Clemson University

Tigers' red-zone offense improving

CLEMSON -- During this week's film study, tight end Michael Palmer was spared playback of the painfully thin line between red-zone success and failure.

Clemson appeared to score the go-ahead touchdown against Maryland last year on James Davis' 4-yard run with 3:32 left, but the play was negated by the unlikeliest of illegal formation penalties.

Palmer, then a freshman, mis-read a signal and had gone to the sideline before the play, leaving the Tigers a man short on the line of scrimmage.

Clemson settled for a go-ahead field goal two plays later, but facing only a 2-point deficit, the Terrapins drove for a game-winning field goal as time expired -- the defeat that ultimately knocked the Tigers out of the ACC title game.

"When you're down there, you have to have attention to detail," Palmer said.

Clemson coaches ear-marked red-zone offense as an area needing refinement during the offseason, and the results suggest progress entering Saturday's 3:30 p.m. game at Maryland, against whom it managed just four short field goals in last year's 13-12 defeat.

Of its 29 trips inside the opponent's 20-yard line, Clemson has notched 19 touchdowns and seven field goals, a 89.7 scoring percentage that trailed only Virginia Tech (94.4) in the ACC rankings before Thursday's game.

The Tigers have produced a touchdown in 65.5 percent of their trips, the fourth-best conversion rate in the conference -- a stat that should bode well when conjoined to a unit ranked second in total offense.

Yet as their special teams can relate, when the red-zone offense comes up empty, they have paid the price.

Trailing Georgia Tech 7-3 late in the first half, receiver Tyler Grisham was unable to make a diving 14-yard touchdown catch. Two plays later, C.J. Spiller's 6-yard score was nullified when left guard Chris McDuffie was flagged for a hand to a defensive lineman's facemask.

The drive was capped with Mark Buchholz's missed 30-yard field goal as time expired, squelching a potentially momentum-building drive in an eventual 13-3 loss to the otherwise sputtering Yellow Jackets.

"We've had some good thoughts down there but didn't execute," coordinator Rob Spence said. "I think we've been pretty good in the red zone, to be honest with you. We worked really hard the past year trying to be able to throw the ball down there, and I think that has helped us a lot. Last year we were more one-dimensional when we got close to the goal line."

Look no further than last year's Maryland game as example.

In the four red-zone trips, Clemson handed the ball off on all six of its first-down plays and gained 8 total yards.

With little faith in Will Proctor's ability to complete an aggressive pass, 15 or their 20 total plays were runs -- including three Proctor bootlegs or scrambles.

The Tigers had the ACC's fourth-lowest passing-to-rushing touchdown ratio in the red zone last year, lending to a predictability that clogged running lanes down the stretch.

The emergence of redshirt junior quarterback Cullen Harper and the development of his receiving targets turned the tables.

Clemson leads the ACC in red-zone touchdown passes (12) and is one of just three teams with more throwing scores there than rushing ones.

While Harper has racked up numbers against non-conference foes, five of the Tigers' six red-zone TDs in ACC contests have been through the air.

"Our concern more so was being able to complete downfield passes," coach Tommy Bowden said. "If you do that from the 18- or 22-yard line, you're going to score. That takes care of your red-zone scoring."

Or at least gives Clemson options.

Maryland has performed well in short-yardage goal-line situations in part because its defensive linemen employ a legal technique known as "submarining," where they lunge forward from a four-point stance and cut down opposing offensive linemen at the knees -- thus theoretically preventing an offense from getting a push off the line or using a side-to-size zone-blocking scheme.

The strategy torpedoed the Tigers' vaunted running game last season, but Clemson hopes it has an effective counter this time around.

"Once we get down there, teams think we're going to run it," Spiller said. "But now we're able to do a lot more things."