No. 9 Clemson’s offensive attack struggles to find end zone

CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — No. 9 Clemson can’t find the end zone, something that had come so easily for the Tigers the past few seasons.

Clemson (2-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) was among top five in points scored from 2018-20, averaging almost 44 points a game. That’s not been the case this season. The Tigers have managed only 17 points combined in their two contests against Power Five conference teams, including a 14-8 win over Georgia Tech last Saturday where they were favored by four touchdowns.

“Critical penalties and missed opportunities,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It almost cost us big time.”

If things don’t improve, it could cost the Tigers their perch atop the ACC. Clemson has slid from No. 3 in August to nearly out of the top 10 — and far out of position for a seventh consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff.

The Tigers look gear things up when they head to North Carolina State (2-1). The Wolfpack are opening ACC play on Saturday.

It’s been a frustrating start for Clemson, which has grown accustomed to mauling opponents who can’t keep up. A season ago, they defeated the Yellow Jackets 73-7, yet needed a goal-line stand in the closing seconds to escape with the win.

Clemson’s offense gained 285 yards, the second time in three games it was held under 300 yards. The Tigers didn’t have a game with fewer than 400 yards in 2020.

“It’s definitely not the outcome we wanted,” offensive tackle Jordan McFadden said. “But the only thing we can do is go to work.”

And there’s plenty of work to do. There’ve been too many penalties that killed strong drives, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.

First-year quarterback starter D.J. Uiagalelei has had missed connections with his receivers. Turnovers and mistakes cost the Tigers in a 10-3 loss to Georgia and nearly undid them this past week, too.

The difference in the game against No. 2 Georgia was Uiagalelei’s pick-six interception just before halftime.

There were several errors down the stretch against Georgia Tech, from a failure to convert a late onside kick in a one-score game to freshman Will Shipley’s fumble in the end zone with the Tigers needing one crisp snap to run out the clock.

Shipley recovered the ball for a safety and Clemson held on. There hasn’t been so much late drama in most of Clemson’s ACC games the past few years.

The Tigers’ only regular-season league loss came last year at Notre Dame, a one-season ACC member due to COVID-19. Clemson has gone 24-1 in the conference the previous three years with an average margin of victory of 30 points.

“That’s definitely the standard at Clemson,” Uiagalelei said Monday. “We put up massive amounts of yards, massive amounts of points.”

Uiagalelei takes the blame for the early season offensive drought. The QB said he must be sharper in the pocket and more decisive in leading the attack.

Center Matt Bockhorst said there’s plenty of blame to share and he believes Uiagalelei will get the attack running as effectively as NFL No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence did much of the previous three seasons.

“D.J. is our leader and we have full faith in him,” Bockhorst said.

North Carolina State coach Dave Doeren said his team can’t get caught up in Clemson’s offensive issues.

“Any time you get a chance to play a team like this that’s been the gold standard in our league, it’s a great opportunity,” he said.

Elliott, the offensive coordinator, has been surprised things haven’t flowed more smoothly. His players had a good week of practice leading up to game time last week and he felt good about what the offense might do.

That was before Georgia Tech fell back into coverage, forcing the Tigers rely on the run and not take shots downfield. Everyone is frustrated, Elliott said, about the group’s so-so start. That doesn’t mean that things won’t get better with practice and patience.

“It took a long time to build Rome,” Uiagalelei said with grin.

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