Run game revs up for Clemson with Roderick McDowell’s resurgence

Clemson running back Roderick McDowell, left, runs into the end zone for a touchdown past Maryland defensive back A.J. Hendy (19) in the second half of an NCAA college football game in College Park, Md., Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013. Clemson won 40-27. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Roderick McDowell’s daily demeanor is so lighthearted and whimsical, it’s easy to believe he truly didn’t know how long he’d missed the end zone.

McDowell scored two touchdowns in Clemson’s 40-20 victory at Maryland Saturday after 14 consecutive games of not reaching the end zone.

That includes the first seven games this year with him as the starter, and while the fifth-year senior has posted respectable yardage numbers (446 yards, 5.0 yards per carry), he hadn’t joined the club of 17 different Tigers scoring a touchdown until the eighth game of 2013.

A total of 385 days passed between McDowell’s seventh and eighth career scores.

“It felt pretty good, but at the end of the day, it’s all about having a team spirit,” McDowell said. “As long as you’re helping your team out, that’s all that matters to me.”

While there’s other options to run the football — quarterback keepers by Tajh Boyd, handoffs to Zac Brooks, D.J. Howard and C.J. Davidson, or the occasional jet sweep by a receiver — McDowell is the featured back. And when McDowell and the running game is in tune, so is Clemson’s offense.

It’s been a fairly solid, but unspectacular, season for the running game in offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ third season. McDowell’s 45-yard touchdown run with a little more than five minutes remaining served as the Tigers’ first rushing gain longer than 36 yards this year.

“Really proud of Hot Rod and how he ran the football,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “For us to be able to finish the game right there at the end when everybody knows you’re going to run the ball, kudos to our offensive line hatting them up, Hot Rod finding the crease and being able to go the distance.”

McDowell took the ball 30 times for 161 yards, the most carries for an individual Tiger since Travis Zachery had 31 carries for 147 yards against N.C. State in 2000.

“I thought Hot Rod ran with great purpose tonight. He ran relentless. He read his keys,” Swinney said. “He’s been solid all year, but the biggest thing is he had 30 carries. So he got a lot of work tonight, and he came through when we needed him.”

Entering the weekend, Maryland’s rush defense (123.7 yards allowed, 26th in the country) was actually the stingiest Clemson faced all year, just a touch ahead of Florida State. The Tigers doubled that amount.

In all, the Tigers picked up a season high 247 rushing yards on 57 carries. Clemson has had a decidedly easier time on offense against Georgia, Wake Forest, Syracuse and Maryland; games in which the Tigers shaded toward the run on at least 55 percent of their play calls.

“That’s really the core of what we want to do is run the football efficiently,” Swinney said. “There’s so much of our running game that turns into passes because of how people play us, and it’s just built into our system. If people are going to give certain things away, we’re built to take them.”

Even with McDowell’s long game-sealing gain, the team’s 4.3 yards-per-carry clip wasn’t the most impressive mark, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.

“If we get four yards, we’re happy with that. That’s just part of the running game,” Swinney said. “Tonight, they were taking some things away on the perimeter, so we had to be a little bit more running back-oriented.”

The Tigers continue to tinker with the offensive line, starting left guard Kalon Davis and right tackle Gifford Timothy while rotating in David Beasley and Shaq Anthony.

“If you’re going to rush the ball for 240 yards, somebody’s blocking somebody. I thought the OL played really well,” Swinney said. “We had some stretches where our zone game wasn’t very effective, especially down there near the goal line. So we went to a little bit more of a power scheme at times, mixed in some counter, got a little bit outside on them on the buck sweeps.”

Boyd rushed 13 times, including nine times in the second half when his services were needed in a tight ballgame.

“Our running game is probably the most impressive part about us,” Boyd said. “It’s something we’ve been looking forward to this whole season, and to see it explode today was pretty awesome.”