Clemson University

Tigers' look to fix run game

CLEMSON -- The flippant notion coaxed a brief chuckle from Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, who used it as a springboard to reiterate the desire for improvement in the rushing game.

Much has been made the last two weeks about developing the Tigers' downfield passing game during early season blowouts, and for good reason. Its rapid erosion a year ago while Clemson plowed through weaker opponents is frequently cited as a root for the team's late swoon.

So far, the excess work has paid impressive dividends, leading the Tigers to hope it now has a viable response if and when opposing defenses stack the line of scrimmage to stuff its vaunting ground game.

Consequently, an ironic yet premature hypothetical has arisen:

What are the odds Clemson will be blaming the passing game cultivation if its running game is still sputtering a few weeks ahead?

In that sense, Bowden cannot win for losing. Yet in this case, he also cannot foresee the No. 15 Tigers (3-0, 1-0 ACC) continuing their season-opening winning streak unless they tip the scales back in the other direction to establish balance.

"Hopefully, we can run the ball better this week," Bowden said. "If we don't, we probably won't win."

Oddly enough, that should not even be construed as an indictment on their opponent, North Carolina State (1-2, 0-1), which ranks No. 101 nationally in rushing defense.

As tailback C.J. Spiller noted, players felt overly confident facing in last year's Kentucky's abysmally-ranked defense in the Music City Bowl, and the public saw how that turned out. Coincidentally, the Wildcats' defensive coordinator, Mike Archer, now oversees the Wolfpack's defense.

Gains need to be made with Clemson's own rushing offense, which sits at No. 82 nationally after three games this season at 125.3 yards per game -- 92 yards fewer than last year's unit, which ranked No. 5 overall. Take away a 51-yard loss on a bad punt snap and this team's average would balloon to 142.3 yards (which would put them at No. 66).

Logic dictates the fewer yards are the result of the fewer opportunities the ball carriers have been given because of the focus on passing. Clemson has averaged 34 rushes, just four fewer than a year ago.

Neither Spiller nor leading rusher James Davis has garnered more than nine carries in consecutive routs. They may not have needed more for a Clemson victory, but it left Spiller juggling the injury risk factor versus the benefit the Tigers could use down the road.

"It's really hard to get something going when you do that," Spiller said. "It's all about getting the timing ... so the linemen can get their blocks. When we continue to run it more, that's when you'll see it improve."

The underlying reservation is not whether the Tigers lack the weapons to run.

After witnessing the effect time off had on the passing game's rhythm last season, there seems justifiable curiosity about their ability to suddenly kick into high gear without space for acceleration.

During preseason camp, Clemson coaches expressed mild concern that the offensive line had yet to develop substantial chemistry because of various injuries that temporarily sidelined key players in the spring and fall.

While Davis has averaged 6.7 yards per carry, the line has yet to push any of the three opponents around, frequently forcing Davis or Spiller to create something out of nothing.

Bowden called out unspecified members of the line last week, saying the line has to be more aggressive in finishing blocks and display a nastier demeanor.

In terms of production, Saturday's triumph against Furman netted diminished returns; Clemson mustered 60 yards on 33 carries, its lowest total since accruing 36 against Maryland in 2004.

A healthy lineup would figure to help matters. Sophomore right guard Thomas Austin's mobility remains an issue because of an ankle injury, while backup guard Brandon Pilgrim is limited by the brace wrapped around his elbow.

Both Bowden and offensive line coach Brad Scott insist they saw increased effort and attitude against the Paladins, but it is clear that their effectiveness with execution on a week-to-week basis has emerged as the offense's biggest question mark -- not to mention the deciding factor in whether Clemson's running game might eventually be deemed rusty, too.

"You can only go so far (down) when the head coach says the O-line is being soft," said senior left guard Chris McDuffie, who registered 15 cut blocks against Furman after tallying 3.5 against Louisiana-Monroe.

"Like I told those guys, we're grown men, and grown men should never let a man call them soft, especially when it comes to football. We just have to get our swagger back."