Clemson Football

Sleepwalking but not stumbling

November 17, 2018
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CLEMSON -- It was easy to get caught up in the pageantry of Clemson’s latest contest.

It was a night where No. 2 Clemson honored its now winningest senior class in school history and the military. Christian Wilkins ran down the hill by himself and fans went ballistic. The same was true for Hunter Renfrow, Clelin Ferrell, and others.

Oh yeah, we almost forgot there was a game to be played.

On a cold November night, the Tigers got off to a cold, lackadaisical start against the Duke Blue Devils. There was not much to celebrate early amidst the drops from receivers and a lack of an offensive pulse for much of the first half.

But when it was all said and done, you looked up at the scoreboard and Clemson still managed to sleepwalk its way to a 35-6 victory.

The win puts this year’s senior class in a class of their own, making them 51-4 as a group and the winningest class in ACC history. For a while, we wondered if tonight was going to be the night Clemson reached that number.

“I was pretty disappointed with how we started the game, especially offensively,” head coach Dabo Swinney said after the win. “Offensively, just could not get into a rhythm in the first half.”

Clemson came out as if it was dazed and confused on offense. There was no rhythm and you could tell the frustrations were beginning to rise after each unsuccessful drive.

Two of the first three drives were three-and-outs, the other was a four-play drive to begin the game that barely went anywhere. On the other side, David Cutcliffe’s Duke team was moving the ball steadily against a Clemson defense that came out a little flat.

Duke quarterback Daniel Jones led Duke to 136 total yards of offense in its first three drives. Before you knew it, Clemson was down 6-0 after the first quarter and still managed to only gain one first down.

Everything seemed a bit off. Hunter Renfrow broke the all-time Clemson record for most consecutive games with a catch (39), but even he had a couple of uncharacteristic dropped passes. Then, he went down towards the beginning of the second quarter with what seemed like a concussion and will be evaluated more on Sunday.

That set off an onslaught of drops throughout the rest of the night. If dropped passes are contagious, then we don’t think the Clemson receiving corps ever got their flu shots.

Well, everybody except Justyn Ross, who hauled in a 41-yard grab to set up a Tavien Feaster two-yard touchdown early in the second quarter to give Clemson a 7-6 lead. Ross finished the day as Clemson’s lead receiver with four catches for 76 yards and a touchdown towards the end of the first half.

But even after Clemson was able to get on the scoreboard, the offense went back to its cold state, going three-and-out on three consecutive possessions. There weren’t that many concerns a week ago after Clemson’s offense was unable to consistently get the ball into the end zone against a quality Boston College defense.

But this week was supposed to be a different story, especially against a defense that ranks 107th nationally in rush defense, giving up 212 yards per game on the ground. Frustrations started to boil over where even Travis Etienne got a little mad at himself on the sidelines. He finished the first half with five carries and only four yards, well below his season average.

Trevor Lawrence looked... human. He wasn’t helped by the number of drops by his receivers - did we mention there was a ton? - but there were also throws that he missed, some being on third down, that he has usually made. He was 14-of-28 in the first half for 178 yards and finished the day 21-of-38 for 251 yards and two touchdowns.

“I missed about four or five throws on the night,” Lawrence said. “It’s going to happen. You just gotta fight through it.”

Duke wasn’t showing Clemson anything exotic. The Tigers just couldn’t execute the game plan and were lucky to find themselves up 14-6 at the half. Clemson only had 17 rushing yards in the first half, which may or may not have been the total number of drops on the night.

“We had 460 yards of offense,” Swinney said. “If we catch half the drops, we have well over 500 yards.” One of the drops was a sure touchdown to Derion Kendrick.

Luckily for the offense, the defense settled in and held their own for the rest of the evening.

Once Duke went up 6-0, the defense only gave up 33 yards on the next seven Blue Devil drives. Four of those drives were three-and-outs. Once the second half began, you really started to see Clemson’s offense kick itself into a gear we’re used to seeing.

For the second straight game, Clemson came out of the half and forced a three-and-out followed by a touchdown drive on its next possession. This time, it was a 5-play, 61-yard drive. Etienne provided the spark with two 20-plus yard rushes, the second being a 27-yard score.

Etienne had four carries in the second half for 77 yards and two touchdowns after a 29-yard touchdown to give Clemson a 28-6 lead. He went from sleepwalking early to supercharged.

The Tigers had five offensive drives in the second half and they scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, the third being a 13-play, 79-yard drive capped off bya 10-yard touchdown reception from TJ Chase. If that happened at the beginning of the game, this story would have read a whole lot different.

But that’s just the way football is. Swinney reminded the media after the game that there’s a reason that they play four quarters. On a day where No. 1 Alabama was tied with The Citadel at the half in Tuscaloosa, Clemson was provided with a dose of reality of its own.

“Emotion doesn’t win, execution does,” Swinney said.

And that’s what Clemson did in the second half. After rushing for 17 yards in the first half, the Tigers raced for 191 yards in the second half to outrush the Blue Devils in one half alone The offense and the defense executed with cohesion and suffocated Duke until it was forced to tap out with more than half of a quarter to play as it punted down 35-6.

Clemson’s defense only gave up 262 yards, 104 on the ground. Fittingly enough, Clemson’s defensive line has now had four games in a row where they have recorded four sacks. Tanner Muse and Tre Lamar led the way with eight tackles each.

This team still has plenty of room to improve and clean up as it heads into a state championship next week. But there have only been four teams in Clemson’s history to start the season 11-0. This year’s team is one of them.

Winning games - and being consistent about it - is a difficult thing to do. Not every week is going to look like a 77-16 win over Lousiville or a 63-3 win over Wake Forest.

This week’s 35-6 win wasn’t pretty, but Clemson is now on the doorstep of a 12-0 season and a chance to get its 100th win of the decade next week, something no one other than Alabama has done.

“It’s hard to win,” Swinney said. “You walk in and you win 35-6 and you got some people that are dispointed. Shoot man, it’s hard to win, especially to win 11 in a row and go undefeated in this league… our guys have been up to the challenge all season long.

“We were a little slow to start, but we finished the right way.”

Clemson may have managed to sleepwalk through the Blue Devils, but they have waltzed their way through the ACC and most of its schedule.

The Tigers have the opportunity to finish the regular season the right way next weekend against rival South Carolina.

Onward.

 
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