Offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst was fiery on the sideline Saturday during No. 9 Clemson’s game against Georgia Tech.
Two days later, that fire hadn’t been put out.
Bockhorst was direct and spoke with authority. His right knee never stopped bouncing as he talked about the Tigers’ Week 3 contest and his responsibility as a leader on the team. Where some are the silent type, Bockhorst doesn’t mind getting emotional and holding his teammates accountable when needed.
“For me, it’s kind of a burn-the-boats mentality,” he said. “You know what? At this point, there’s no going back. It’s my last year, my last go-around and I’m going to do what I have to do to get it out of everybody. It’s not about making friends. It’s about winning games.”
The thing is: Clemson has won games. The Tigers’ only loss of the season was to second-ranked Georgia in the season opener. While a 2-1 record heading into Saturday’s road game against N.C. State would be fine for an average team, the Tigers pride themselves on being anything but average. That’s why the offensive struggles have become so polarizing.
A win isn’t just a win for the Tigers. Style points matter for Clemson, whose offensive success in recent years has featured high-scoring games, highlight-reel plays and tons of offense.
In the past three seasons, the Tigers have averaged 43.9 points, 72.7 plays and 520.6 total yards per contest. This year, the numbers are already significantly lower over three games, with the squad averaging 22 points, 67 plays and 322.7 total yards, the latter of which ranks 94th nationally. For context, in the first three games of 2020, Clemson had scored a total of 127 points with the help of 15 offensive touchdowns.
After the Tigers only scored seven points in the first half against Georgia Tech, and despite having the lead, Bockhorst was less than thrilled.
“There’s a standard that’s been set by the guys before us and we owe something to that standard,” he explained. “I’m not going to relent on that and I’m not going to let those guys down because I know what they gave. The guys that came before us, I know what they sacrificed and I know what that looks like and I’m going to bring it out of everybody some way.”
A problem that both head coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott noticed is a disconnect between the Tigers team that comes to practice and the one that shows up to games. Many of the problems they saw during the game against the Yellow Jackets weren’t an issue in the preparation leading up to the contest.
“A lot like with the ball security,” Elliott said in reference to the Tigers fumbling the ball four times on Saturday. “The ball security is good in practice. Then you get in the game and not so much, but we’ve just got to keep pushing through those moments in the game, learn from it. The one thing we can’t do is we can’t stop doing what we’re doing in practice. We’ve got to continue to have good practices and then it’s going to translate more frequently to the game.”
Offensive lineman Jordan McFadden added that penalties have been a momentum killer as well. It’s the little things that add up, so paying attention to even the most minute details has to be a point of emphasis. In some ways, frustration has set in for coaches and players, but they can’t let that snowball into the Tigers picking up another loss.
“I think the main thing we’re talking about is, you just can’t press,” Tigers sophomore quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei said. “The outcome, what we see in practice, it didn’t show up. We know how much better we are.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to eventually come. You’ve just gotta keep working and you’ve just got to keep following the plan, trusting the process. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It took a long time to build Rome, so we’ve just got to continue to keep going.”
It doesn’t get any easier, though, as Clemson heads to Raleigh, North Carolina for its first true road game against N.C. State. The Tigers are a 10-point favorite in the game.
Elliott said the Wolfpack’s defense is structurally similar to what Clemson just faced in Georgia Tech with an added threat of experience and confidence. The unit has only given up 31 points this season, 24 of which came in a 14-point loss to Mississippi State.
Even with the Tigers’ offense working to get back to the standard set previous teams, no one is giving up on the current personnel.
“It’s funny because a lot of people have opinions on things, but they don’t really look at the tape,” Bockhorst said. “They just have an emotional reaction about what they perceive to be what happened during the play. … If you look at the tape, it’s really not that bad, but I think everyone’s got this preconceived notion that it’s just the offense is falling apart, that coach Elliott needs to go and D.J. isn’t this and isn’t that, and those things are wrong. We know that here and we just have to keep doing what we need to do and continue to improve and we’ll be just fine.”
Watch Clemson vs NC State football game
Who: NC State (2-1, 0-0 ACC) vs. Clemson (2-1, 1-0)
Where: Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, NC
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday