Deep ball struggles upending Clemson's offensive game plan

On throws of 20 yards or more, Clemson QB DeShaun Watson is just 4-of-17 this season. Tyler Smith/Getty Images

A few passes sailed over the receivers' heads. A few more slipped through their hands. But of Deshaun Watson's six throws of 25 yards or more against Troy, just one found its intended target.

Looking for an explanation for Clemson's early struggles on offense? Start with those deep balls and follow the ripples outward from there.

"It's critical," coach Dabo Swinney said. "You have to make those plays. That's our offense. We attack. We don't sit back and play to punt the ball. We try to go score, and that's what makes us explosive is, it's a playmaker's offense. We're going to take advantage of the things you're giving us, and we're good enough to do that. We've been inconsistent these first couple weeks."

A year ago, Watson was one of the most prolific deep ball quarterbacks in the country. This year, it's been a struggle.

On throws of 20 yards or more, Watson is just 4-of-17 this season, averaging a woeful 6.35 yards per attempt on such throws -- good for 52nd among Power 5 QBs to start this season.

Perhaps most frustrating about the deep-ball struggles is that, through two games, defenses have essentially dared Clemson to take those shots, and the Tigers haven't been able to make them pay.

"This is Year 2. People have been studying us," co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. "We have to take chances and find what's working and go with it. We'd love to be balanced, but sometimes you're going to have to throw it and do whatever it takes to win."

Indeed, Clemson's success last year has put a big target on its back this year, and defenses have a better idea of what to expect from Watson & Co. But it's not as if the Tigers haven't had opportunities for big plays or chances to force defenses to adjust. They just haven't connected, and there's a trickle down effect to those struggles.

Defenses are stacking the box to stop the run. Against Troy, that resulted in a heavy tilt toward the passing game, with Watson throwing 53 passes in all -- the most of any QB since Swinney took over as coach in 2008.

Watson's mobility hasn't been much of a weapon either. On 20 non-sack runs, he's averaged just 4.2 yards per carry, down nearly two yards per rush from a year ago.

The failed shots down the field have resulted in too many third-and-longs, too. Clemson is converting just 37.8 percent of its third downs so far, 81st nationally.

And while defenses are taking away the middle of the field, Clemson's lack of success on the perimeter has altered the way the passing game has succeeded in the past. On throws of 10 yards or more, Clemson averaged nearly 5 yards per reception after the catch last year. Through two games this season, that number is a dismal 1.6.

"When you connect on the deep ball, it's a big gain, but it also brings a confidence level," Elliott said. "We took some shots. We left some points on the field. When we can get in a rhythm and make them play the field sideline to sideline and vertically as well, it's a big help to our offense."

The good news is that the struggles aren't a lack of talent or scheme. It's largely been a function of execution, and that can be fixed.

Against Troy, Clemson receivers dropped three deep balls. All last season, they dropped just four.

Even last season, Watson wasn't stellar with his deep ball early on. He opened the season just 4-of-10 with two interceptions on throws of 25 yards or more against his first three FBS opponents. The rest of the season, however, he had 11 touchdowns and just one more INT. Things just clicked.

And if that can happen again in 2016 -- presumably against an FCS foe this week -- Clemson's offense should find its mojo quickly. Stretch the field, and defenders can't stack the box. Get Wayne Gallman and the ground game going, and the Tigers stay out of third-and-longs. Force a safety to cover deep, and suddenly there's room for Watson to scramble for big gains.

The Tigers' offense is like an expensive sports car. When it's all properly tuned, it's a thing of beauty, but if one small part of the machinery isn't functioning properly, the whole system starts to break down.

They'll have their opportunities to get things right against South Carolina State on Saturday, and if things click into place from there, these early struggles might all be forgotten by the time Clemson hits the meat of its schedule.

"We've just got to find our rhythm and learn from it," Watson said. "We're way better than that. But as soon as we keep trying to find what we're good at, we'll just move forward."