While Boyd vs. Clowney and Spurrier vs. Swinney might be sexier subplots, the major story line during the four-game losing streak to South Carolina has been the inability of Clemson’s offense to be — well — average.
In Chad Morris’ two previous games, Carolina limited Clemson to its lowest production of each season, the worst performances in his tenure as offensive coordinator.
“They’ve made some plays, and we haven’t,” Morris said, tersely. “We haven’t executed well, haven’t coached well and they beat us.”
Entering last season’s game, Clemson averaged 45 points and 536 yards, but Carolina allowed 17 and 328. In its most recent visit to Columbia, Clemson managed 13 points and 153 yards after averaging 34 and 459.
“A lot of it has to do with how Carolina played,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “They’re not going to just roll over. It’s going to take our best game.”
Much of last season’s carnage was attributed to Jadeveon Clowney’s performance. The 4½ sacks tell a portion of the story. His presence becomes a distraction, a pre-snap preoccupation.
“They’ll move him all over the field and try to create mismatches,” Morris said. “They’ve got him everywhere.
“Everybody worries about where No. 7 is — and they should — but these other guys over here are taking advantage of one-on-one opportunities, too.”
Tackle Brandon Thomas protects quarterback Tajh Boyd’s butt, his blind side. A senior and Clemson’s most experienced offensive lineman, he might collide with Clowney as much as anyone.
“Brandon has been playing very well this year, has been the most consistent player we’ve got,” Morris said.
Right tackle Isaiah Battle, a freshman, is rangier than Thomas, with a wealth of potential and could be a better match physically despite his inexperience.
“His athleticism is a huge advantage for us; his strength, his arm length and his ability to use his hands.”
Both might need help from a back or tight end. Last season, Morris said, “there were three, four, five, six times (Thomas) had some help over there.”
Morris counted Sam Cooper, then Darrell Smith, as the most proficient blockers among the tight ends. Rod McDowell has improved his value at running back by quickly identifying blitzes.
Clemson has allowed 28 sacks this season — four each to Georgia Tech, Maryland, Florida State, Syracuse and S.C. State. Adjustments during the Maryland and Georgia Tech games minimized the threat.
The onus isn’t totally on the line. Boyd tends to hold the ball too long. Morris said it was attributable to the glacial development of Boyd’s options at receiver beyond Sammy Watkins and Adam Humphries.
Watkins, a potential first-round NFL draft pick, hasn’t been a factor in either game against Carolina. Morris’ hope is that the emergence of junior Martavis Bryant and freshman Mike Williams will help free him. Both are tall with high-end ball skills.
Nearly half of Bryant’s production has come in the four games since the loss to Florida State — 18 receptions for 420 yards and two touchdowns. Williams, a freshman, has nine receptions for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
“When you start looking at the development of Martavis and Mike Wiliams, it wasn’t something we had early in the year,” Morris said. “Tajh didn’t have the confidence in those guys as he’s gained through the course of the year.
“We really needed someone to come on, and we’ve seen that in Martavis, we’ve seen it with Mike Williams.”
Morris needs more balance, which means running effectively. Clemson’s numbers are down markedly from a year ago, farther than Morris anticipated in preseason. Carolina’s ability to control the clock during the second half last season places more pressure on the offense to score with every possession.
“We haven’t been able to run the football as much as we want to, we feel like over the last four weeks we’ve gotten better,” Morris said. Finding ways to simulate a run game, with screens and short inside pitches to receivers in motion can be efficient, though it’s not like pounding between the tackles. Plus freshman tight end Jay Jay McCullough, another huge target, has worked out of the backfield in practice for several weeks and might be either a run or block option.
“We’re going to have to be able to run the football this Saturday, I’ll tell you that,” Morris said.
Any evidence of change in Clemson’s approach to solving Carolina’s defense would seem to be by-products of the development of those young players. More than a tweak, “would be the absolute worst thing we could do,” Morris said. “You’re going to be who you are. It comes down to we’ve got to go make the plays.”