Clemson University

Tigers struggle to get passing game going

CLEMSON -- A fellow Clemson assistant coach wrapped a caring arm around offensive coordinator Rob Spence as they exited the locker room Saturday, offering words of encouragement.

That the Tigers' 20-17 home loss to underdog Maryland amounted to déjà vú from 2006 surely injected its share of sting.

But it was how this loss took place and how it left Clemson's offense facing the same questions as after that 2006 loss that added another layer of pain.

"We've just got to be two-dimensional," senior running back James Davis said. "We just really couldn't get our offense together."

When penalties and a Maryland schematic adjustment slowed Davis and C.J. Spiller in the second half, the Tigers' passing game could not carry the team to victory.

The same shortcoming was blamed for Clemson's demise in 2006 and played a role in losses last season to Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Boston College.

Cullen Harper's record-breaking first season as quarterback changed the perception of Clemson's passing game, and Harper was voted preseason ACC player of the year.

Yet the Tigers' struggles to mount a formidable vertical passing attack this season are becoming a significant issue again -- even if some of the causes differ.

"I don't think you can just go out there and run the ball, move it at will when you play good teams," Bowden said. "I'm sure there are some things in the passing game we could have done a bit better.

"We have to do some things that draw (the defense) up a little more."

Beginning with the Oct. 9 Thursday night game at Wake Forest, Clemson's next four games are against the ACC's top four defenses in terms of passing yards allowed.

So it stands to reason that if they devise an effective method to slow the Tigers' running game, their chances of prevailing would figure to be greater than those of the Terps, who owned the nation's 109th-ranked passing defense before Saturday's contest.

On Saturday, Clemson had three lengthy completions that were not screens or dump-offs: two strikes to Aaron Kelly along the sideline (24, 17 yards) and a play-action throw to tight end Michael Palmer (17 yards).

Bowden said Harper's other deep ball to Kelly, a 45-yard overthrown pass intercepted at the Maryland 17 in the final minute of the first half, was forced, but it basically amounted to a punt.

In contrast to 2006, when defenses played single coverage and dared quarterback Will Proctor to throw over top, opponents this season have kept safety help deep to take away Kelly.

As injuries to its inexperienced offensive line have increased, Clemson has increasingly relied on short, quick passes to protect Harper.

While those sufficed against two Football Championship Subdivision opponents, Maryland proved the Tigers cannot survive on them alone.

Clemson's inability to execute a mid-range passing game has been most apparent when called upon to sustain drives.

In three games against Football Bowl Subdivision defenses, the Tigers converted four of 20 third downs when 5 or more yards were needed.

On seven of those 20 plays, the Tigers completed short passes that fell short of the sticks.

Spence offered little insight into play-calling or player performance Saturday, saying only he was disappointed Clemson had opportunities to win but did not get it done.

"I think we're playing as hard as we can," he said. "I can't define that as underachieving. We are doing the best we can. We struggled in critical situations."