Clemson’s flaws have been apparent throughout the 2016 season. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney hopes his team is ready to correct them after losing to an unranked team for the first time in five years.
Turnovers in the red zone, a lack of a running game and an inability to stop backs and tight ends in the passing game had Clemson living on the edge entering this past weekend’s game against Pitt. The Panthers were able to expose Clemson’s weaknesses better than anyone has done all season.
Swinney said after Saturday’s loss that when you are winning, sometimes you feel as if you can get by with mistakes.
“To me, prosperity is a terrible teacher,” he said.
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Turnovers deep in the opponent’s territory have plagued Clemson in close games this year.
The Tigers have turned the ball over seven times inside the opponent’s 25-yard line, while no other FBS team has done that more than four times, according to ESPN’s David Hale.
In a 42-36 win over Louisville, Deshaun Watson was intercepted in the end zone and threw two other picks. In an overtime win over N.C. State, Watson threw a pick-six and Clemson fumbled three times inside the Wolfpack 25, including twince inside the 10.
Against the Panthers, Watson was picked off twice in the end zone, with his last interception coming on a second-and-goal from the 3. A field goal would have made it a two-possession game with under six minutes remaining.
“The turnovers caught up with us tonight,” Swinney said. “We’ve had a lot of turnovers, especially in the red zone. We had two opportunities in the red zone where if you come away with kicks, come away with field goals, it doesn’t come down to (the last minute).”
Clemson abandoned the running game early against Pitt because the Tigers were having no success on the ground.
That’s been a common theme for Clemson this year. Wayne Gallman set the school record for rushing yards in a season with more than 1,500 yards in 2015, but has only 670 yards with two regular season games remaining.
Gallman managed 36 yards on 18 carries against the Panthers, forcing Watson to throw 70 times. Clemson was unable to convert a third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 in the final minutes that would have put the game away.
Six times in 10 games Gallman has managed under 65 rushing yards in 2016. He had at least 65 rushing yards in 10 of the 11 regular season games he played in during 2015.
“I don’t think that we came in expecting to throw it as much as we did, but at the end of the day, we always tell our guys we’ve got to do whatever we’ve got to do to win the game,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said after Saturday’s loss. “(The passing game) was giving us the most success. We tried to sprinkle in the run, and we just didn’t have time to sit there and go 1 and 2 yard gains. We needed to get the ball down the field and score points.”
Good running backs and tight ends have given Clemson’s defense fits this season, and that was definitely the case against Pitt, especially in the first half.
The Panthers followed the game plans of Louisville and N.C. State and forced Clemson’s linebackers to cover all over the field. Pitt had success with the shovel pass and the wheel route as its running backs, fullbacks and tight ends combined for 17 catches for 258 yards and five touchdowns.
Even with the loss, Clemson controls its own destiny to win the ACC championship, and will likely be in the College Football Playoff if it wins out.
Swinney is hopeful the Tigers will use Saturday’s loss as a learning experience and rebound to close the season strong. In the next three weeks, Clemson can clinch the ACC Atlantic title, the state championship and the ACC championship.
“Every goal that we have is still right there in front of us. Every single goal,” Swinney said. “There’s a lot out there for this team. … We can’t sit around and cry about this one. We need to learn from it.”
Who: Clemson at Wake Forest
When: 7 p.m., Saturday
Where: BB&T Field, Winston-Salem, N.C.
TV: ESPN Radio: 93.1 FM