Demons Exorcised: The last time Clemson opened up in Atlanta, Alabama pulled down their pants and dominated, leaving a stain on the program the entire season. With youth along each line, there was some concern a performance like that may occur again, especially with another SEC opponent on the field. However, Clemson looked much more ready for the national stage this time around, and even without their best player on the field, turned in a gritty performance and left with a hard-fought victory. Clemson didn't play their best game, on either side of the ball, but for a first game against a quality opponent, they prevailed in a city that hasn't been kind to them.
Boyd's Game Has Advanced: Tajh Boyd didn't post the best stat line of his career, but appeared a much more polished quarterback than we saw even in his best moments in 2011. Boyd displayed good pocket presence under heavy pressure, standing in and delivering throws down the field, or opting to scramble as the situation dictated. He made a poor throw for an interception in the 4th quarter, and undershot Sam Cooper for a likely touchdown earlier in the game, but otherwise made good reads down the field and delivered the ball to the proper target.
Boyd also effectively used his legs to gain 88 yards on designed runs and scrambles, and the addition of this running element proved huge in this game in keeping the chains moving. Boyd's running ability proved especially crucial on Clemson's go ahead touchdown drive late in the game. Overall we saw in Boyd a quarterback who's in much better physical condition to contribute running and passing, and a much more poised quarterback with a better understanding of the offense.
Clemson Has Two #1 Receivers: With Sammy Watkins out much of the preseason attention turned to his replacement, Charone Peake, who by all accounts had a great summer and is ready to elevate his game. However, it was Nuk Hopkins who drew the headlines against Auburn with a record-setting 13 reception performance, including the clinching touchdown grab. Hopkins may lack the top end speed and height of other receivers, but he's a handful in his own right, and just continues to be a steady, sometimes spectacular performer who doesn't get enough credit for his abilities.
The Offensive Line Shows Promise: Entering the game with three brand new starters, I don't think even the most optimistic person would have predicted 320 yards rushing, but that's what Clemson produced. Sure, some of that is attributable to a GREAT individual effort by Andre Ellington (231 yards rushing), as well as some scrambles by Tajh Boyd, but the offensive line deserves their fair share of credit too. Pass protection was iffy at times, and the Auburn defensive line has some quality personnel getting after the passer. However, the line played well enough in run blocking and pass protection to yield 524 total yards of offense, and once again that's without Sammy Watkins. Clemson doesn't need this line to be great to put up big numbers, and if they play this well in the season opener against an SEC team, ]some real fireworks are in store this season for this offense.
Catman Remains Solid: One of the under appreciated aspects of the Clemson victory is a perfect night in field goals by Chandler Catanzaro. Clemson's offense sputtered at times in the red zone, yet they still came away with points thanks to Catman's accurate right leg. After last night's game, Catanzaro has hit 12 field goals in a row dating back to last season.
Defense Is a Work In Progress: There were signs the defense is making progress under Brent Venables. Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier didn't hurt Clemson with his legs, and the defense held Auburn to only 4 of 13 3rd down conversions, bowing their back on several Auburn drives. However, there are still a few reminders this group has a long way to go.
Early on Frazier found receiver Emory Blake wide open for a 54-yard completion down the middle as replays showed coverage confusion in the Clemson secondary. In the second quarter Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, one of their best offensive pieces, was left alone streaking down the seam for a big gain.
The run defense also appeared shaky, as Auburn piled up 180 yards on the ground. The Tigers top two running backs, Onterrio McCalebb and Tre Mason, averaged 6.8 and 7.6 yards per cary respectively.
Clemson's defense doesn't have to be great for this team to win a lot of games, but they do need to eliminate the gifts and make the opposing teams work for their scores.
Dropped Passes: By my count Clemson dropped six passes on the night, with three by tight end Brandon Ford, two by Hopkins and another by receiver Martavis Bryant. Most of these drops were right in the bread basket, so it's not as if there was some question about the accuracy. I'm sure there were some nerves involved, so this issue may resolve itself as the season unfolds, but it will be a point of emphasis in the upcoming week for sure.
Penalties: To Clemson's credit, they were only penalized once in the second half, and incurred no penalties whatsoever for holding, personal fouls, or pass interference. With that said, procedural penalties were a back breaker in the first half, nullifying several big plays that could have put this game out of reach earlier.
Helmet Rule Change Is Horrible: The new rule requiring a player to leave the game for one play after his helmet comes off bit Clemson three times at it's most critical position, quarterback. Like most rules, this one has good intentions, that being player safety, but suffers from unintended consequences. This new rule will motivate players to try and get opponent's headgear off to get them off the field for a play, ultimately creating more player endangerment. Players need to ensure their helmets fit tightly and aren't easy marks for opponents, or for coming off during normal play, but this rule needs to be re-examined as it appears to be both overkill and counterproductive.
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