RALEIGH – Did the Tigers make the grade after their 26-14 win over North Carolina State Thursday night at Carter-Finley Stadium? I’ll be the judge of that.
It was suggested by a couple of people on Twitter that Cole “19-for-20” Stoudt get a series – you know, just to change things up. Against that wisdom, somehow Dabo Swinney and Chad Morris stuck with that Tajh Boyd guy and gave him a chance to turn in a quiet 244-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception performance. He does need to make quicker decisions sometimes, and obviously he threw off-target in the first half. Roderick McDowell ran hard; he got swallowed up a few times, but his 68 yards on 14 carries were hard-earned. Martavis Bryant (6 catches, 73 yards and the biggest two touchdowns of his career by a canyon) and Sammy Watkins (10 and 96) were precisely what the doctor ordered with Charone Peake out of the lineup for the first time.
The offensive line was bordering on atrocious, though. RT Gifford Timothy was, as Swinney termed it, “dinged up”, but he was destroyed on the first series for two sacks and never returned. Shaq Anthony didn’t seem to provide the answer. C Ryan Norton had an early holding call. LG David Beasley limped off with an ankle injury. And Isaiah Battle lost his mind in the latter moments, sucker-punching a Wolfpack and getting himself tossed. (Swinney said afterward Battle “owned” his mistake and apologized, but Battle was seen on the sideline laughing just after it happened.) Very rough night for the big uglies.
Tajh Boyd has 122 passes or rushes so far. Nine touchdowns. Zero turnovers.
That defense has done everything it’s been asked to do. Everything. I love this stat from this morning: Clemson allowed three touchdowns in the first 17 minutes of the season. It’s allowed six touchdowns in the 163 minutes since – and three of those were what you’d consider garbage-time, one in each game. Taking the latter figure, that averages out to about 15 points allowed per game, which would put the Tigers around the top 20 nationally in scoring defense. If you’re Clemson, you take that all day, all night, to the bank.
The Tigers have 12 sacks in their opening for their first three games, which gives us a chance to dust off the outdated yet popular “party like it’s 1999” reference. That’s the last time Clemson ate that many QBs for dinner early in the season. The Tigers made 10 tackles for a loss; which actually was less than their counterparts’ 13, but whatever. Stephone Anthony played like a blue-chip linebacker (14 tackles, six solo, two for a loss), Vic Beasley and Shaq Lawson combined for 5.5 negative-yardage tackles, Bashaud Breeland made a great pass deflection deep and a late interception, Grady Jarrett was (as usual) a terror for interior linemen … just a wall-to-wall pleasing night for Brent Venables, who unsurprisingly wanted even more when we talked to him last night. But more on that later.
Special teams (A-)
Chandler Catanzaro was celebrated Thursday night for becoming Clemson’s all-time leading scorer. It was appropriate that Catanzaro didn’t get it done with boring extra points or some chip-shot field goals. Those 49-yard and 45-yard kicks were testy in the wind, and they gave Clemson a little bit of breathing room during a stressful first half. Swinney can’t rave enough about how far a fifth-year senior and initial walk-on has come, and what a luxury it’s become for the Tigers to depend on a guy who’s 30 for his last 31 when going for three. Oh, and he almost had the greatest pooch punt of all time, faking a 55-yard FG try and putting the punt just inside the end zone for a so-close touchback.
Bradley Pinion’s had better nights. Four punts, a 36.0-yard average. Six kickoffs, one touchback. But as Brian Hennessy of Clemson sports information noted, the average start position was the 32 for Clemson and the 21 for State, so it’s hard to argue with that.
Play-calling was a little shaky early on the offensive side, but it didn’t help that the quarterback was finding his sea legs. The Tigers could have afford to rely a little more on the run game when Boyd was misfiring on all counts. The Sam Cooper touchdown was set up by a crazy, Morris-having-fun-with-sidewalk-chalk formation that was as confusing as it was genius. Venables continues to hit the right blitz buttons at the right moments. And I still don’t understand why Watkins is in the punt return doghouse.
How odd is it that Clemson improved to 3-9 on Thursday night games televised by ESPN? That was just another trend the Tigers had to shake, and they did it. There’s a famed tennis book out there written by Brad Gilbert, called “Winning Ugly,” which talked about just that; squeezing victory when you’re not playing your best by maximizing the opponents’ weakness. We can talk about style points ‘til we’re blue in the face, but there’s nothing out-of-style about (ahem) 13-0, and this was one of the tougher steps Clemson will have to take to get there.