Flawed win raises concerns

Tajh Boyd

College football poll voters - some of them, not all of them – have a bad habit.

Because coaches and writers are typically busy at stadiums on Saturdays, many look at final scores and a few highlights, rather than deeper looks at the games themselves, to make their determination on which teams rise and fall.

It's a lazy practice – and one that will help Clemson this week.

On the surface, the No. 9 Tigers' 40-27 win at Maryland showed the offense had shed some of the woes that plagued it the past two weeks and avoided any potential hangover from the Florida State debacle.

A closer view, however, is far more concerning. The Tigers were sluggish in the red zone. They turned the ball over. They gave up a big pass play.

They looked like a team that has a long way to go to prove itself worthy of a BCS at-large bid, which appears to be the biggest goal left on the table this season.

All week long, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and players sounded confident that they'd put the Florida State loss behind. They said they started in the locker room immediately afterward, and finished the job with Monday morning's typical team film review.

For all the pablum that players and coaches dropped about "not letting one loss beat you twice," it didn't appear to sink in.

The Tigers were fortunate to be up 16-7 at the half on a depleted Maryland team that was missing 17 players – including dynamic receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long – out for the season. In addition, starting quarterback C.J. Brown sat with a "trunk" injury, replaced by backup and Landrum native Caleb Rowe, and leading rusher Brandon Ross sat with a shoulder injury.

The first half continued some of the same themes of last week's 51-14 bludgeoning by Florida State: poor secondary play and poor offensive play in plus-territory.

Before Tajh Boyd's rollout toss to Jordan Leggett, the Tigers' offense had made four trips into the red zone with nothing to show for it, save three Chandler Catanzaro field goals. "We probably could have put this game away a lot earlier if we capitalizedand do a better job in the red zone, goal line package," Swinney said. "We'll have toreally go back and see what our issues were there. But that was the biggest disappointment."

And Maryland's only score came on a 71-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Levern Jacobs, with safety Travis Blanks taking an awful angle that opened up the middle of the field for an easy sprint to the end zone. It earned him a lengthy benching in place of freshman Jayron Kearse.

With Boyd playing on a clearly injured left knee, one of the things that makes his game so effective – picking up first downs and short-yardage plays with his legs – was severely limited.

And Maryland knew it.

Clemson didn't help itself, either.

A Sammy Watkins fumble at the Maryland 26 turned into a field goal only after help from the Tigers' defense.

Same went for a Rod McDowell fumble at the Maryland 23, and the Terrapins crept within 16-13. Following a drive that nearly ended with a Boyd interception at his own 30, save a timely Martavis Bryant breakup, Clemson gave the ball back to Maryland leading only 19-13 as the fourth quarter began.

There was reason for concern.

"Anytime you're on the road, you're kicking four field goals, but you're driving the ball, it allows the other team to kind of stay alive," Swinney said. "We had a chance to put them away and didn't do it with that."

They needed some help from their defense.

And they got it.

Cornerback Bashaud Breeland made the biggest play of the game, forcing an Albert Reid fumble that Spencer Shuey recovered and returned to the Maryland 22.

That play – along with a pair of tough Boyd runs – finally broke the Terrapins. When Boyd crashed in from five yards out, it felt as if a weight had been lifted from the Tigers' shoulders.

Suddenly that one-score lead was 13 points, 26-13. Maryland wore down, as one might expect from a team as beat-up as the Terrapins are. And Boyd's balky knee didn't look quite so injured on a 41-yard pass to Martavis Bryant, or a five-yard run that extended the lead to 20 points.

And an ineffective run game finally got cranking; McDowell cracked 100 yards on the ground for the first time since the opener against Georgia, and the Tigers rushed for 238 yards as a team, their first 200-yard rushing effort of the season. Those numbers, however, hide cracks in the foundation.

Clemson committed three turnovers, running its total to nine in the last three games after committing four in the first five games.

Sammy Watkins caught a Clemson single-game record 14 passes for 163 yards, but once again, Boyd struggled to find a consistent second option beyond his superstar.

He completed 28 of 41 passes for 304 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but again looked unsure of himself at times in the pocket (although his knee injury could have played a factor).

Against a more accurate quarterback – Rowe completed 19 of 45 passes for 282 yards – the Tigers would have been in serious trouble. The little things Swinney and Co. spoke of all week – footwork, handoffs, turnovers – looked scarcely improved this week.

Will it matter in the short term? Probably not.

Next week brings a trip to a 2-6 Virginia team in utter freefall under embattled coach Mike London. And following an off week, Clemson should be favored over Georgia Tech and The Citadel at home.

But to make a BCS bowl and take a step forward from 2012's 11-2 mark, the Tigers will have to break their four-game hex against South Carolina – in Columbia, no less.

And unless significant improvement happens, it'll be hard for Clemson fans to feel confident entering the final Saturday in November.

If voters just look at Saturday's final score, the Tigers will remain in excellent position, despite their flaws.

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