Lots for Dabo Swinney has a lot to be happy with and enough film to keep coaching up the team.
Clemson Won, Despite Its Offense: If you'd just seen the following Clemson stat line, 66 total plays & 295 yards, there's no way you'd assume Clemson would win this game, much less win by three touchdowns, but that's exactly what happened. Clemson won the game easily with the offense having it's worst day of the season, but the offense was opportunistic at times and given good field position most of the day. As prolific as Clemson's offense can be, even the great offenses have an off week, and for Clemson to still win easily when the offense wasn't clicking is a good sign of just how resourceful this team can be.
Defense Continuing to Progress: Virginia Tech's offense won't remind anyone of the New England Patriots, but they seemed to have hit their stride over the prior three games averaging 33 points per contest against Cincinnati, Duke and North Carolina (combined record of 16-6). Quarterback Logan Thomas was overrated heading into the season, but he still has talent, and containing him can be a challenge. Clemson didn't shut Thomas down completely, as he rushed for 99 yards on 21 attempts and passed for another 207 yards. However, the Tiger defense harassed him all day with pressure and forced him to throw three interceptions, one of which was returned 74 yards for a touchdown by Jonathan Meeks. On the day Clemson surrendered 406 total yards to the Hokies, but only 17 points, the lowest amount to any FBS team all season.
The improvement in the defense hasn't been a singular move, and is still far from being fixed, but several factors have contributed to the improved performance in recent games. First, the defensive line has become more active, getting more pressure on the quarterback and disrupting the run game in the backfield on a more frequent basis. Freshman nose tackle DJ Reader and sophomore defensive end Corey Crawford have stood out as players who've elevated their games of late. The linebacker situation has also stabilized with the insertion of Spencer Shuey in the middle. Shuey isn't blessed with great athleticism, but he's physical, and thus is getting off blocks and making plays, and that's been a missing ingredient in linebacker play a good bit of this season.
There is still a long way to go with this unit, and many of the issues will only be completely resolved through recruiting, but it's still a good sign that Brent Venables and his staff have the defense moving in the right direction as the season wears on.
Watkins Returning to His Old Self: It was pretty obvious Chad Morris was trying to get Sammy Watkins more involved in this week's game, as he knows he'll need the "old" Sammy Watkins if this team is going to continue to play at a high level all season. Although Watkins still lacks the Sportscenter highlight plays and eye popping stats, he still managed a solid day with 8 receptions for 84 yards, leading Clemson's receivers in both categories. You get the sense Watkins is getting his game legs back under him after his illness, and will soon have a breakout game reminiscent of his 2011 efforts.
Military Appreciated: Clemson handled the Military Appreciation Day very well, from the pre game flyover to Daniel Rodriguez leading the team down the hill. If anyone deserves special recognition, it's the men and women of the military, and it's good to see Clemson keeps their sacrifices in mind by dedicating a game each season to their tremendous efforts.
Offensive Line Regression:
Even without his best game Tajh Boyd managed the game and lead Clemson to the win.
In past weeks I've written the offensive line is one of the season's minor success stories, and in total they've performed better than I expected entering the season. However of late, there appears to be a plateau in their performance, and perhaps even a regression. Against Virginia Tech this unit had their worst week of the season, allowing 5 sacks and opening few holes for the running game (a paltry 3.0 yard average on the day).
Since the second half of the Florida State game this unit has seemed to lose it's mojo, it's edge, or whatever energy it had entering the season. Virginia Tech sensed that, and their defensive linemen had their way with Clemson's front and pushed them around all afternoon. Chad Morris also took note of this performance, and vowed to fix it, likely meaning some unpleasant days ahead for this group. The plethora of offensive weapons at Clemson's disposal can cover up some up and down play from the offensive line, as they've shown in recent weeks. However, the most imposing defensive front Clemson will see all season enters Death Valley on November 24th looking to win their 4th straight game over Clemson, and Clemson's offensive line will need to play much better against Clowney and Company if the Tigers hold any hope in defeating the Gamecocks.
Sloppy Ball Handling:
The stat sheet says Clemson had only one turnover on the day, a remarkable interception by Virginia Tech's Michael Cole. However, Clemson put the ball on the ground on two other occasions, neither of which ultimately cost the Tigers.
The first fumble by Sammy Watkins was ruled down by contact by the replay booth despite replays clearly showing the ball was out before Watkins was down. Watkins was fighting for yardage, but carrying the ball too loosely away from his body. Had the officials not erred here, this could have been a major momentum change in what was a 7 point game at the time. Clemson went on to score a touchdown minutes after this controversial play, stretching the lead to 14.
The other fumble occurred late in the game as Tajh Boyd reached for a touchdown, allowing the ball to come out. Fortunately, the ball was recovered by Brandon Thomas and Clemson went on to score, but again, the ball security was not where it needed to be.
There's no question the last two games quarterback Tajh Boyd's play has slipped. Over the first 5 games, he completed passes at a 69% clip, and his touchdown to interception ratio was a sterling 12/3. Over the last two games, Boyd has slipped to a 61% completion percentage, and has as may picks and touchdowns (3 a piece). In the Virginia Tech game, he missed several open receivers with high throws, one of which could have been a potentially big gainer to Sammy Watkins. Boyd also seems to be hanging onto the ball longer, and appears less decisive than earlier in the season.
Sammy Watkins is healthy now for the stretch run for Clemson
This may be just a blip on the radar, but one cannot dismiss the fact Boyd's play tailed off about this time last season, so there's certainly reason for some concern. Boyd is the engine that makes Clemson's offense go, and when he doesn't play well, it's hard for the offense to find a rhythm. With that said, Boyd deserves tremendous credit for his gritty running effort, especially late in the game after he suffered a shoulder stinger on a sack. There's no questioning his toughness or his leadership on this team, but his passing has dropped off in recent games, and this is something to keep an eye on.
Plenty of candidates this week, from Virginia Tech's 4th quarter play calling to the truly awful announcing tandem of Mike Patrick and Ed Cunningham, but in the end I'll have to say the officiating was the ugliest aspect of this game. By my count the officials blew three really big calls in this game, two of which were tremendously costly to Virginia Tech and thus beneficial to Clemson.
**The "in the grasp" call on a 3rd quarter sack of Logan Thomas was laughable, as Thomas easily tossed the ball into the flat to a wide open receiver. The officials are trying to preserve the safety of the players, and I get that, but Thomas is 6-feet, 6-inches tall and weighs 260 pounds. He's going to pull away his share of the time form a single defender, and was in no danger whatsoever with a defender hanging onto his ankles trying to bring him down. That call was simply a very quick whistle and poor awareness of the game and personnel involved.
**Shortly after the Thomas "sack", Sammy Watkins caught a pass in the left flat and fumbled while fighting for additional yards. Watkins was ruled down on the field, but replays clearly showed the ball came out before Watkins touched down, yet the call was not reversed. As noted earlier Clemson went on to score moments later and opened up the game. The combination of these two calls seemed to take the air right out of the Hokies' balloon, and who can blame them for feeling deflated?
In the end the officials didn't cost Virginia Tech the game, but they certainly missed two huge calls that changed the momentum of the game in the second half. Combined with the poor play calling late in the game, their own mistakes, and the officiating, Hokie fans have a lot to be angry about on Sunday morning.
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