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Sapakoff: Wake-up calls will ring into Virginia Tech week for Clemson

September 24, 2017

CLEMSON – Dabo Swinney, his trusty Clemson coaching staff and No. 2-ranked football team didn’t intend to have to get 6-5, 330-pound lineman Taylor Hearn involved in the offense so early.

No one in orange expected Death Valley booing in response to several play calls. Or a lengthy cage match against a woeful Boston College team that entered the fourth quarter deadlocked with a 34-point favorite.

Clemson eventually shook off its crude ball movement Saturday and won, 34-7. It was thanks to reliable defense, a bunch of tired Eagles and more Louisiana lightning, freshman Travis Etienne’s two electric touchdowns in a 27-point fourth quarter.

It’s always hard to complain about a rushing edge of 342 yards to 97.

But the series of wake-up calls will ring into next week as Clemson (4-0, 2-0 in the ACC) prepares for a Saturday night game at Virginia Tech that looks like the toughest game on the schedule.

Shoddy blocking, questionable strategy, sloppy ballhanding …

None of that will work for the Clemson offense against teams better than Boston College (1-3, 0-2), a list that includes almost every future opponent.

“The way we finished, certainly that’s a good thing,” Swinney said. “The taste in your mouth as you get back to work.”

The coaches were quick to credit the physical Boston College defense for cleverly morphing in one week from a man-to-man coverage team that dared teams to pass into a zone coverage team designed to deny big passing plays.

But 164 rushing yards from the defending national champs came in the fourth quarter. The Tigers’ had three punts and a missed field goal to show for their first four possessions as the offensive line was battered.

Even famously steady left tackle Mitch Hyatt, a junior All-America candidate who has started since the first game of his freshman year, was pushed back into Kelly Bryant by Boston College defensive end Harold Landry as Bryant threw an interception.

The shakier right tackle position wasn’t holding up. Bryant was forced to scramble and improvise.

Ultimately, the most impressive thing about last week’s 47-21 victory at Louisville doubled as the biggest part of the explanation Saturday.

‘Still a young offense’

“We’re still a young offense; this is only Game 4,” said offensive co-coordinator Tony Elliott, a James Island High School grad. “But one thing I know about this group is we’re not going to back down. We’re not going to quit. Obviously, we strive to be perfect but we’re not going to be perfect. We’re still learning a lot about ourselves.”

Elliott and fellow coordinator Jeff Scott are 33-2 since taking over for Chad Morris (SMU head coach) before a 40-6 Russell Athletic Bowl rout of Oklahoma in 2014. This time, a conservative approach didn’t go over well with the score 7-7 after three quarters.

It was not actually Rob Spence Appreciation Day, a celebration of one of former head coach Tommy Bowden’s less popular play-callers. But Elliott said he “pressed too much” Saturday and probably should have called fewer pass plays.

Two Bryant interceptions, a missed extra point and another C.J. Fuller fumble (recovered by Clemson) might be more costly at Virginia Tech. And N.C. State and at home against Florida State and in most games.

“We challenged the guys all week after the Louisville game saying, ‘Hey, you better have that right mindset,’” Scott said. “It wasn’t a situation where our guys were completely loose and we knew it going in. It’s a very fine line in guys not being ready for a fast start. We have to figure that out.”

Crazylegs Hearn

The Clemson student body that has recently protested the distribution of tickets while demanding more had a bad game, too. The grassy slope of The Hill was less than half full as the fourth quarter began, 7-7.

Of course, that was far from the strangest Saturday scene.

Hearn, usually the left guard, was in at left tackle, spelling Hyatt, when Bryant fumbled after a five-yard gain early in the second quarter. The ball popped up to Hearn, who tucked the ball under his left arm and dashed 12 yards down the sideline.

“He was fired up about that,” Swinney said. “What a dream for a lineman.”

In the wake of a not-so-typical 34-7 victory over Boston College, it’s hilarious.

The Tigers can laugh about it all the way to Blacksburg, as long as they remind themselves that the nuttiest play of the month came on what was almost the third turnover of the game during three quarters in which Clemson scored just seven points against a mediocre team.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff