In a game where No. 6 Clemson was favored to beat Georgia Tech by 29 points, the Tigers almost lost.
For as ugly as Clemson’s 14-8 win over the Yellow Jackets was on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium, it’s all part of the growing pains, coaches said, and growing pains often aren’t pretty.
“It’s just the nature of who we are right now,” Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve got a true sophomore right tackle (Walker Parks), we’ve got a new center (Matt Bockhorst). We’ve got new backs, we’ve got a new quarterback. We’ve got a true freshman at left guard (Marcus Tate), so it’s just learning. Just gaining experience as we go.”
The Tigers fumbled the ball four times Saturday, recovering three of those. Freshman tailback Will Shipley recovered his own fumble in the Clemson end zone with less than 20 seconds left in the game, resulting in a safety instead of a Tech touchdown.
Tate was called for two false start penalties during the Week 3 contest. The last time the Tigers had a true freshman start on the line was in 2016. It wasn’t as noticeable then because of the veteran experience coming from quarterback Deshaun Watson, who eventually led Clemson to its second-ever national championship.
While D.J. Uiagalelei had two starts as a freshman last year, he’s now the full-time starting quarterback as a sophomore and working through his own growing pains. During the early part of the third quarter, the ball snapped past Uiagalelei, but he recovered and was able to reset and pick up a first down.
Clemson’s biggest contributors coming out of the backfield have been Shipley, who scored both of the Tigers’ touchdowns, and sophomore Kobe Pace. They finished Saturday’s contest with 88 and 13 yards, respectively.
Consider these numbers:
▪ Through three games, Clemson’s offense is averaging 22 points, 323 yards and 4.8 yards per play.
▪ They averaged 43.5 points, 502.3 yards and 6.7 yards per play in 2020.
▪ In the national championship season of 2018, Clemson averaged 44.3 points, 527.2 yards and 7.3 yards per play.
▪ The Tigers had no games under 300 yards of offense the last three seasons. They have two so far in 2021, including 284 yards Saturday.
Georgia Tech’s defense put Clemson’s offense in a situation where it had to adjust on the fly, which was an opportunity to grow. Swinney and Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott admitted the Yellow Jackets’ scheme was much different than what they’d seen on film.
As a result, the Tigers got Uiagalelei involved in their ground-and-pound style offense, something he’d started doing more last week against S.C. State. The Southern California native was the second-leading rusher with 46 yards on eight carries.
“I like running the ball,” he said. “I like the contact, like feeling contact. For me, I get hit a little bit, it gets the juices flowing a little bit. It gets me a little turnt up, so I guess so. (Running the ball) settles me in a little bit, but I felt good … running the ball.”
Every team has its process to work through with new players and it’s certainly not a foreign concept for Clemson. A couple of years ago, the Tigers’ defense was in a similar spot with making adjustments to and growing up younger players. They’re now seeing the rewards of that patience.
When Georgia Tech threatened to score late in the fourth quarter down at the Clemson three-yard line, the Tigers’ defense stood tall and got the stop, thanks to sixth-year senior linebacker James Skalski. For the first time since 1950, Clemson has held its first three opponents out of the end zone. The Tigers also held opposing offenses from scoring a touchdown during a stretch of three games in 1990.
While the Tigers’ offense had to wait for the defense to catch up in years past, it’s now the reverse: The offense must go through its growing pains to get better.
Even with the mistakes, the Tigers made the necessary in-game adjustments and did just enough to come away with the win. It’s another lesson learned in an ever-evolving process for the young unit with its first true road game six days away.
“I’m hoping the guys draw a lot of confidence from this game,” Elliott said. “It was a situation they haven’t been in before. They were really challenged. It was a lot of adversity and they found a way to overcome the adversity. I think you can learn from this game they challenged us to be able to run the ball to try to find a way to win, and we were able to take what was there and put together a plan to give us a chance to be successful.”
Next Clemson game
Who: Clemson (2-1, 1-0 ACC) vs N.C. State (2-1, 0-0)
Where: Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C.
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25