CLEMSON, S.C. -- Throughout most of the first half of last year's game against Florida State, Clemson's offense had moved in fits and starts, never quite finding a rhythm. But as the Tigers worked their way down the field on their final drive of the half, Deshaun Watson took a snap, darted up the middle past the Seminoles' line, broke right and ran 25 yards downfield, going out of bounds at the FSU 14-yard line.
This probably should have been Clemson’s first touchdown of the game had Watson not clocked the ball on third down as time ran down, but it still changed the complexion of the game. Watson’s legs made him a threat and changed the way FSU played defense. In the second half, Clemson racked up 92 more yards than it did in the first, and the template was set for how Clemson would attack other defenses the rest of the season.
Watson's legs were the Tigers' not-so-secret weapon last season. This year, though? Fans have been wondering why their dual-threat QB has seemed so one-dimensional.
"It's nothing we're trying to prove or anything," Watson said of his lack of big plays on the ground. "It's just one of those things that kind of happen."
Watson, who ranked 23rd in ESPN's latest college football player rankings, might seem a bit defensive about the subject after a summer interview in which he derided the "dual threat" label, but he insists this is just a matter of circumstance. Still, as the Tigers have struggled to put together a consistent offensive attack, it's fair to wonder what circumstances have contributed to the decline in rushing production from the preseason Heisman favorite.
Explanation No. 1: Nothing has actually changed.
It certainly seems like Watson hasn't run as much this season, but the numbers -- on the surface, at least -- don't bear that out. Through his first seven games last season, Watson had 56 non-sack rushing attempts. This season, he has 66. So have we just been imagining a big shift?
Dig a little deeper and the distinctions between last season and this one are clearer. Just 45 of Watson's 66 rushes have been designed runs, which is still five more than he had at this point in 2015. But he has also been on the field a lot more. Overall, Watson has 76 more touches (passes, sacks and rushes) through seven games this season than he did last year; as a percentage of that total, designed runs account for about 2 percentage points less than 2015.
Long story short, Watson is running a little more overall, but he's passing a lot more than he did last season.
"It's not so much me trying to sit in the pocket or any defense trying to hold me back," Watson said. "It's just one of those deals where I haven't run as much."
Explanation No. 2: Clemson is protecting its QB.
Watson has NFL aspirations at year's end, and Clemson has playoff hopes. Both of those goals likely require Watson to be healthy all season, and with the development of Ray-Ray McCloud and the return of Mike Williams to the receiving corps, it makes sense that Clemson wouldn't want to put its crown jewel in harm's way more often than it has to.
The corollary to that is Watson's passing numbers are up. He has thrown for 400 more yards, five more touchdowns and just one more interception than he had at this point last season. He has also thrown nearly twice as many passes downfield (10 yards or more in the air) than he had at this time in 2015.
"He knows when he has to run, and we run him, we put him in position to be successful," Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. "The development of our perimeter guys have taken some of the load off him. It's really just us controlling what we can control."
Explanation No. 3: Defenses have adjusted.
When Watson did run last season, he was a dynamic weapon, averaging 6.1 yards per carry on designed runs. This year, not so much. He is averaging just 4 yards per carry on designed runs. Chalk it up to an offensive line that hasn't opened as many holes, and adjustments from defensive coordinators wary of letting Watson get into the open field.
"They're always going to scheme and spy him," Elliott said. "He can extend plays, especially on third-down situations. They're spying him and don't want to get loose, and I think teams are doing a good job of trying to keep him in the pocket."
Explanation No. 4: The Tigers are biding their time.
In the first seven games of last season, designed runs were called on 15.8 percent of Watson's touches. That rate jumped to 23 percent in the latter half of the season. Bigger games require more risk.
There was an even more distinct split in games when Clemson needed the extra help. In seven games decided by 16 points or more, Watson averaged just 5.4 designed runs. In closer games, he averaged 16.
So far this season, Clemson has endured more close calls than pundits expected, but if Watson had been a bit more productive on the ground, perhaps that would have changed. But it's also possible the coaching staff is simply waiting to unleash Watson's rushing skills for key late-season games ... like this week against Florida State.
"They've simplified things the last couple weeks," Elliott said of the Seminoles' defense.
Roughly translated, Florida State is playing a lot more man coverage on defense, and that could open up some opportunities for Watson to run. And, of course, this is probably Clemson's last big challenge before the ACC championship game. So don't be surprised if Elliott & Co. pull out all the stops, including a few more QB runs.
"There were games we had to have more designed runs because they were going to challenge us on the perimeter," Elliott said. "I think the flow of the game determines how much he'll run the ball."