CLEMSON, SC – Dabo Swinney acknowledges Clemson hasn’t played its best ball of late, but he also believes his team is much closer than some might have you believe.
“The goal for us is really to just clean up some things,” the Tigers’ head coach said Tuesday at his news conference to preview Saturday’s game at Virginia. “This is a really good football team that has done a lot of good things.”
The ninth-ranked Tigers (7-1, 5-1 ACC) are coming off a 40-27 victory Saturday at Maryland that saw them produce their most balanced offensive performance this season, as they had a player with at least 160 rushing yards (Roderick McDowell) and a player with at least 160 receiving yards (Sammy Watkins) in the same game for the first time in school history.
The victory over Maryland was Clemson’s 15th consecutive win by a double-digit margin over an unranked team – the second-longest such streak in the country – and marked its seventh straight victory away from home, its longest streak since 1978-79.
“I know everybody wants us to be up 35-0 in the first quarter of every game, but that’s not really realistic,” Swinney said. “It’s a four-quarter game, especially on the road and you’ve got good players on the other team with a lot of pride, as well. The biggest issue that I have with us offensively is the turnovers.”
After turning the football over just twice in its first four games, Clemson has given it away 10 times in its last four, including three more times at Maryland.
The primary culprit in the Tigers’ turnover woes has been fumbling. Through eight games, they have already fumbled eight times, after doing so just once to this point last season.
“It’s not necessarily something that’s really alarming because it’s little details, stuff that we can control,” senior quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “And it’s something that we have to nip in the bud right now because we want our best ball to come out in November. … This is an important month to us, and we’re looking forward to it.”
Clemson fumbled on back-to-back offensive plays early in the second half Saturday, which helped the Terps trim their deficit to 16-13. The offense got rolling soon after those fumbles, however, and scored three rushing touchdowns in the fourth quarter to pull away.
For the day, the Tigers finished with a season-high 236 rushing yards – against the best rush defense they had faced all season, statistically – led by a career-high 161 yards on 30 carries and two scores by McDowell.
“I think that we’re running the ball pretty well,” Swinney said. “We’re a little bit off from where we were last year – not much, just a little bit. But our passing is up a little. I know that we’ve been a little inconsistent at times, but we’re 7-1, and you don’t get to 7-1 without some guys doing some good things in the trenches.”
According to Boyd, the Tigers came closer Saturday to achieving their ideal offensive game plan than it may have seemed because the game was still relatively tight going into the fourth quarter.
While the final margin may have been underwhelming, Clemson moved the ball with ease – running 98 plays, churning out 30 first downs and rolling up 540 yards of offense. The biggest issue was an ability to turn red-zone visits into touchdowns, as well as the three turnovers.
Boyd said defenses had been taking away the deep ball and daring the Tigers to beat them with runs and short passes. Against Maryland, he said, the offense did a better job of taking what it was given and not trying to force a big play.
“If anything, it kind of tests our patience,” Boyd said. “Last year teams played us with a lot of one-high (safety) looks, and we had an opportunity to go vertical. This year it hasn’t really been the story. A lot of teams play deep, and they are not going to just let us run by them.
“That’s something that we’ve got to continue to make sure we take advantage of and understand the type of looks and coverages we’re going to get, and make sure we utilize it and don’t try to force things.”
Clemson is set to travel to face Virginia (2-6, 0-4) at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. With the new ACC schedule, this will be the Tigers’ last trip to Charlottesville, VA, until at least 2025 and their only scheduled meeting with the Cavs at all until 2020.
With this contest kicking off the final month of the Tigers’ regular season, Swinney knows it will be important for his team to start finding its stride Saturday.
“People always want to talk about the negative,” Swinney said. “But we correct the negative, and we teach every single day. … I think our best football is in front of us. My expectation is that we play our best football down the stretch.”
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