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Clemson wins 35-12, but finds itself outgained by Furman

clemson furman

Clemson safety R.J. Mickens (9) trips up Furman tight end Ryan Miller (82) during fourth-quarter action in Clemson on Sept. 10. Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina

CLEMSON — With every tackle in a fourth-quarter goal-line stand, Clemson's defenders left the scene with an outburst of energy.

LaVonta Bentley, the redshirt junior linebacker, was pointing to the ground as he sacked quarterback Tyler Huff at the 10. Barrett Carter, the sophomore defender, was jawing toward the stands after he held receiver Joshua Harris short of the goal-line on a third-down pass.

Dominic Roberto was held short of the end zone, again, on a fourth-down rush, and the Tigers' defense came off the field victorious.

But this was Furman, an FCS school, that the No. 5 Tigers (2-0) had just stonewalled in the final moments of a 35-12 win. There was more at stake in the fourth quarter, more energy being expended after every takedown, than probably was anticipated coming into this matchup.

"There's no excuses. We'll get better," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, before cracking a smile. "It's hard to win. It's hard to win. You won't ever hear me complain about a win."

"I think there's some good teams that got beat today," Swinney added, alluding to Appalachian State beating No. 6 Texas A&M and No. 8 Notre Dame upended by Marshall.

At the very least, the Tigers remained undefeated, and they were boosted by an excellent performance from quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. On the other hand, they were outgained by an FCS team, 384 yards to 376.

Swinney compared the first three games of the season to a quarter, because there are 12 games in a regular season. The end of the first quarter comes next week versus Louisiana Tech.

In the first quarter, teams are usually settling into the game. That's most definitely Clemson right now.

"We're a long way away from where we need to be and where we need to be," Swinney said, "but we're 2-0."

What went right

Uiagalelei took a step forward in the opener versus Georgia Tech, completing 19-of-32 and amassing 210 yards despite multiple drops.

But that still wasn't enough to silence chatter about the quarterback position, because of freshman Cade Klubnik's stellar drive to end the G.T. game.

"Ain't nobody been under the fire more than him," Swinney said.

Luckily for the Tigers, Uiagalelei has tuned out the noise, building on the opener with a 21-of-27 passing performance for 231 yards and two scores against Furman. Clemson's offense scored on five of its first six drives, with Uiagalelei at the helm for all of them. 

On the lone drive when the Tigers didn't score, Klubnik was at quarterback.

"I thought accuracy was real good today," Uiagalelei said. "Thought I ran the ball a lot better today. When I had a chance, was able to scramble and make plays. That's one thing I wish I had back from the first game, one of the things I was trying to work on this week.

"Also, pocket presence was a big thing Coach Swinney, Coach (Brandon) Streeter talked about. Thought I did a better job today, stepping up in the pocket, making throws with pressure around me."

Again, the level of competition has to be taken into consideration, but this was another step in the right direction for Uiagalelei. His completion percentage of 78 percent stands as the best of his career.

When he was afforded a clean pocket, Uiagalelei was able to push the ball downfield, hitting Beaux Collins, Antonio Williams, Davis Allen, and Joseph Ngata for gains of 20-plus yards.

"He's in a good place," Swinney said, "and what y'all are seeing is what he's done in practice."

What went wrong

While Uiagalelei came out of this game with some shine, freshman quarterback Cade Klubnik and the Clemson defense lost some luster.

Furman quarterback Tyler Huff was just as efficient as Uiagalelei, racking up 30-of-39 passing for 256 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. The screen game was particularly effective in the first half, using the aggressiveness of the Tigers' defense against it. 

Georgia Tech had 237 yards of offense in four quarters against Clemson. Furman had 214 yards in the first two quarters at Memorial Stadium.

The Paladins also finished with a 10-of-18 success rate on first down. Clemson just couldn't get off the field, giving Furman a 34:45 to 25:15 advantage in time of possession.

"That's the attack mode when you're really good in the front seven, people are going to screen you, especially when you have an aggressive mindset," Clemson defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin said. "Screens are always how people slow you down and stuff. A couple of those calls, we just got overly aggressive, got up the field too far, and couldn't get back at times."

Because the Paladins were able to gain some yards, this game didn't exactly have the feel of a top 5 FBS team against an FCS opponent. Clemson wasn't able to play its backups overly much.

The first-team defense was on the field late for that goal-line stand.

"We did not play anywhere near where we need to defensively. That was a little bit frustrating, a little heavy-legged," Swinney said. "Very inefficient defensively." 

Also, Klubnik commanded just one drive with the first-team offense. He went 0-of-1 passing and had two carries for -2 yards.

As good as the freshman's drive was in junk time versus Georgia Tech, his opening effort versus Furman wasn't crisp. He had Antonio Williams wide open downfield, didn't see him, and ran to the sideline for negative yards.

Klubnik didn't return until the final drive of the fourth quarter, and he finished the day 1-of-4 passing for minus-2 yards.

"It’s awesome for Cade to have a guy like (Uiagalelei) to learn from, to see the bad, see the good, of playing the position here," Swinney said.

Turning point

After Klubnik's poor series with the first-team offense, Uiagalelei came back in and led a touchdown drive just before the half to put Clemson up 28-9.

Clemson went 75 yards in nine plays, eating up 1:27 in game time. The nicest throw was probably a 23-yard shot to freshman Antonio Williams, which was more or less a jump-ball.

Uiagalelei says backup Hunter Helms mentioned Klubnik's miss of Williams on the previous drive, so he was looking for him on a deep cross.

"I got out of the pocket, it was the one thing I was thinking about from what Hunter told me. It ended up working," Uiagalelei said.

That pivotal drive also included a wicked spin move by junior running back Kobe Pace to break a tackle early on an 11-yard gain, and Pace ended up capping the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run.

It wasn't a true blowout, but Clemson at least kept the Paladins at arm's length.

Looking ahead

Clemson wraps up its two-game, non-conference homestand with Louisiana Tech on Sept. 17. That will be an 8 p.m. kickoff at Memorial Stadium.

"I think La. Tech will come in here excited to play us. They'll be a good team, for sure," Swinney said.

"Throw the ball around, they'll play with tempo. We gotta make some adjustments to the tempo, we gotta do a better job with the screen game defensively, and gotta get off the field on third down."

Follow Jon Blau on Twitter @Jon_Blau. Plus, receive the latest updates on Clemson athletics, straight to your inbox, by subscribing to The Tiger Take.

Jon Blau has covered Clemson athletics for The Post and Courier since 2021. A native of South Jersey, he grew up on Rocky marathons and hoagies. To get the latest Clemson sports news, straight to your inbox, subscribe to his newsletter, The Tiger Take.

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