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What We Learned From Clemson's Third Loss of 2021 Season

Coming out of a 27-17 loss at Pittsburgh, Clemson's offense continues to wander in the desert while Dabo Swinney puts it all on himself.
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Before Saturday's 27-17 defeat at Pittsburgh, the last time Clemson lost three games in a single season was 2014. 

That team did find a way to win 10 regular-season games, continuing a streak of double-digit wins. Following another lackluster performance on offense, though, the comparisons stop there, and it doesn't feel like this team can keep a run alive, especially with injuries continuing to pile up, that's been going since 2011. Three more offensive starters are done for the season. 

The defense did all it could do against Kenny Pickett and the high-flying Pitt offense. It held the Panthers to their lowest scoring total of the season, but eventually, Pickett made plays, a sign of a really good offense, and Clemson, which was left figuring out where to go next, lost to a much better team. 

Here's what else was learned in the second ACC loss of the season for the Tigers (4-3, 3-2): 

Early December looks open

You've got to give NC State credit. The Wolfpack, which hold the tiebreaker over Clemson via a double-overtime win last month, has a way of keeping things interesting. After all, by Saturday evening, Dave Doeren's squad needed to lose thrice for the Tigers to jump them in the standings. Then that number became just two more after they fell short at Miami. 

Still, it's far-fetched to think Clemson is able to win the Atlantic Division and play in the ACC championship game on Dec. 4. With two losses, the Tigers have to run the table, including beating surging and undefeated Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons, who still have to play NC State, come to town the Saturday before Thanksgiving, but Clemson has to navigate FSU at home next game and at Louisville in November before getting to that game. Those are no guaranteed wins anymore, and the Tigers need so much help to stay in the race that while it's mathematically possible, it feels incredibly improbable. 

QB switch for what?

Dabo Swinney's decision to put Taisun Phommachanh in for D.J. Uiagalelei at quarterback following a pick-6 in the third quarter seemed fairly logical. The Tigers needed a spark, and some fans have been calling for a change for weeks. Phommachanh led Clemson on a scoring drive that ended in a field goal, but it ended on a questionable third-down option run to the short side of the field that made little sense. But the staff gave Phommachanh another drive, and after it produced a 3-and-out, they went back to Uiagalelei.

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What does that mean? Not much. There seemed to be little commitment to any true change and it was almost like they just wanted to give Uiagalelei some time to clear his head. He did lead a touchdown drive when he returned to the game, but it was the last time the Tigers got near the end zone. This latest attempt to try something, anything, feels like the others. The staff is wandering in the desert of futility and can't find a way out. At this point, game-plan for using both and go to a two-quarterback system.

Identity crisis

It's not the first time this has been written and it won't be the last, but Clemson's only chance of any offensive identity is with the run game. The Tigers had 73 yards on nine rushing attempts in the first quarter. They had 91 yards on 21 carries the rest of the game. That's an average of 8.1 yards per run in the first 15 minutes and just 4.3 in the final 45 minutes. That's not good. Pitt made some adjustments, and the loss of guard Matt Bockhorst certainly hurt the run game, but Clemson also keeps trying to fit a square peg in a round hole with the passing game. 

The Tigers aren't good at it. They rank 126th nationally in yards per pass attempt but 61st in yards per rush. Running more, passing less feels like a good strategy. This game was somewhat different because Clemson fell behind and it's hard to run the ball playing catch up...unless that's the aspect you're really good at. It's a boring way to play, but Clemson has no choice but to lean more on the run and grind it out. That got away from them at Pitt, but the Tigers have solid running backs in Will Shipley, Phil Mafah and Kobe Pace to build around, along with the hard-running Uiagalelei. He isn't a speedster, but he is effective. 

Pointing fingers

Speaking of being lost, Swinney had no answers following the game Saturday. The head coach who makes $9 million a year could only use 2014 as an example. He doesn't get why the offense can't put together success and even get into the 20s, something they've failed to do in all but one FBS game this year. He clearly knows the whys: dropped passes, mental mistakes, penalties, etc. He just can't figure out how to fix it. That's why when he was asked about potential staff changes, he shrugged it off.

"We have a great staff I believe in whole-heartedly," Swinney said. "I'm here every day and have a front-row seat to the issues that we have. I know the type of people we have involved. I believe in our staff." 

After all, that's not something you think about midseason, but Swinney doesn't see structural issues right now. He's trying to coach up his team. That's about all he can do in October, but ultimately, the blame can't fall on Tony Elliott or Uiagalelei or a young position coach. It has to be on Swinney, and he said all the right things in terms of putting the burden on himself. Now he's the guy who has to put it all back together. 

"We're a 4-3 team. That's who we are and what we earned," Swinney said. "It's incredibly disappointing. It's 1,000 percent on me. Period."

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