Through six games Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney has led the 2012 edition of the Clemson Tigers to a 5-1 record. It has not been without some harrowing moments but this team‘s only loss came on the road in Tallahassee (a place Clemson has only won once since 1989). Given the glaring weaknesses, you have to give Swinney and his staff credit for what they have done through six games.
First things first, when is the last time we saw a Clemson defense as generous as the one we have seen during the first half of the season? Even in the 90s when this program struggled to win seven games, we could hang our hat on playing hardnosed defense while hoping to score 20 points to give us a chance.
Fast forward to today and we have seen team after team have there way with this defense, especially on the ground. While Auburn ultimately gained 180 yards rushing, you felt watching the game in person or at home that it was more like 380. First year Defensive Coordinator Brent Venables inherited an inexperienced and talent deficient bunch that is a clear work in progress. The Dandy Dozen class in 2009 and some misses on some top flight defensive talent is rearing its ugly head this fall.
Despite ranking 96th in total defense and yielding a paltry 445 yards per contest this team is 5-1. What this team has accomplished in the first six games cannot be overlooked. I know Auburn is a dumpster fire of epic proportions but for this team to come out the way it did in Atlanta against a SEC opponent was big for the confidence of this team. Running back Andre Ellington continues to be a steady force in the run game. The young offensive line has held up better than most would have expected.
How is this team 5-1 with such a poor defense? Outside of the Florida State the defense has come up with timely plays that have made differences in late stages of games. This team exercised some demons in Atlanta, Boston and was able to get by Georgia Tech who always seems to have the Tigers’ number.
The two biggest stories of the first half of the season have been Tajh Boyd’s legs and the emergence of DeAndre Hopkins. Going into the season we knew that Freshman All-American receiver Sammy Watkins would miss the first two games of the season as part of his punishment from an offseason arrest. DeAndre opened 2012 with a record setting 13 catch performance in Atlanta and has continued to rewrite the Clemson record book breaking the receiving yards game record at Boston College.
Raise your hand if you thought Sammy Watkins would have 16 catches for fewer than 120 yards and no receiving touchdowns through six contests? How many would think that the Clemson would rank 10th in the nation in total offense churning up 546 yards a game? Yeah me neither.
DeAndre Hopkins is having an All-American type season but Tajh Boyd is the story behind Clemson’s 5-1 start to the season. 2012 has showcased a leaner and more mobile Boyd. His decision making and ability to escape pressure coupled with his willingness to run the football has been a potent weapon through six games. Boyd has come up with huge runs, some called others adlibbing against Auburn, Boston College and most recently against Georgia Tech.
It is difficult for defenses to account for a quarterback who is able to wiggle his way out of trouble and willing to get a tough yard. It is the missing component this offense was missing last year. There have been countless drives that have been sustained this fall because of Boyd’s ability and willingness to run. He is the second leading rusher on the team and his running will be key as we head into the second half.
I would be remiss if I did not mention kicker Chandler Catanzaro and his 16 consecutive made field goals dating back to last season. He has emerged into the kicker Coach Swinney said he would after he struggled two years ago. His play has been a pleasant surprise. Overall special teams have been good this year outside of the 90-yard kickoff return against Florida State.
During the second half it is important that Clemson continues to find a way to get Sammy Watkins back into the fold on offense. He has played just 2.5 games and there is no way he could have been 100% last Saturday coming off a virus that kept him out of the Boston College game. I would like to see Tajh Boyd continue to be a willing runner. Andre Ellington needs to be more involved in the run game and passing game. Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant need begin to emerge as they head towards their junior seasons.
The defense is making baby steps but the key as we head into the 2nd half is seeing this defense make timely plays that allow the offense to capitalize on momentum shifts. Individuals like Mike linebacker Spencer Shuey who made a huge play against Georgia Tech on the safety need to continue to make plays. DeShawn Williams seems to be asserting himself along the defensive line. Somebody needs to step up in the secondary, can Garry Peters repeat his effort against Boston College?
The kicking game needs to improve or maintain. Clemson has to continue to extend its home winning streak. Fans need to show up ready to go regardless of what time we play. Clemson will only play two games away from Death Valley in the final six. There is reason to be excited about Clemson football but at the same time this team will continue to provide many “Maalox Moments” before we write the final story on the 2012 season.