maryland has run well, particularly when Brown is healthy, averaging 177 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry minus sacks. Clemson has allowed 174 yards per game and 4.4 per carry. Clemson averages 4.0 per carry minus sacks, and Maryland allows 146 per game and 3.4 per rush.
Brown was pulled from the loss to Wake Forest two weeks after sustaining a concussion, and wasn’t cleared this week, so Caleb Rowe will start. Maryland also lost receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long for the season in the Wake game and leading rusher Brandon Ross and tight end Dave Stinebaugh.
Swinney’s message this week was an attempt to rebuild the team and fan base’s fractured spirits. And while seldom does it sound genuine when a coach “accepts” responsibility for a butt kicking, be assured that was the case this week.
Boyd limped out of the FSU game but he practiced this week despite the ankle sprain.
When Swinney’s conversation after a deflating game focuses on fundamentals, his hope is that the team will feel reassured that the schemes are sound if they remain on script.
“Sometimes, you take the little things for granted, but it is the little things that lead to the big things. We have to get those little things corrected so we can do the big things,” he said. “Let’s get back to being fundamentally sound.
“It is like a symptom and we have to cure it.”