Bob Holliday

ACC offenses: trending downward

Posted October 10

Last year will go down as a record-setting year for offense in the Atlantic Coast Conference, but then so many of the top performers from that landmark season moved on to the NFL.

In fact, fully half the teams in the ACC had to replace their quarterbacks. So we had to expect some drop off in offensive production. As we approach the midpoint in the 2017 season, we see exactly that. Six of the ACC’s 14 teams are scoring fewer points than they did a season ago.

I believe offense in the ACC will decline still more. Why? Because ACC defenses have gotten better. In fact, 11 of 14 ACC teams have improved in the area of scoring defense—some by double digits. Everyone plays mostly conference games in the second half of the season. So, as the league’s offenses go against Clemson, Miami and all the good defenses of the ACC—as opposed to Kent State, Murray State, and Old Dominion—logic suggests offensive numbers will come down a bit more.

We can already see the warning signs of a downward trend.         

Seeing red in the red zone

I’m talking about you, NC State. Now, to be sure, NC State’s offense to this point is one of the ACC’s success stories overall. But the Wolfpack has really struggled in the red zone and must address this issue pronto.

The Pack went into the Louisville game ranked 11th in the ACC in red zone offense, with an efficiency of 79 percent. State’s first trip into scoring territory last Thursday night should have been enough to rock the high hopes of everyone wearing red.

With a first and goal, State tried a shovel pass (worked against Florida State, but Louisville was ready for it) for no gain. Offensive coordinator Eli Drinkwitz then called a reverse to Jacobi Myers that lost 3 yards. Then on third down, quarterback Ryan Finley was blitzed while trying to pass, and he fumbled. Louisville recovered.

First NC state trip to the red zone: Zero points.

State punted on the next possession, and then bypassed the red zone altogether in the second quarter with a 48 yard touchdown pass from Finley to Kelvin Harmon. Louisville tied the game, 7-7, and then the Wolfpack drove into the red zone again. Starting this time with 1st and goal at the U of L 8 yard line, State at least moved forward, gaining 5 yards on two plays. But on third down, the Pack committed a penalty that rubbed out a touchdown and had to kick a field goal. At least that time State made the field goal. In the second half, State drove into the red zone, stalled and again had to settle for a kick, only this time Carson Wise missed—another completely empty trip to the red zone.

So, if you’re scoring at home, State found its way to the red zone on six different occasions against Louisville. The Pack scored three touchdowns and a field goal, with two empty trips. That’s four of six, an efficiency rating of 67 percent, which of course is even worse than the 79 percent figure with which State began the night against Louisville.

Clemson schools Wake Forest

On Nov. 4, the Clemson Tigers will visit west Raleigh. Clemson, which boasts perhaps the nation’s best defense, starring Wake County’s Dexter Lawrence, gave Wake Forest a few lessons on Saturday about play in the red zone.

Wake Forest began the weekend as the ACC’s No. 1 team in red zone offense, with an efficiency of 96 percent. Wake had scored a touchdown or a field goal on 22 of 23 possessions prior to that trip to Death Valley.

Late in the first quarter, the Deacons set up shop at the Clemson 13. Matt Colburn ran for 1 yard. Former Southern High School star Kendall Hinton, who was playing quarterback, took a 4-yard sack. Then, Hinton threw an incomplete pass. On fourth down, Mike Weaver, who began the season 10-10 on field goals, missed from 34 yards.

One trip to the red zone for Wake but no points.

Early in the second half, Wake again settled for a kick by Weaver after a trip to the Clemson red zone. Weaver missed again. Later in the third quarter, Wake faced a fourth-and-3 at the Clemson 17. This time coach Dave Clawson passed on the field goal try and called Hinton’s number on a designed run play. No gain.

Wake Forest did score two touchdowns from the red zone in the fourth quarter to make the final score a respectable Clemson 28, Wake Forest 14. But Wake Forest, with the ACC’s best red zone offense, was limited to two touchdowns and no field goals in five trips to the shadow of the Clemson goal. That’s just 40 percent, which is well below the league-leading 96 percent with which Wake began the game.

Missing opportunities

Duke has struggled mightily in the red zone all season (see Duke vs. Miami). Duke had many offensive problems in Saturday’s 28-21 loss to Virginia, but oddly, red zone offense wasn’t the biggest. In fact, by my count, Duke went 2-2 on red zone opportunities. The Devils’ problem for once wasn’t the red zone conversion rate but the lack of actual red zone opportunities. We’ll talk more about those issues in a moment.

North Carolina, which struggled to do much of anything on offense against Notre Dame, converted one touchdown from outside the red zone and kicked a field goal on one drive into the red zone. For the Tar Heels, the biggest issue was their total inability to get to the red zone.

Third down dilemma

We’ll start here with UNC, which under Larry Fedora has usually been one of the ACC leaders in third down conversion but this year ranks near the bottom.

Carolina began the game against Notre Dame with five consecutive three-and-outs. On the fourth of those lightning-quick possessions, the Tar Heels completed a pass on third down, for what would have been a first down, but it was called back by a holding penalty.

On the sixth possession, UNC finally mounted a drive inside the Notre Dame 20—a rare red zone moment for the Heels. Soon after, quarterback Chaz Surratt saw the ball—and the opportunity—slip out of his hands and into the hands of the Irish.

Carolina did finally score very late in the first half on a pass from Surratt to receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams. That play took place on third down, but there were very few third-down moments for the Heels, and they finished the day with just 6 of 18 third-down conversions, just slightly above their season long conversion rate of 28.8 percent.

Arguably the ACC’s most shocking story to this point is the decline of the Florida State offense. Tough competition and the injury to star quarterback Deondre Francois have a lot to do with this, but the Seminoles rank dead last in third down conversions, even a touch worse than UNC.

Headed into the Miami game, FSU converted just 12 of 42 chances for a woeful 28.6 percent. The ‘Noles scored just three points against the Canes during the entire first half. FSU did play its best offense since the Francois injury in the second half against Miami, scoring 17 points and nearly winning the game. In fact, only a phenomenal performance by Raleigh native and former Leesville High School star Braxton Berrios (eight catches for 90 yards and two touchdowns) prevented a Florida State win. But I digress.

FSU converted just five of 15 third downs over the course of the entire game. FSU, like UNC, has a great deal of work to do on the offensive side of the ball.

After dropping the game to Miami, things don't get easier for Jimbo Fisher’s offense. Florida State visits Duke Saturday, and Duke actually leads the ACC in third-down defense, allowing third down conversions just 18 percent of the time.

The Duke offense, however, is another story. Prior to Saturday’s game at Virginia, Duke ranked a respectable 7th in third-down conversions, moving the chains about 40 percent of the time. That figure is misleading, though. Duke converted a whopping 15 of 22 third downs in a great victory over Northwestern. It has been all downhill since.

Saturday at Virginia, Duke scored just two offensive touchdowns, and one came after a 76-yard kickoff return by Shaun Wilson. So, the Blue Devils actually put together just one long scoring drive against the Cavaliers. It was a great drive, covering 90 yards. What stood out about that drive was quarterback Daniel Jones scrambling out of the pocket and running the zone read. Jones ran for 8 yards, 24 yards and 12 yards, though he rarely tried to run the remainder of the game.

For the day Jones was credited with 36 yards on nine carries, which includes two sacks. I am flashing back here to Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, who ran a great deal early in his career, but ran only when absolutely necessary during his second, and especially third, seasons of college football when the NFL was clearly in sight. I wonder if that’s what we’re seeing now with Jones at Duke, who clearly has some NFL potential.

Duke coach David Cutcliffe said at the ACC Kickoff in July that one of his biggest concerns was keeping his quarterback healthy while playing against what he described as “the very physical teams of the Coastal Division.” So, I wonder if Cutcliffe is trying to protect his quarterback by calling fewer running plays for Jones.

Even in Duke’s losses in the second half of last season, Jones’ ability to get first downs with his feet stood out, and certainly that was the case in the Northwestern game, probably Jones’ best game ever. But over the last four weeks, Jones has run less, passed more—or at least tried to pass more—and Duke’s offense has really begun to struggle.

Player health is number one, of course, so who can fault Cutcliffe if he is trying to limit Jones’ exposure to hits? At the same time, if you look at the three areas of the passing game—protection, receivers’ ability to get open and make catches—and Jones’ throwing accuracy, the Devils have experienced major problems with the first two, which has now spilled over into Jones’ passing accuracy.

Jones was repeatedly sacked in the Baylor and Miami games. Against Virginia, he targeted his two leading receivers 17 times and they caught just three balls. So, for the game, Jones completed an unthinkably low 14 of 42 passes. In short, Duke desperately needs its running game to prop up the anemic passing attack.

While Wilson is fast and Brittain Brown runs hard, Duke’s running attack does not have the same edge now as it did earlier in the season when Jones was running more. If the plan going forward is for Duke to only use its two running backs to generate yards on the ground, I don’t know if that will create enough issues for the very good ACC defenses Duke will see the rest of the year to open up the Devils’ highly challenged passing attack. The eight-plus win season that looked plausible two weeks ago is now in doubt. As good as Duke’s defense has been against the run, the Blue Devils can’t even take a six-win season for granted unless the offense improves.

Injuries

The injuries at UNC have been well-chronicled, and there is no need to go into further detail here. Clearly, UNC’s challenge, which at the beginning of the season included replacing 90 percent of its offensive production, now includes replacing most of those replacements (who had been actually performing well until their injuries). It will be a monumental task. Watching the Tar Heel offense against Notre Dame was, in the word of a friend of mine, “brutal.”

But I want to talk here about a potentially big injury at Clemson. As we have said in this space before, Clemson is the ACC’s ONLY hope for a spot in the College Football Playoffs at the present time. Miami, NC State, and Virginia Tech certainly have a chance to play their way into the conversation. But right now, the ACC’s hopes rest with Clemson, and there is no Plan B.

Friday night at Syracuse, Clemson may have to play without its starting quarterback.

Unlike Jones at Duke, Clemson's quarterback Kelly Bryant does run a great deal. Bryant is averaging 17 carries per game—more than any running back in the league. Bryant has run extremely well, too. Counting sack yardage, he ranks among the ACC’s top 10 rushers.

When Bryant runs the football, he looks a bit like former Clemson Tiger Watson did early in his career. But against Wake, we saw every coach’s nightmare when Bryant took a hit in the second quarter and came up limping with a sprained ankle. He kept playing and gritted his way through a few more possessions until he took another shot in the third quarter. Bryant then left the game for good.

Clemson already led 21-0 at that point, but the Tigers became a different offensive team with Bryant in the injury booth. Quarterback Zach Cooper came in, missed four of six passes, and essentially presided over two three-and-outs. Third-stringer Hunter Johnson followed Cooper and led the Tigers to a touchdown, completing five passing attempts for 42 yards. That was OK, but he didn't challenge the Wake defense like Bryant did when he mixed passes and runs, masterfully directing scoring drives on Clemson’s first two possessions.

Coach Dabo Swinney said Sunday that Bryant’s injury did not seem to be as severe as first thought. Swinney said Bryant was moving around and that he was optimistic Bryant could practice at least some during the week and play Friday night at Syracuse. If not, Swinney said, “it’s next man up.”

Note here, the Orange defense is much improved over the one that lost to Clemson last year, 54-0. Great as the Clemson defense is, should the Tigers, with an ailing Bryant or with a backup, score three touchdowns or fewer, that makes Friday night in Upstate New York pretty interesting. The up-tempo Syracuse offense, playing in the un-air conditioned Carrier Dome, can put a strain on opposing defenses, as fiery quarterback Eric Dungey and his talented receivers move up and down the field in 7- and 10-yard bursts.

Because of Bryant’s injury, fans of Clemson and the ACC should be a little concerned.

Not like last year

In 2016, ACC teams won by outscoring one another. Remember these games?

UNC 37, Pitt 36

Clemson 42, Louisville 36

UNC 37, Florida State 35

Virginia Tech 34, Notre Dame 31

Pitt 76, Syracuse 61

Pitt 43, Clemson 42

Clemson 37, Florida State 34

Those extreme shootouts we saw in 2016 have yet to materialize this season, and I don’t think they will. Almost every team in the league is playing decent defense now. The teams that climb to the top in the Atlantic and Coastal Divisions will be the teams that can make plays offensively, move the chains on third down and score touchdowns or at least field goals on 9 of 10 trips to the red zone.

For most in the league, offense has not yet become a crisis. But, to use the meteorological vernacular, it is time to post a “low offense watch.” Conditions around the league are now ripe for more offensive failures like the ones we saw this past weekend. I hope we don’t get to the point where we need a “low offense warning,” but if third down and red zone play don’t improve, and injuries to key offensive players continue to mount, that’s where we’ll be.

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