Clemson University

Red zone troubles concern Tigers

Clemson wide receiver Marquan Jones evades Boston College safety Marcellus Bowman for a 26-yard gain.
Clemson wide receiver Marquan Jones evades Boston College safety Marcellus Bowman for a 26-yard gain.

CLEMSON - A classmate of senior tight end Michael Palmer, apparently unaware of his identity, offered a loud, snarky comment referencing Clemson's low-scoring output the other day.

Palmer said he has learned to ignore such comments.

And this particular criticism, he believes, should be treated the same until the Tigers have a larger sample size to draw from.

"We're in a good spot right now," Palmer said. "The good and bad thing is we've shot ourselves in the foot."

Nearly every Clemson coach and player asked about the team's red-zone difficulties said the same two buzzwords Tuesday: "critical errors."

But with No. 15 TCU's stingy defense on the horizon, Clemson understands its scoring problems must be rectified to give the Tigers their best chance to win Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game in Death Valley.

Through three games, Clemson has scored one touchdown in eight trips inside the opponent's 20, not counting a possession where it ran off the final seconds against Middle Tennessee. The other seven trips ended with field goals.

All told, the Tigers have tallied five offensive touchdowns - two more than the special teams. And Clemson is just one of the five Football Bowl Subdivision teams (out of 120) yet to muster a rushing touchdown.

"If we're going to be a legit contender in the conference, certainly, we'll have to score more touchdowns," Swinney said.

"Across the board we've had some issues. But it's not like we've been getting whipped or they got us."

Game management has been one culprit.

Offensive coordinator Billy Napier admitted the Tigers grew conservative against Middle Tennessee and Boston College in order to minimize risk and avoid tipping plays it planned to use in the future.

Consequently, with coaches trying to groom a physical running game, Clemson made no secret about its intent to run, and opponents have responded.

"There are times when you have to take shots to score touchdown in the red zone," Swinney said. "It's hard to just run it in all the time. You have to open it up sometimes, and we've been pretty conservative down there. To me, that's smart football when you've got a defense playing like our defense and your kicker is kicking with confidence. Points are precious."

But so is confidence. Arguably the most disconcerting aspect of Clemson's offense has been its inability to covert short-yardage situations on the ground - a short-coming the team has tried repeatedly to fix.

The Tigers have converted three of eight chances when running the ball on third or fourth down with 3 or fewer yards to go. In the red zone, 10 of their 17 runs have gone for zero or negative yardage.

Napier identified four specific plays that short-circuited Clemson's red-zone trips against Boston College.

Two were mistakes in execution by players, and Napier said he made poor play-calls on the other two - a first-down run into a fire-zone blitz and the C.J. Spiller run out of the Wildcat formation that went for no gain.

Napier said the Tigers' offensive identity will continue evolving as its gains experience, but he believes the unit has succeeded at catering to its strengths and force-feeding the ball to running back C.J. Spiller and receiver Jacoby Ford.

"We've given our guys the chance to go play and given our team the chance to win in each game we've been in," Napier said.

"One goal we have met is our 100 percent red-zone scoring. Our 70-percent touchdown goal in the red zone has not been met. So it's a positive but a negative at the same time."

TCU isn't the opponent to fix those problems.

The Horned Frogs have led the nation in total defense three of the past nine years and have not been any less stingy near the goal line. Only two of their past 16 opponents have scored more than 16 points. In the past 34 games, teams scored touchdowns on just 31 of 78 red-zone trips (39.7 percent).

"This is a game where the best offense will win the ball game," sophomore right tackle Landon Walker said. "Whoever can score will win."

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