ATHENS, Ga. - "It's never as bad as it seems, or as good as it seems." Leave it to Dabo Swinney to pooh-pooh the inevitable overreaction after week one.
Still, he's right - for the most part. News: Clemson is not going to the College Football Playoff, and Clemson is still very much in line for a 10-win season. Views: neither of those are factual statements, and if I were to guess which one is more likely to prove me wrong, I'd say the first.
Todd Gurley's really, really, really, really, really, really ///OK that's enough cut-and-paste/// talented. Clemson might not see someone with those natural gifts again this year - apologies, Jameis Winston and Mike Davis.
Gurley was named Walter Camp FBS Player of the Week Sunday morning, both a credit to him and a black mark on Clemson's resume.
We shall grade on a curve, nonetheless, since Clemson folks expect more out of the defense. Let's hand out a morning-after report card.
First 30 minutes: 54 plays, 276 yards, 14 first downs. Last 30 minutes: 22 plays, 15 yards, one first down. The words "halftime adjustments" come to mind. Cole Stoudt was better than his statline indicates (15-28-130-0-1), and Deshaun Watson can ball, so the Tigers are in good hands at quarterback - even if there's four hands, not two. C.J. Davidson will be alright at running back; and between his and D.J. Howard's 24 carries, only one went backwards. Artavis Scott made a heck of a catch. Charone Peake is healthy. Mike Williams had an eerily similar Georgia game to 2013's Martavis Bryant (two costly drops, but he'll have a big statistical year.) Adam Humphries' 5 catches for 11 yards is the most Adam Humphries line ever, though he's a valued pass-blocker. Problem is, this offensive line is clearly, again, the weak link.
This offense will ultimately look closer to its first-half self than the second-half debacle, but man, that was brutal to watch in the final quarter (minus-19 yards.) Even when things were going well, it was a little unnerving how much effort Clemson had to exert on the goal line - the Tigers needed six consecutive snaps inside the 6 before Davidson finally squirted in for Clemson's last touchdown of the night.
Well, the pass defense appears improved. Sort of. Only two gains of 15-plus, none longer than 23. Of course, the story of last night was the run defense, which got absolutely gashed for 328 yards - the second-most in the past three years, meaning Brent Venables didn't get much sleep last night. What will concern the Tigers (once they get past the Gurley-is-good factor) is the volume of missed tackles and bad angles. Grady Jarrett and Robert Smith said those things are easily correctable, but if you can't tackle in August, what says you'll do it the rest of the fall?
Georgia rolled out a fairly vanilla playbook - "toss sweep left, toss sweep right," Venables said - but Clemson really rarely put itself in position to create turnovers. There were a lot of moving parts at pretty much every position but nose guard (Jarrett) and strong safety (Smith), so we'll see how the coaches start parceling out playing time going forward. The only sack Clemson got was when Hutson Mason was flagged for intentional grounding with Vic Beasley in pursuit, one of the few plays Beasley made all night.
Special Teams (F)
As they'd say at the Chabad House: oy vey. A missed 35-yard field goal by Ammon Lakip in his first test; somehow he got iced by a late first-half timeout, even in 85-degree weather. Gurley cruised 100 yards on the kickoff return like he was parting traffic on Lumpkin Street. Humphries was extremely shaky on punt returns; might be time to give someone else a try (Daniel Rodriguez? Martin Jenkins?? Mackensie Alexander???)
The only two bright spots: T.J. Green had a nice 30-yard KO return to open the game, and looks like he's got some burst - though he had the ball disarmed at the end of a later return. Bradley Pinion finally had a chance to boost his punting average (10 punts, four over 50 yards, 45.1 average) ... which of course is reflective of Clemson's crappy field position all night, but still, that's what you're asking for out of your punter. Pinion was a bit mediocre booting from his own end zone.
First, the good. Tigers were pretty disciplined. Just three penalties for 40 yards; just one turnover; no balls on the turf from running backs or receivers. Clemson looks good from those intangibles, so that's a promising sign. Swinney is 1-for-1 on replay challenges, getting the Michael Bennett down-by-contact ruling overturned and providing Clemson's only takeaway.
Now, if you ask the peanut gallery at Sanford Stadium (ahem, Clemson beat writers), Chad Morris seemed resigned to Clemson's fate in the second half. No more deep shots challenging Georgia's iffy secondary, no more zone read, no more jet sweeps, no more of the things that were working in the first half. Morris got taken to school in the second half by Jeremy Pruitt, and that's not a good thing. From a broader scope: so much for the tight ends mattering, so far. Three targets, two catches, two yards from that group total. Probably didn't help that, according to ESPN, Sam Cooper was injured in warmups and in a walking boot during the game, but the starter Jordan Leggett was not targeted once. Venables was understandably hard on himself for the gameplan, but he'll really have to make his money correcting some shoddy tackling in prep for Florida State in three weeks.
The message this week in the WestZone should be: remember how those first 30 minutes were toe-to-toe. Remember how it was a 3-point deficit Clemson taking over possession entering the fourth quarter. Clemson is still a quality football team that just had a really rough time at twilight at Sanford Stadium in a hostile environment. Of course, the questions will be persistent the next 21 days: can Clemson hang with Florida State, and keep their faint ACC/playoff hopes alive?
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