But there were some positives to go along with those negatives, and you will find both included in this recap.
1. Put Rix to the Test
The game plan for Coach Lovett was simple. Slow down the run and come after the quarterback and make him beat you. And it worked to near perfection except for the fact that Rix got hurt.
First, FSU ran 51 times for 186 yards. The 3.6 yards per carry average is better than most fans expected and much better than the previous week’s effort in College Station.
Lorenzo Booker had 92 yards on 20 carries and Leon Washington had 76 yards on 14 carries. Those are good, solid numbers. But they are not the numbers that Florida State was expected to get by the folks previewing this game. And many of those yards came later in the game when the Clemson defense began to wear down from being on the field so long.
So the Seminoles had to throw the ball to win, and therein lies the irony. Chris Rix was far from perfect before he left the game with an injured ankle, completing only 3 passes in 8 attempts for 22 yards. When Rix left the game, an unsure Wyatt Sexton entered the game for the Seminoles. After babying Sexton with a couple of running back screens and wide receiver slants, the FSU offensive coordinators slowly began to allow him to throw the ball downfield. To his credit, Sexton connected on some of those passes including the big touchdown to Chansey Stovall in the 3rd quarter.
Sexton finished the game 17-26 for 162 but (unfortunately for Clemson) he did not make any mistakes. But in a game with a bunch of negatives, you have to give credit for the Clemson defensive players and coaches for slowing down the run and putting the fate of the game in the FSU quarterback. It’s just too bad that quarterback was not Rix.
2. Make Plays
What Justin Miller was able to do in the return game ranks as some of the best performances in Clemson football history. And both of his touchdown returns came at the most critical of times that changed the momentum of the game. His first touchdown sparked Clemson and gave the Tigers a 7-3 lead. His second came on the heels of CJ Gaddis’ punt block for a safety that pulled the Tigers within two at 24-22 in the 3rd quarter.
And let us not forget that he almost broke a 3rd kick return for a touchdown if he had not tripped over the turf at Doak Campbell Stadium. His returns also forced the Seminoles into pooch and squib kicking their kickoffs, which game the Clemson offense great field position most of the day.
But beyond Miller, the playmaking was non existent. Chansi Stuckey almost makes a spectacular catch on an overthrown Whitehurst ball that would have easily been a touchdown and a 14-3 Clemson lead. Kelvin Grant dropped another sure touchdown seconds later. Both players had beaten their man, but Clemson got zero points to show for the great calls.
If you are going to beat a good team on the road you simply HAVE to make those plays. Clemson easily could have been leading the game at halftime had Whitehurst connected with Stuckey or Grant. It might have also softened the FSU defense to the point where they would not have blitzed as much. We’ll never know because the plays were not made.
This would be a sure F if Justin Miller had not done the near impossible…but this is still an area that is begging for improvement and a little luck.
3. Stop Killing Yourself
There really is not much more that can be said about this. Every beat writer and radio talk show host is going to beat this area to oblivion over the next week, so I won’t bore you with my rants on it.
Clemson finished -5 Saturday in the turnover department while leading directly to 14 Seminole points (fumble at the 9 and the interception return for a touchdown). Take just 2 of those turnovers away and the Tigers are in the game down the stretch.
Clemson is now an astonishing -12 on the year in the turnover department. Oklahoma would be 1-3 with this schedule if they were -12 in the turnover department. You simply can’t win doing that…you just can’t.
4. Keep It Fresh On Offense
The first half was exactly what I thought we needed to do offensively. There were some misdirection plays, mixed in with Charlie running the football. This had the Seminoles off balance, and Clemson was moving the football to the tune of 150+ yards of total offense in the first half.
And that total offense did not include two near miss touchdown passes that would have bolstered the Clemson offense to well over 200 yards in the first half.
At halftime, Florida State made adjustments and Clemson did not have an answer. The Tigers had less than 50 total yards of offense in the 2nd half, something that simply cannot happen if you want to win on the road.
While the first half was refreshing, the 2nd half was frustrating. I completely understand that Florida State is a great defense and they have great coaches who made great adjustments. But why did Clemson not have an answer on offense in the 2nd half? Where were the offensive adjustments? Did the Tigers just assume they could continue to do the same thing and be successful?
This was never more evident than on the two point conversion where Clemson ran Whitehurst. It was a play that had worked beautifully in the first half, but the Seminoles made their adjustment to it and shut it down in the 2nd half. The offensive coaches have to assume those adjustments are going to be made and have a new twist ready in the 2nd half.
First half was a great game plan…2nd half there simply no good adjustments made.
5. Emotionally Lead
Clemson came ready to play Saturday. And Clemson got the lead Saturday when Justin Miller returned the kickoff for a touchdown. The defense was bowing up, and was getting the type of stops you need. Rix got hurt and left the game.
Everything was working in Clemson’s favor. The Tigers had the chance to really make a statement on the long pass to Stuckey and it fell incomplete. The Tigers got a 2nd chance on the pass to Grant and it fell incomplete.
Then, just like that, the opportunity to seize the moment had faded. Would the Tigers have won the game had those touchdowns been caught? What if Clemson would not have thrown the interception and had the fumble that turned into 14 points for FSU? Clemson, theoretically, could have lead 21-3 at halftime.
And what if the Clemson defense could have gotten a 3 and out after the Tigers pulled to 24-22 in the 3rd quarter? A lot of ifs and butts, but Clemson was closer to being in this game than the stats and the score may indicate.
All that may have been enough to win the game, but we’ll never know. Clemson had enough emotion to win the game, but the execution unfortunately was just not there.
Clemson gets a much needed break from football this weekend to recharge the batteries. The Tigers desperately need a win next Thursday in Charlottsville against Virginia. A win would go a long, long way in turning this season around. After the Virginia game, Clemson comes home for 3 games that are all winnable. The UVA is shaping up as a make or break game for this season and for the bowl hopes of the team.
If the Tigers can find a way to improve and beat Virginia, there is a decent possibility that the Tigers could get things back to 5-3 before heading to Miami.
Will the Tigers be able to win in Charlottesville playing the same as they have the past few weeks? No. But you have to hope for improvement and I think that is what we will see. Eliminating the turnovers is critical at this point, but that can be done.