Matt Connolly

Clemson midseason report: Three surprises, three disappointments

Clemson has passed every test through the first six weeks of the season and is 6-0 (4-0) at the halfway point of the year. We take a look at three of the most pleasant surprises and three of the biggest disappointments.

THREE SURPRISES

KELLY BRYANT

Not long after Kelly Bryant was named Clemson’s starting quarterback, some began questioning how long the junior would be able to hold onto the job. Bryant quickly put this question to rest, leading the Tigers to three top 15 wins in his first five starts. Clemson had as tough a schedule as any team in the nation the first month of the season, and Bryant helped the Tigers navigate it without much trouble. In addition to passing for 1,259 yards and four scores, Bryant also leads Clemson in rushing yards with 401 and rushing touchdowns with seven.

TRAVIS ETIENNE

Clemson’s freshman running back was the talk of preseason camp, but not even the most optimistic Tigers’ fans could have expected the Louisiana native to be this good this early. Etienne leads Clemson running backs in rushing yards with 378, despite not playing against Auburn. He is averaging 8.2 yards per carry, which leads the team, and has scored five touchdowns, which is second to Bryant. Etienne led the Tigers in carries and yards this past week against Wake Forest, although Tavien Feaster got the start.

THE SECONDARY

Clemson lost a pair of starters in the secondary in Cordrea Tankersley and Jadar Johnson and has been banged up since the start of the season, yet the Tigers are No. 15 nationally in pass defense, allowing 165.5 yards per game. Ryan Carter at cornerback and Tanner Muse at strong safety have been the only constants, starting all six games. Cornerbacks Marcus Edmond, Trayvon Mullen and Mark Fields have missed time with injuries, as has safety Van Smith. No matter who has been in the game, the Tigers have been great against the pass.

THREE DISAPPOINTMENTS

BIG PLAY MISSES

Clemson has made its share of big plays, including a 79-yard touchdown catch by Ray-Ray McCloud and an 81-yard touchdown run by Etienne against Louisville, but the Tigers have also missed out on some opportunities to put games away. Two weeks ago against Virginia Tech, Bryant missed a couple of open receivers in the first half that would have resulted in easy touchdowns. This past week against Wake Forest, Zerrick Cooper under-threw a wide open Deon Cain in the fourth quarter that would have also resulted in a score. As co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said recently, Clemson needs to start making the layups.

PASS PROTECTION

Clemson has allowed 14 sacks in six games, and that number would likely be higher if not for Bryant’s athleticism. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has said Clemson is getting its quarterback hit too much. The blame isn’t all on the offensive line as Clemson’s running backs need to do a better job of helping in pass protection, but Auburn, Wake Forest and Louisville were able to get pretty consistent pressure against the Tigers.

DEON CAIN/C.J. FULLER

Junior receiver Deon Cain hasn’t had a bad year, but he also hasn’t had the breakout season most people were expecting. Cain is averaging 41 receiving yards per game, which is less than the 48 he averaged last season as a backup to Mike Williams. The Florida native has also scored only two touchdowns after scoring nine in 2016. Fuller opened the season as Clemson’s starting running back but lost the job to Feaster after Week 3. Fuller is fifth on the team with 122 rushing yards and has fumbled twice.

Game info

When: 7 p.m. Friday

Where: Carrier Dome; Syracuse, N.Y.

TV: ESPN

Line: Clemson by 21

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