Clemson University

Running, O-line woes don't worry Clemson

CLEMSON -- Clemson's struggles to run the ball despite its heralded backfield is a matter of simple mathematics and football strategy, coach Tommy Bowden said.

Teams are dedicating eight or nine defenders to stop the run. There aren't enough players on offense to block them, so the Tigers can either run for little gain or go to the air, Bowden said.

The difference between this season, when No. 15 Clemson has started 3-0 for only the second time since 1991, and last season when the Tigers lost four of their last five once teams began stacking the line, is junior quarterback Cullen Harper.

In his three starts, Harper has 10 touchdowns, no interceptions and has completed 72.5 percent of his passes. Some have been on short routes where his receivers had room to run after the catch. But each of his touchdowns in Saturday's 38-10 win over Furman came on perfectly placed passes -- something the Tigers struggled with last season.

"We missed those throws last year. We had the same exact routes, same exact throws and we missed them," Bowden said.

The running numbers of the first three games of 2007 versus 2006 aren't wildly different. Clemson is averaging 125 yards rushing a game this season, compared with 162 yards a year ago.

The numbers for the "Thunder and Lightning" backfield of James Davis and C.J. Spiller haven't tailed off much either. Davis has run for 228 yards so far in 2007, compared with 274 yards in the first three games last season.

Spiller's numbers are actually better. He had just 45 yards rushing three games into 2006, while he has gained 85 yards this season.

But the sophomore nicknamed "Lightning" was a freshman last year whose potential seemed to build with every game. Spiller ended 2006 with five 100-yard plus games and an average of 7.3 yards per carry. This season the average is just 3.3 yards a run and on Saturday, Spiller ended up with minus-1 yard on nine carries.

Spiller isn't worried and assures anyone he asked that he is still happy at Clemson after talk during the offseason he was considering a transfer to Florida to be closer to home.

"We haven't run as much, so that's probably why we're not as effective," Spiller said.

Clemson ran for just 60 yards Saturday against Furman, who plays in the Football Championship Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-AA. It was the Tigers' worst day on the ground since running for just 36 yards in a 10-7 win against Maryland in October 2004.

Combined with five sacks of Harper, the offensive line faced questions about whether they remained "soft" -- an accusation leveled by Bowden after the second game of the season.

Left tackle Barry Richardson and offensive line coach Brad Scott blamed mental lapses and a well thought out game plan by Furman.

"A couple of those sacks were their scheme and some were missed assignments," Scott said. "Otherwise, we played at a high level."

Bowden said the Tigers watched film of last year's 24-7 loss to Virginia Tech -- the Hokies held Clemson to 80 yards rushing and 166 yards overall -- to prepare for Furman.

The Paladins schemes were similar and the Tigers handled things much better this time. And as long as Harper continues to shine, Bowden said the team will take what it can get.

"At some point, they are going to loosen up a bit and we'll run better," Bowden said.

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