Struggles against Clemson microcosm of season

Clemson’s 27-13 victory over Tech on Saturday saw the Jackets struggle in a number of areas, but the Tigers did not completely hold the Jackets in check from start to finish. Tech had a handful of opportunities to start a comeback, particularly toward the middle of the contest, but mistakes in all facets of the game allowed Clemson to maintain their double-digit lead and roll to victory.

“It was frustrating. We would move the ball, and then we’d kill ourselves. We would pitch it on the ground or turn somebody loose—it was a myriad of things,” said Head Coach Paul Johnson.

The main source of trouble on Saturday was on special teams, where the Jackets set themselves back repeatedly in the first half with penalties and other issues. The special teams unit committed four penalties in the opening half for a total of 50 yards, and the first two of these directly led to Clemson scoring opportunities. Aside from penalties, the kick and punt coverage units frequently struggled to bring down Clemson’s return men; on three kickoff returns, Clemson’s Andre Ellington averaged 26.3 yards per kick return.

The performance of redshirt senior B-back Lucas Cox was a plus, as he ran for 22 yards and a first down on a fake punt play and later forced a fumble on a kickoff following a Tech field goal. The latter play, though, provided a moment when Tech made a good play only to be victimized by bad luck. Although it appeared that freshman cornerback Louis Young recovered that fumble, which would have given Tech the ball deep in Clemson territory, the referees ruled that Ellington had recovered and that it was Clemson ball.

“It was a momentum swing. That was the name of the game…whoever had the most momentum [would] have the edge,” said junior outside linebacker Steven Sylvester.

Beyond the struggles of the special teams unit, though, the Jackets continued to encounter various issues that have plagued them throughout the season. They have been able to overcome such problems in the past, but against an athletic Clemson squad looking to end a four-game losing streak against Tech, every issue proved costly.

Just about every time the Jackets sustained a drive that covered a significant portion of the field, they ended up stalling deep in Clemson territory. Tech’s four drives in the second and third quarters all lasted for 11 or more plays, more than 50 yards and an average of 5:32. However, the Jackets were unable to reach the end zone on three of the four; the first ended with a failed fourth-down conversion when a Nesbitt pass on fourth-and-12 fell incomplete, and the next two saw Tech move the ball inside the Clemson 10-yard line, only to settle for short field goals both times.

Johnson noted that Clemson’s constant advantage at the line of scrimmage was a factor. Against a strong Clemson front four led by defensive end and ACC Player of the Year candidate Da’Quan Bowers, the Jackets’ relatively inexperienced offensive line—which features first-year starters at both guard positions—was unable to clear the way to the end zone.

“We would have had to execute at a way higher level than they did to stay in the game. We got down in the red zone a couple times and we couldn’t get it in, but when you get down there and the field closes off…you’ve got to block somebody. You’ve got to be able to put your hand down and come off and knock somebody backward to get in,” Johnson said.

The problems up front occurred on both sides of the ball. Entering the season, Tech’s defensive line was collectively confident that it would hold up against strong opposing offensive lines, but a line that features no starters who weigh more than 300 pounds has had mixed results.

Defensive Coordinator Al Groh’s 3-4 defense relies on the ability of each defensive lineman to occupy multiple blockers and free up the linebackers and secondary to make plays. The Tech linemen have generally shown the ability to play their respective positions, but against bigger foes they have often been neutralized at the line of scrimmage by single blockers, preventing the other defenders from breaking free. This was the case this weekend, as four of the Tigers’ five starting offensive linemen were over 310 pounds and were frequently able to open up holes in the run game. Ellington had 166 yards and two touchdowns, and Clemson as a team averaged 6.2 yards per carry.

Johnson noted that Clemson’s success in the run game stemmed from a number of sources. “They ran the ball better on us than they have on anybody else…I’m sure on some [plays] they blocked us and on some we got the wrong gaps, and I know we missed some tackles,” Johnson said.

Despite the recurring issues, the fact remains that the Jackets are 5-3 and still have a winning record in conference play. They remain in position to challenge for the Coastal Division title, but they no longer control their own destiny. Even if the Jackets win out, they will need Virginia Tech to lose at least one more game to have a chance at winning the division.

“Until we’re mathematically eliminated, we’re always going to have hope. If we go and beat Virginia Tech and they [lose] again, who knows?…We just have to take care of what we can control, which is winning out,” Jones said.