Thursday’s game against Clemson may have been representative of a new direction for Tech football, but the game itself seemed reminiscent of the past several years. Tech’s defense gave up 632 yards of offense against a superior Clemson team, and things quickly got out of hand as the Tigers eventually won 52-14.
Reviewing this game without perspective would incorrectly give one the sense of a continuation of mediocrity. However, Clemson is simply a superior football team that has been building for over a decade. Tech was outmatched by talent and coaching; expecting anything different than the ultimate outcome would have been ill-informed at best. The game was hardly as brutal and demoralizing a loss as the scoreboard might have indicated. With a new offensive system in place, Tech’s upward trajectory remains unchanged.
An important storyline from this week was Tech’s inability to capitalize off of turnovers. In one of the first drives of the game, Clemson fumbled inside their own territory and the Jackets simply could not convert the mistake into points. When Tre Swilling intercepted Trevor Lawrence early in the first quarter, he barely missed the end-zone in returning the ball and was tackled out of bounds by the Clemson QB. From Clemson’s two-yard line, Tech still could not score — after three consecutive rushes were stifled, Clemson intercepted Tech QB Tobias Oliver on fourth-and-goal, resulting in another empty possession for the Jackets. When playing the best team in college football, mistakes like this simply make the game unwinnable.
Despite forcing a number of turnovers on the Tigers, Tech themselves struggled with fumbles and interceptions. Crucially, an early-game muffed punt return by Juanyeh Thomas greatly assisted Clemson’s momentum. Tech was also stopped on a fourth down twice in the first half. Statistics like these need to disappear from the stat sheet if Tech is going to be competitive in the ACC.
The slowness of the Tech offense was also a major story line of the evening, with most of Tech’s plays being reminiscent of the Paul Johnson era. Tech ran the ball more than twice as often as they threw, and they did so inefficiently, averaging just 3.5 yards per carry. Tech had just 239 yards and 13 first downs in the game. The weak offensive performance was truly all the Tigers needed to win Thursday night.
While the damage done to Tech’s defense by Clemson’s running game may seem like a big point, it should be noted that Clemson’s running back Travis Etienne is expected to be in contention for the Heisman award this season. Etienne is a tough stop for any defense, let alone a Tech defense under a new head-coach. Etienne’s performance should not have been a surprise — against a Tech defense still finding its footing early in the season, it was an inevitability.
Tech was overmatched entering the night, and every player on the field and every coach on the sidelines knew it. Tech is now a fresh, new program, and with that comes growing pains, especially against experienced and developed programs like Dabo Swinney’s. It is just the reality for Tech.
The Clemson game left Tech with a few takeaways that should not be exaggerated into season-defining predictions. Rather, it made their simple goals all the more apparent — Tech needs to work on capitalizing on turnovers, offensive production and offensive power. Facing more equally-matched opponents over the upcoming weeks will provide Tech an opportunity to showcase their early steps forward.