The Clemson Tigers walked out of College Station with a 28-26 victory, but they also left with a major question: Were Texas A&M’s 501 total yards and 430 passing yards an aberration, or a blueprint of how to beat the Tigers?
It’s been awhile since a Brent Venables-coordinated defense has been exposed quite like that. Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond is the first quarterback to reach 400 passing yards on Clemson since Jameis Winston did it for Florida State in 2013.
The Tigers didn’t allow a single opponent to reach 500 total yards a season ago, and only a Lamar Jackson-led Louisville team accomplished that feat against Clemson in 2016. You actually have to go back to 2013, Venables’ second season with the Tigers, to find a year in which they gave up multiple games of 500+ yards.
Safeties K’Von Wallace and Tanner Muse aren’t as NFL-ready as other players on the roster, and there isn’t much experience or talent behind them. Even though the defensive line was able to apply pressure, Mond still had success.
After going 7-for-17 for 97 yards in the first half, the sophomore from San Antonio torched the Tigers for 333 yards (12.9 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns to get A&M back in the game.
Venables tried subbing in safeties Denzel Johnson and Nolan Turner and cornerback Mark Fields to help A.J. Terrell, but it didn’t really matter.
Clemson’s secondary routinely looked out of position. The middle of the field was far too open. Mond bought time by avoiding the pass rush and launching difficult passes to what looks like an underrated receiving corps.
Clemson’s linebackers didn’t help by getting caught looking into the backfield at Mond instead of their assignments. He simply led defenders in one direction with his eyes before coming back to the other side of the field to find receivers and tight ends who had gotten separation in the open field.
“Some of the busts were just basic calls,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Our eyes weren’t on the right things. We’ve got to increase our focus.”
There was certainly some luck involved. Mond threw some low-percentage passes that were either tipped by Clemson defenders into the arms of Aggie receivers or high-pointed in traffic.
And don’t discount the common denominator: Jimbo Fisher, who coached Mond and Winston and is quite familiar with Clemson’s personnel.
Ultimately, Clemson was a bit fortunate. The Tigers were on the favorable side of a controversial touchback and got a stop on a potential game-tying two-point conversion with under a minute to play.
The Tigers didn’t seem worried this week about giving up 10 pass plays of 20 yards or more and a long of 69.
“I love quarterbacks that throw the ball,” Wallace said. “I don’t want to just sit there and just run, run, run all day. If any team feels like they can expose us (with) the deep ball, I feel like they should go ahead and try it.”
And they will, until Clemson proves them wrong.
But how many teams left on the Tigers’ schedule can replicate the Aggie passing game?
- Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech, the next two opponents, are option teams.
- Syracuse gave Clemson’s secondary fits a year ago in an Orange upset, and even though QB Eric Dungey lost his top two targets from 2017, he’s averaging 8.2 yards per pass and has thrown for an ACC-high seven touchdowns this year.
- Wake Forest has a talented receiving corps, including Greg Dortch, and an entertaining freshman QB in Sam Hartman, but can the Deacons be consistent enough?
- N.C. State’s Ryan Finley might be the most NFL-ready QB Clemson faces this season, but he doesn’t have the mobility of Mond. Still, he’s got the arm and receivers to potentially pick Clemson apart if given time.
- Florida State is struggling right now, but Deondre Francois is still good.
- Louisville is in the midst of a QB controversy, but coach Bobby Petrino has a history of playing the Tigers close.
- Boston College is a popular pick to pull off a shocker against Clemson, but the Eagles primarily use the run to set up the pass.
- Will Duke have injured QB Daniel Jones back by the time the Blue Devils travel to Clemson?
- South Carolina’s Jake Bentley couldn’t get a deep passing game going at all against Georgia last week.
It really doesn’t matter whom you play, though, if you leave the middle of the field as wide open as Clemson did last week.
The Tigers do have a history of correcting mistakes and improving, but keep an eye on how Clemson fares against the passing game, as it could open up betting opportunities when the Tigers play teams who can sling it.
Brad Senkiw is a contributor to The Action Network and hosts The Press Box weekdays, 9 a.m.-noon ET on WCCP 105.5 The Roar.