Clemson coach Dabo Swinney delivered his most passionate weekly press conference of the year Tuesday, when he implored the the orange-clad faithful to “wake up” for Wake Forest, a team Swinney also lauded for several minutes.
Early Saturday, the No. 2 Tigers (6-0) had his back. Quarterback Kelly Bryant delivered a 28-yard TD pass to Deon Cain in the first two minutes of the game. Adam Choice tacked on a 4-yard scoring run, and it looked like the Tigers were off the races.
Despite Swinney believing the visiting Demon Deacons (4-2) were a legit contender in the ACC Atlantic, none of the 81,500 folks in attendance were surprised by Clemson’s start.
What happened after that, though, certainly raised some eyebrows.
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In the Tigers’ 28-14 win against over 4-2 Wake, the next five drives ended like this: missed field goal, fumble, punt, punt and interception.
“Just because we go up two scores, the game is not over,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We need to put that pedal to the metal.”
But they didn’t. The big plays stopped. The crowd that was urged to be awake for a noon game was headed toward a snoozer on Homecoming Weekend.
“I want us to be more opportunistic when those big opportunities present themselves,” Swinney said. “We missed a few big opportunities to put some teams away.”
Too many shoestring tackles, drops and turnovers kept the game from getting out of hand early, but the outcome was never in doubt after Clemson went up 21-0.
Give the Demon Deacons some credit. They’re not the same old doormat that got kicked around for years. Dave Clawson has developed an experienced bunch that plays hard until the end.
The discussion in the Upstate, coming off Clemson’s 31-17 victory at Virginia Tech last week, was that Swinney’s Tigers, not Alabama, deserved to be No. 1 in country.
There probably won’t be as much debate this week. For the most part, the defense continues to be outstanding, but they weren’t overly impressive on offense.
“That’s football,” Cain said about the sluggish middle of the game.
Clemson racked up 453 yards. More than 200 came in the first quarter, and some came after Bryant left the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter.
Regardless, the Tigers didn’t put together four complete quarters against Boston College at home two weeks ago or Saturday against Wake.
“That’s something we’ve got to challenge our guys,” Elliott said. “That’s maturity. This is a group that’s six games in. We were very fortunate to have a group (in 2016) that played 30-plus games together and so they knew what the battles were like. They knew what it took. This group is still figuring it out. That’s something we’re going to be able to take from this game and coach.”
Clemson’s resume is as impressive as any team in the country. The Tigers own three top-15 wins, and statistically, the offense has been more efficient to this point than last season.
They wanted to establish more of a passing game against Wake and come out to a fast start.
“We checked that box,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “The next part is to stay consistent. Our standard is what we did the first two drives and not have a few drives off in between.”
To be clear, Clemson isn’t overrated because of a handful of bad drives against Wake, but it also isn’t a complete product offensively.
The Tigers, who are committed to playing a ton of guys each week, want to see improvements in short-yardage situations and the protection of Bryant, who also is trying to understand where pressures are coming from and when to get rid of the ball.
“We’re still not where we need to be,” Swinney said. “When it’s all said and done, we’ll be something special.”
Clemson has time to do that. The Tigers will be big favorites at Syracuse on Friday night and again Oct. 28 at home against Georgia Tech after a bye.
They go to 5-1 N.C. State on Nov. 4 and host Florida State on Nov. 11.
That might be the only two games where any deficiencies could get them beat in the regular season.