My family moved into our home seven years ago. Shortly after we built a fire pit, and I found that I enjoyed having a fire on Saturdays while watching Clemson football games. Soon we were having a fire every time there was a night game. Fast-forward to the end of 2017: I was looking forward to watching Clemson play Alabama in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Day, but the forecast was for single digit temperatures. Even if the fire was enough to keep me warm, I was pretty sure the TV wouldn’t survive the cold. I sat in my warm home and watched Clemson get beat soundly, and suddenly it hit me: Clemson only lost when I didn’t have a fire. November 12, 2016: I took my daughter to a Winthrop basketball game, and Clemson lost to Pitt. October 13, 2017: it was a rainy Friday, and they couldn’t possibly lose to Syracuse, right? Wrong. It was confirmed on January 13, 2020, when rain once again doused the fire plans and Clemson lost to LSU.
Since then, I’ve watched the Tigers lose a couple times by the fire against Notre Dame and Georgia, so the fire pit is no longer undefeated, but that didn’t stop me this past weekend. Late afternoon game instead of a night game? That just meant the fire started a bit early because the Tigers needed that fire! I had all the other dork superstitions ready too. Orange Esso Club t-shirt that is so old it only has half the Paw on the back now? Check. Tiger socks my kids bought me for Christmas? Check. Orange-colored glasses? Check. The Clemson Tree that my wife gave me for my birthday with the orange & purple lights? Check. I even had Third-Down Pumpkin, which is a plastic pumpkin that was originally a Halloween decoration that someone started putting on their head every time it was third down. It appeared to work at the time, so we still use it.
Alas, no amount of Clemson fung shei could help the Tigers this weekend, as they went down in Pittsburgh 27-17. Things started well for Clemson, but neither the offense nor defense could keep it up for long. The offense once again became stagnant due to poor blocking, dropped passes and inconsistency. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett started to find his footing and slowly found soft spots in Clemson’s coverage. The backbreaker came in the 3rd quarter when Pitt intercepted a shovel pass and took it in for a touchdown.
There is a lot of frustration in Tiger Nation right now, but people who were able to look at this team objectively understood that Clemson was a true underdog. The offense is among the worst in college football. The defense can only hold for so long if the offense can’t sustain drives. Up until this weekend, Clemson had only faced two decent offenses all year, and they lost both of those games.
DJU continues to be the biggest mystery of all. It is hard to set aside the good performances from 2020 and concede that he just isn’t a good quarterback, but even his staunchest supporters had to admit it was time to try something different following the inexcusable shovel pass interception. That play is a microcosm of the entire debate with DJ: is it his fault, or is his poor performance due more to the poor performances around him? Most of the observers leaning to the latter saw plenty of reasons to point elsewhere during the first half. Multiple passes dropped, and it wasn’t just the wide receivers (looking at you Braden Galloway and Will Shipley). Multiple blocks missed, and it wasn’t just the offensive line (looking at you Ajou Ajou). Then the unthinkable happened.
To be fair, the defender who intercepted the shovel pass wouldn’t be there if the offensive lineman responsible for blocking him hadn’t spaced out and let him run right past him unblocked (looking at you Will Putnam), so again, it isn’t completely on DJ. Nonetheless, it is inexcusable to throw that pass without looking to see if the receiver was open. This case study quickly demonstrated the situation for the entire season: DJ isn’t the only person playing poorly, but he is most definitely playing poorly, and that couldn’t be argued after that play.
Coach Swinney made the call to give Taisun Phommachanh an opportunity. He got two series. His first series was a decent drive that resulted in a field goal, Clemson’s first points since the first quarter. His second series was a 3-and-out, and DJ was put back in the game for the next series, which resulted in a touchdown. By then, it was too late – the defense had nothing left to throw at Pickett, and Pitt was able to hold Clemson at arm’s length. The final was only a ten-point victory for the Panthers, but the difference between the two teams seemed larger.
The decision to put Taisun in the game was the correct decision. His performance was decent, but not great. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has observed Taisun’s first two seasons in the program. He has never shown that he is capable of being a top-tier quarterback. The difference this season compared to previous years isn’t Taisun – it’s the performance of the starting quarterback. DJ’s performance made this switch logical. Some aren’t giving Taisun much credit for his play on Saturday, but the reality is that Clemson scored more points, in a shorter space of time, after Taisun was put in the game than before. If one is quick to point out how DJ would have more statistical success if receivers hadn’t been dropping balls, one also needs to acknowledge that Taisun came inches away from making a huge touchdown pass to Justyn Ross, who couldn’t quite get his entire foot inbounds.
The change was not a punishment for DJ. It is clear in hindsight that he needed a few minutes to get himself together after the shovel pass disaster. He is young and his confidence was likely shaken after that mistake. DJ did the right thing and stood on the sideline cheering on Taisun and his teammates, like a good leader should. Taisun played for a couple series and then DJ went back in, and he looked more composed and relaxed on the final scoring drive. Coach Swinney acknowledged that every position is an open competition at this point, but I think that was just a way of saying that we may see Taisun again if the offense looks stagnant, or if DJ looks like he needs a chance to recompose himself. Taisun’s performance wasn’t clearly better than DJ’s, but it wasn’t worse either. I wouldn’t complain if Taisun got more opportunities during the remainder of Clemson’s games.
There has been a lot of criticism of Coach Swinney, the staff, and the players this season. Despite the things that have not gone right for the Tigers this season, ultimately Coach Swinney is handling the situation with a steady hand. He hasn’t panicked once. He is being as patient as possible with his players and his coaches. After the game, he reiterated that he has no plans to make staff changes. While he obviously wouldn’t throw anyone under the bus in the middle of the season, he also isn’t going to undermine anyone on his staff, like some leaders with less character might if they found themselves in a similar situation.
There are other positive points. While the defense couldn’t stop Pitt in the 2nd half, they still held the Panthers to far fewer points than they usually average. Will Shipley came back strong after his injury and ran the ball well. The running backs have looked good as a unit in the past three games, and we do have to give the offensive line a little bit of credit for that too.
I am not immune to the frustrations that most Clemson fans are having these days, and I wasn’t in an incredibly good mood Saturday night. The next day, I started to see the positives from this game, despite the mistakes that were still apparent. I probably reached a point of acceptance about this squad’s place in the big picture of college football quicker than most, and that there would be no offensive ‘explosion’, but I think I also learned something about myself too on Saturday, which feels so much more valuable. I went into that game expecting the Tigers to lose, but ever hopeful that I would be wrong. I could have sat on my backside and casually watched the game while cruising through other games or doing something else entirely, but that thought never really crossed my mind. Instead, I built a fire in the pit, I hauled the TV outside, hauled the Clemson Tree outside, put on my Esso shirt, my Tiger socks, and my orange glasses, put Third-Down Pumpkin on my head and looked like a complete dork. Because that is just what I do, and I don’t think that is going to change anytime soon.