Clemson football: Tigers look rusty heading into ACC title

Clemson football clinched its spot in the ACC Championship Game with a 45-10 win over Virginia Tech last Saturday. However, it was far from a flawless performance by the defending conference champions. The Tigers need to get their act together before facing off against the undefeated Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Dec. 19 in a battle for a Playoff bid.

While Dabo Swinney’s team demolished the Virginia Tech Hokies by 35 points, it was a seven-point game at halftime. Clemson finally pushed the floodgates open in the second half, but the offense wasn’t dominating Virginia Tech’s vulnerable defense. Likewise, Clemson’s defense gave the Hokies too many chunk plays. Virginia Tech actually finished the game with more passing yards than Clemson and only one fewer first down.

Besides allowing the Hokies to get too comfortable, Clemson didn’t take over the game. Travis Etienne finished the night with 66 rushing yards on 16 carries. The Tigers might want to save Etienne’s legs for the playoffs, but none of that matters if he rolls into the ACC Championship without a rhythm. Etienne went from averaging almost 7.8 yards per carry in his first three seasons to 5.1 this year. The senior must show better vision against Notre Dame, and the inexperienced offensive line has to give him something to work with.

Clemson’s inability to run against Virginia Tech was disturbing. The Hokies allow 194.1 rushing yards per game, but Clemson’s starting unit struggled to run all day. In garbage time, the Tigers eventually broke free. Darien Rencher took his only carry of the game 50 yards for pay dirt. Fellow backup Chez Mellusi averaged 14 yards per attempt on his three carries. Those are the kind of big running plays Clemson’s first unit needs against a strong defensive team like Notre Dame.

Surprisingly, Trevor Lawrence also made some questionable decisions against Virginia Tech. The superstar quarterback telegraphed a pass, which resulted in an interception. He had three or four throws that defenders could’ve picked off. Lawrence only completed 12 of his 22 passes, and 65 of his 195 passing yards came on a touchdown to Cornell Powell early in the fourth quarter. The fact that Lawrence was even still playing in the fourth quarter tells you a lot about how the Tigers played.

In under two weeks, Clemson football gets a rematch against Notre Dame. However, the Tigers looked far from ready to face the Fighting Irish last Saturday. If Swinney’s team wants a shot at making its third consecutive College Football Playoff national championship game, it must run the ball better, play lockdown defense and avoid making silly mistakes. It’s time for the stars to step up and prove once again they have what it takes to shine on the national stage.