Clemson University

Tigers try to fix the running game

CLEMSON -- Taken as an isolated incident, Clemson tailback James Davis understood why his role diminished against Virginia Tech.

After an interception return and two special teams touchdowns put the Tigers in an early deep hole, they abandoned the running game.

Consequently, Davis netted 3 yards on six carries, which would stand as his lowest career number in both categories if not for the 1-carry, 1-yard game against Georgia Tech two years ago in which he sat out because of a broken wrist.

Offensive coordinator Rob Spence entered the running backs meeting Tuesday to tell Davis and counterpart C.J. Spiller he has to find new ways to get them the ball.

"He's been saying that the whole year, you know, so, I mean ..." Davis said, trailing off.

Those words will read harsher in print than the context in which Davis seemingly meant them to come out, but they underscore the conflicting feelings that appear to have left Clemson's star tailbacks and Davis in particular befuddled about their place in the offense's identity.

Davis' run on the opening play was nullified by a holding penalty that immediately thrust the Tigers into a passing situation. His next series, an offside penalty put the offense behind the chains again.

By the time he logged his first official carry with 1:37 left in the first quarter, Clemson was in its seventh offensive series and already trailed 17-0.

Of the team's 90 official plays against Virginia Tech, Davis had eight touches -- three more than walk-on receiver Terrance Ashe.

That on the heels of a 13-3 loss at Georgia Tech in which Davis logged just five carries in Clemson's seven first-half series before suffering a shoulder stinger on the opening drive of the second half.

For Davis, the two-game stretch has elicited a painful reminder of the Music City Bowl defeat to Kentucky in which he and Spiller collected eight and five carries apiece, respectively -- and were given the same subsequent pep talk and promises.

For someone few would argue is the offense's most potent and reliable playmaker, there is an inherent frustration in not being able to help the Tigers when they most need a spark.

"Every running back would get discouraged, but I'm a strong guy and want to do what will help my team," Davis said.

"We couldn't get anything going. And I'm a guy who needs rhythm, getting the ball back-to-back, and I get stronger as the game goes on. If I'm not getting any rhythm, then it gets hard for me."

The going may get mildly easier next week against Central Michigan, a team tries to outscore its opponents and is ranked No. 89 nationally in rushing defense (178.8 yards per game).

But one weak defense is no panacea for a struggling offensive line, as the Sept. 22 rout of North Carolina State proved.

Coach Tommy Bowden said he wishes the problem was that Clemson let the running game get rusty like it believed the passing game did early last season, but that's not the case.

The degree by which the line and tight ends were out-muscled the last two weeks has been illustrated in how quickly the Tigers have taken to emphasizing their passing game in the first quarter.

Their 8 total rushing yards against Virginia Tech -- which included 30 lost yards in sacks -- tied the fifth-lowest mark in program history. Clemson gained 3 yards against North Carolina in 1993, and the other four games occurred in the 1940s.

Making matters worse, minimal gains can be made in fixing the physicality issue this week because so many key members are dinged up. Four of the five starting lineman were limited in Tuesday's practice because of minor injuries.

"I know what the team is going through in terms of running the ball," Davis said. "We're not having good success right now. Like coach has said, we do have four new offensive linemen, so that has to play some kind of role in it.

"Come Central Michigan, we've got to show we can run the ball some kind of way."