When Clemson opened its game against Auburn, some of the major concerns about a revamped offensive line were played out.
Missed assignments. Pre-snap penalties -- one that cost the Tigers a fourth-and-goal attempt at the 1. Way too many Auburn defenders coming free, forcing Tajh Boyd to avoid the pressure on numerous occasions. At the end of the first half, Clemson had given up four sacks -- that only happened twice all of last season.
But a funny thing happened on the way toward writing off the offensive line. All five guys started playing much better, together. And their superior conditioning in the spread hurry-up started paying off. Center Dalton Freeman, tackles Brandon Thomas and Gifford Timothy, and guards David Beasley and Tyler Shatley had their way with the Auburn defensive front, which was clearly exhausted and having a hard time keeping up.
The end result? No second-half sacks allowed, no more procedure penalties and a hard-fought victory.
"We knew coming in that we were inexperienced but we weren’t going to let that be an excuse for us," Freeman said after the game. "I was impressed with our poise. We did a good job of handling adversity. We’re very happy with where we were … Early on, we were beating ourselves, probably trying to do a little too much. Once we calmed down, we played pretty well.”
Freeman and Thomas are the only two starters returning from a year ago. Beasley, Timothy and Shatley had a combined 75 plays on the offensive line entering the Auburn game. (Shatley played 317 snaps in 2011, but all were on defense.)
After the rough start, the offensive line helped Andre Ellington run for 228 yards, and a 320 total yards on the ground. That was the highest rushing total for Clemson since gaining 323 against Georgia Tech in the 2009 ACC Championship game. Clemson is now 107-4-1 when it gains at least 200 yards rushing and 200 yards passing in the same game.
What's more, all five starters played every single snap but the final one -- only because Timothy got banged up and had to leave the game. Freeman was so good, he was selected as one of the ACC Players of the Week on Tuesday. Coach Dabo Swinney said during his news conference Tuesday he expects Timothy to play Saturday against Ball State, and he also hopes to get some of his reserves more involved.
Still, it was an impressive performance after a shaky start. Despite the result, both Swinney and Morris cautioned there is plenty more work to do.
“I think we all saw same thing, they’ve still got a lot of room for improvement,” Morris told reporters in Clemson on Monday. “We’re not ready to name them the ‘Seven Blocks Of Granite’ or ‘Four Horsemen’ yet. Those guys have earned some respect on this football team.”