CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Before Clemson took one snap this season, the book on the offense was filled with foregone conclusions. Surely, a group that returned Trevor Lawrence as the headliner and Travis Etienne, Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross would put up monster numbers with little effort.
Through five games, the Tigers have indeed put up big numbers. But they also have looked disjointed and out of sync, and the little problems they easily overcame in their first four games turned into much bigger problems that nearly cost them against North Carolina on Saturday.
Clemson had season lows in passing yards, total yards and total points, and it failed to reach 400 yards of total offense for the second time in five games. Considering this is an offense capable of putting up more yards and more points, there will be myriad questions when it doesn't always look the part.
Much of that is a byproduct of unreasonably high expectations placed on the offense -- starting with Lawrence, a preseason favorite to win the Heisman, not to mention the preseason choice to win ACC Player of the Year.
Lawrence is not the leading passer (or No. 2 or No. 3) in the ACC and his Heisman odds have dropped. He has thrown more interceptions in five games than he did all of last season. His completion percentage is down and so is his efficiency. Though nobody is suggesting he is off to a bad start (he's not), Lawrence will be the first one to tell you there is plenty for both himself and the offense to work on and clean up headed into the off week. He's not the invincible passing machine that led some breathless commentators to suggest he should be able to skip school after his true freshman season because he was NFL-ready.
Lawrence is learning just like any other second-year starter, and yes, he has made mistakes he wishes he could take back. But the Tigers also have seen defenses play them differently week to week, and that has forced adjustments, as well.
"You look at all the games, I feel like we've had every game in control besides this one," Lawrence said after the 21-20 win over North Carolina. "But every team's different. This team is different than last year. We're better in some ways, it's just a different team."
It might be a different team, but the pattern through the first five games is actually similar to the way the Tigers have started the season dating back to 2015. In fact, Clemson is putting up either the same or better numbers when it comes to total yards, yards per play and points. For example, last year Clemson was averaging 38 points per game in its first five games. This year? It's 38 points per game.
The best example might be 2016, when Deshaun Watson also got off to a slow start following a breakthrough season. In his first five games, he threw seven interceptions and the offense failed to score more than 30 points three times. By the end of the year, which ended in the school's first championship since 1981, some Heisman voters regretted not voting for him. Let's also remember Clemson won two close games last September en route to the championship, and lost once in the championship-winning '16 season.
No matter how much we expect, no team is perfect. Not even talent-rich Clemson. Finding a consistency and rhythm has typically been a slow build, and there's patience involved, especially since defenses have played Clemson differently than coaches and players anticipated going into their games. For example, Lawrence said Syracuse looked different defensively than it did against Maryland, and its cornerbacks played so well in man coverage that the Tigers' game plan to hit their much bigger receivers on the outside had to be adjusted. After scoring 17 points in the first half, Clemson ended with 41.
Then against North Carolina, the Tar Heels played their safeties back, daring Clemson to run the ball. Co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said North Carolina tried to "make us throw with precision, not giving us some of the easy throws we're used to." Lawrence took on a much heavier load in the run game, and Etienne never really got going. His fumble led to a North Carolina touchdown and was one of the critical errors coach Dabo Swinney discussed after the game.
When Lawrence did drop back to pass, North Carolina pressured him more than he had seen at any point this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information tracking, the Tar Heels pressured the Clemson quarterback on 12 of his 35 dropbacks (34%), the highest pressure percentage he has faced in a game this season. When faced with that pressure, Lawrence completed only 3 of 9 passes for 41 yards with no touchdowns and a sack taken.
When Elliott says the Tar Heels took away some of the easy throws the Tigers are used to getting, the numbers bear that out. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Lawrence is having less success on intermediate throws between 6-14 yards this year compared to last year. Perhaps that has something to do with Hunter Renfrow, the ultimate possession receiver, being gone. The Tigers are also throwing the ball deeper with less success, a definite test of that patience. So then, watching Lawrence play Saturday was no different than watching him in the first four games. There were passes he missed to wide open receivers that he knows he should have made, and there were catches his receivers should have also made.
Analyzing Trevor Lawrence throws by distance (h/t @ESPNStatsInfo)... He's throwing deep more and with less success (that's flukey, less a big deal) but the intermediate production is WAY off so far (which is odd bc it's really one of TL's biggest assets)... pic.twitter.com/ALSaw85HRQ— THE™️ David Hale (@ADavidHaleJoint) September 29, 2019
But then Lawrence would make a beautiful throw that reminds you why he will be a future first-round pick. Case in point: He sailed what would have been a touchdown for Ross in the third quarter when he felt pressure coming, only to throw a perfectly placed ball for Higgins for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth.
"Trevor's just like anybody," Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. "He made some really nice throws when he had to. They brought a lot of pressure, they had a really good scheme and put a lot of guys on his face. I thought he did a good job with making some plays with his feet when he needed to. But Trevor's a competitor. He wants to play very well. I know he'll go back and watch this, and he'll have plenty of things to learn from and will help him continue to play better."
But even by his own admission, Lawrence has tried to do too much with some of his throws and that has led to more mistakes than he wants. Not everything falls on Lawrence, either. Swinney pointed out two of the interceptions this season were on the receivers.
The offensive line struggled against North Carolina, as well, with uncharacteristic procedure penalties and an inability to get the run game going. Outside his season-opening 205-yard performance against Georgia Tech, Etienne has not gone more than 100 yards again and is averaging 4.75 yards per carry -- well below his career average of 7.6 yards per carry. But if there is any concern over the offense, none of the coaches are showing it.
"We're gonna be all right," Swinney said with a smile. "Ain't no reason to panic. We're gonna be all right."
Lawrence, ever the easygoing optimist, sees the potential we all see and dismissed any sense of building frustration. After all, Clemson is still putting up big numbers on offense and remains in great shape to make it back to the College Football Playoff.
"We know what's there and you see some plays are so close, either I throw a little high, miss the guy or whatever it may be," Lawrence said. "We're close to clicking and we've just got to keep getting better and working. It's going to come. We believe that. We've got an open week, so we've got a couple weeks to get ready for Florida State and come back down to the ground and relook at everything and get better."