Standing toe to toe, Clemson and Florida State traded punches for nearly three quarters. When the momentum swung, Florida State would not turn loose until Clemson was counted out on its feet.
Surveying the damage — four straight touchdowns, 35 second-half points and 667 total yards, the most against a Clemson team since the 771 by Florida State in 2000 — defensive coordinator Brent Venables was terse.
“We got to get better in a lot of areas,” he said, “and it starts in the run game.”
There were signs, and Venables was suspicious after Furman, pointing out the vulnerability to big plays. Clemson was 56th nationally in total defense and 84th against the run entering Florida State. Three sacks in three games was indicative of an anemic pass rush.
“Obviously we took a little bit of a step back,” coach Dabo Swinney said.
Not looking to assign blame, offensive coordinator Chad Morris said the game wasted a relatively good performance by his charges. “We were playing at a high level,” he said, not perfect.
“We had very, very, very few loafs. Missed assignments, I think we had one,” Morris said Monday during his weekly meeting with reporters
“You’re not going to be perfect. Let’s just get that straight out,” he said. “Our job as an offensive unit is to score one more point than they have, whether that’s 60 (or) whether that’s 10.
“I think it’s important that we all understand that.”
Morris, in fact, accepted a portion of the blame for “some bad calls.” After Clemson countered every score until that stretch in the third quarter, FSU went from a 31-21 deficit to a 42-31 lead.
“You can’t go into a ball game thinking you’re perfect because you’re not,” he said, adding, “We had opportunities to get it done.”
Players fielded questions Monday about their preparation, their understanding of Venables’ scheme and their abilities to perform in a hostile environment against superior talent. A game at Boston College arrives this week, then back-to-back with the Techs follow, so there’s no room for a deeper recession.
Among the most prevalent opinions on the message boards was that Clemson has a talent gap on defense. A quick survey of the defensive players signed the past four years indicated otherwise.
Recruiting under Swinney has received national attention, and while the results have been most apparent on offense, many of the game’s top programs appear in the lists of schools considered by defensive players. That includes Alabama, LSU, Southern Cal, Notre Dame, Florida State, South Carolina, Florida, Auburn, Stanford and Michigan. Count the stars in the defensive constellation, and there are at least two players with five, no fewer than 15 fours and a dozen threes.
Swinney warned in July that this would be a “work in progress” for four or five weeks. Unclear at the time was that he may have been talking about the defense rather than the offensive line.
Defensive players who visited with reporters Monday accepted the blame and preferred to spin the conversation forward.
“We’ve only played four games there’s a whole season ahead.”
Remembering that Clemson led 21-14 at halftime and 28-14 in the third quarter, corner Bashaud Breeland said he never left the field feeling as if Clemson had stopped Florida State.
Venables said in August that he did not know if there was a playmaker on the roster — one guy who commands respect of an offense.
End Malliciah Goodman said it was remained evident to him, too. “I don’t think we have that one guy yet.”
No stone would remain unturned in the hunt to find one or some, Venables said. He had taken the wraps off a 3-3-5 alignment that showed some promise early, but “it wasn’t worth a dang” at the end.
“A lot of things we’ve got to evaluate: scheme, personnel everything,” he said. “First and foremost I think we need to coach them better.”