CLEMSON — Fourteen skill players caught a pass. Ten offensive linemen played in the first quarter. Three punters punted.
Music to the Clemson coaches’ ears.
“That was our gameplan. We wanted to give a lot of guys some opportunities to play — good and bad,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. “We’ve got a lot of video, both good and bad. We found some guys that can step up, and we found some guys that just aren’t ready yet. That’s what you want to do, in an environment like this.”
The environment was low-key, a casual 52-13 flattening of an overmatched FCS opponent South Carolina State, allowing a total of 83 Tigers to check in, compared to 56 in the Georgia opener.
“We knocked the rust off a lot of these guys,” head coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s great experience. It’s priceless.”
It was certainly more valuable than a regular midweek practice, of which the Tigers have already had a couple dozen over the past five weeks.
“When all you have is each other in the fall, it’s hard to get a true evaluation because they know each other’s tendencies so well,” Swinney said. “There’s no scoreboard. There’s no fans in the stands. You can’t simulate that.”
So now the Tigers (2-0), who rose one spot to a No. 3 ranking in the Associated Press poll Sunday, get to stretch their legs and stretch out their preparation for the all-important ACC opener.
It’s a potential trap game on Thursday night, televised by ESPN, at North Carolina State. The Wolfpack (2-0) survived an upset bid Saturday from Richmond under first-year head coach Dave Doeren, but throttled the Tigers, 37-13, the last time they met in Raleigh – when Clemson was No. 7 in the country.
“I’m glad we got some extra time to get ready for N.C. State, because they’re going to present some challenges for us, and we’ve got to play well,” Swinney said. “I can still see it like yesterday, how bad we played up there a couple years ago. I’m anxious to get back up there. We’ve got to play better. It’s another huge test for our team.”
Clemson will take off Monday and Friday from the practice field, preparing specifically for the Wolfpack on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Then game week moves up two days at a time; Clemson will treat Saturday like a usual Monday, Sunday like a usual Tuesday and so on and so forth before Thursday night under the lights.
After that, the Tigers get three days off in a row. The same exchange happens in mid-November for a Thursday night home game against Georgia Tech, making for a strange schedule quirk in 2013.
“I’ve never had a schedule like this. Four Saturdays where we don’t play,” Swinney said. “I’m stocking up on my chips and dip.”
That was Swinney’s light-hearted approach. Morris was also delighted, in all seriousness, to get the extra prep time before taking the best shots of conference foes.
“I love the way our schedule sets up,” Morris said.
It was pretty memorable on a July morning, when defensive coordinator Brent Venables spoke to reporters and all but called out his veteran defensive backs to step up or sit down.
Two weeks into the season, there are only four regular cornerbacks: senior Darius Robinson, and juniors Martin Jenkins, Garry Peters and Bashaud Breeland. Just as he’d hoped.
“Those four guys have stepped up. They’ve responded, and that’s what veteran guys should do,” Swinney said. “It’s good to see Garry Peters and Breeland performing like they’re capable of performing. When you’ve got four quality guys like we have, it really helps us.”
Robinson and Jenkins each returned interceptions for touchdowns against S.C. State, the first time Clemson has had multiple pick-6’s in a game. But that’s not the goal that drives the secondary.
“To be consistent. We’ve got to show up every week. We feel like we’re an elite team, so we’ve got to perform at an elite level,” Robinson said. “As far as us reaching our major goals, the secondary’s a big part of that. If we can shut people down and play great, that’s how we impact the game the most.”
Jenkins’ objective was plainer and more powerful.
“We don’t want to be anything but the No. 1 defensive backs in the nation,” Jenkins said.