Somewhere in Baton Rouge, La., Kevin Steele likely saw the Clemson-Florida State score and thought, “See, it wasn’t all me.”
Steele left the Clemson defensive coordinator position after last year’s defensive debacle, including the historically bad performance in the Orange Bowl. But it’s obvious that his replacement, Brent Venables, is facing plenty of the same issues that plagued last year’s defense.
Lack of depth.
Lack of playmakers.
An inability to cover in the open field.
All of those issues took center stage Saturday night, and they led to yet another defensive meltdown for the Tigers in a 49-37 defeat.
The numbers were staggeringly bad once again for the defense, and it was a complete unit failure, especially in the second half. Florida State had 35 points after halftime, including 28 unanswered during one stretch as the Seminoles went from trailing by 10 to leading by 18.
For the game, Florida State finished with 667 yards – 380 passing and 287 rushing – and a huge key for the Seminoles was Clemson’s inability to get off the field on third down. Florida State was 8-of-13 on the third downs, and that’s not going to get the job done against a top-five team on the road.
When a defense can’t get stops on third down, it stays on the field too long, and that leads to bad tackling, missed assignments and in general, a defense that just gets worn down. That’s what happened Saturday.
E.J. Manuel accounted for 482 yards of his own as it looked like Clemson played most of the second half with seven or eight players on defense. Manuel’s job was easy because he typically had two or three receivers wide open on each play, and he picked apart the Clemson defense time after time.
The defensive problems all really go hand-in-hand. There wasn’t much pass rush or push by the front on running plays, so Manuel had plenty of time to find open receivers, and the Seminoles’ runners had large lanes to run through. With no pass rush, the secondary was even more vulnerable than usual. And it didn’t help that the defensive backs had a terrible game.
WHERE'S THE EXPLOSION? Yes, the Tigers’ offense rolled up 37 points and 426 yards against a defense that is supposed to be one of the best in the nation. And there were some big plays by the offense, but something seemed to be missing, especially in the second half.
Florida State’s defense did the job after halftime and held Clemson to 16 points in the third and fourth quarters.
Quaterback Tajh Boyd played well, throwing for 237 yards and three touchdowns and making only really one awful decision – his lone interception in the fourth quarter.
But outside of Boyd’s 60-yard touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins on the opening drive of the game, Boyd didn’t really have many deep throws the rest of the way.
On Hopkins’ other four catches, he gained only 28 yards. Sammy Watkins had six catches for only 24 yards. And Boyd averaged only 6.6 yards per attempt.
Florida State’s defensive front and the pressure it causes played a big part in that, but the Seminoles’ linebackers are suspect, and so are several members of the Seminoles’ secondary. They could have been exploited more, but the Tigers weren’t able to do that, and that threw the offense out of rhythm in the second half.
NOT SO SPECIAL: Clemson had just built a 31-21 lead, and things looked good. The offense was rolling, and while the defense wasn’t great, it had been OK. With a 10-point lead, the Tigers had a chance to make a statement with a stop and then get the ball back to the offense and move forward.
But that didn’t happen as Florida State’s Lamarcus Joyner returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards to the Clemson 10-yard line.
That led to a Florida State touchdown and a huge momentum shift in the game. The Seminoles carried that momentum all the way to the lead and pulled away for the win.
Chandler Catanzaro nailed a 50-yard field goal for the 10-point lead as he continues to be a consistent weapon for the team, but other than that, the special teams were not good. The coverage on kickoffs was shaky, at best, Spencer Benton had several punts shorter than 40 yards, and Clemson really got nothing out of its return game.
Clemson won the turnover and penalty portions of the game, but the special teams troubles outweighed those.
MOVING ON: So the game is over. It’s a loss, and it stings badly.
The Tigers likely are going to need to win out and get a lot of help to win the ACC’s Atlantic Division.
And that looks like a long shot if Florida State is going to play the way it did Saturday.
But Clemson can still have a special season, and the key to that now will be to avoid a huge mental letdown after Saturday’s loss. Coaches say it all the time: Don’t let a loss beat you twice.
That’s what the Tigers are facing now, and Clemson fans saw how quickly things can go bad with last year’s late-season slide. The Tigers put so much into this game, and it certainly didn’t go the way they wanted, and that’s hugely disappointing. But there are eight more games to be played in the regular season, and plenty of things can happen in that span of time.
That starts Saturday at Boston College. The Eagles are struggling, but Clemson has had issues there in the past, and the Tigers will need to put the loss in Tallahassee behind them and move on.
After the game against Boston College comes a pair of home games against Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech. It’s a tough stretch, and it’s an important one, for sure, and it’s a string of games the Tigers will need to keep their focus on to get their season back on track.
Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter @DM_Shirley