Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei been under fire this season for his performances. Some have called for him to be benched — and on Saturday, for a moment, he was.
During Clemson’s first drive of the third quarter, Uiagalelei’s attempt at a shovel pass turned into a mistake. Pitt linebacker SirVocea Dennis was there in the gap for an interception, taking the ball 50 yards for a pick-six that put the Panthers up 21-7.
“I was going out, reading the D-end, saw him drop while I was pitching it,” Uiagalelei said. “While I was releasing it, right after I released it, I see (Dennis) run through the gap right there and he just made a great play.”
The Tigers turned to redshirt sophomore quarterback Taisun Phommachanh for the next two series. And it at least raises the question of whether or not Uiagalelei has lost the starting spot with five games left in the regular season.
“I just felt like I needed to give Taisun a chance,” Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney said, “and I thought Taisun came in and did some good things and led us down to a field goal there. It was positive.”
Pitt went on to pocket a 27-17 win over Clemson in the two team’s first meeting at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
With two months of the season gone, the Tigers (4-3, 3-2 ACC) have two conference losses and are unlikely to win a seventh consecutive ACC championship. A 10th-straight 10-win regular season is no longer an option. The best they can finish is 9-3, which would be the fewest wins for the program since 2014.
The Tigers are averaging 20 points a game, well off last season’s 43.5-point pace. With no offensive identity or rhythm, no change is off the table anymore.
“I think everything’s under evaluation at this point at 4-3,” Swinney said. “I think everybody’s got to show up and earn it every single day. We’ve just got to take it one day at a time. We’ll go to practice, see who has the best practice and we’ll figure out who’s going to run out there first at every position. Again, do everything we can to try to find a way to win a game.”
Phommachanh, who had one snap against Syracuse a week ago, opened his first drive Saturday with a 14-yard pass to Justyn Ross, then added 17 more yards on a run play. While the team didn’t reach the end zone, the Connecticut native did enough to get the Tigers in field goal territory, and kicker B.T. Potter did the rest. Potter’s 42-yard field goal cut the deficit to 21-10 with 6:56 remaining in the third quarter.
Phommachanh was back for the next series, which wasn’t as fruitful. The Tigers went three-and-out.
On Clemson’s next possession, Uiagalelei was back at QB and scored on a six-yard rush to cap off a seven-play, 72-yard drive. Swinney said he put the sophomore back in the game because he felt like Uiagalelei gave the Tigers the best chance and has gotten the most work.
The Tigers’ mentor was also pleased with how Uiagalelei responded to being sidelined for two series. He still showed support for his teammates when “he could’ve sat over and pouted,” Swinney said.
As for what happens next, Uiagalelei said he’ll support whatever decision the coaches make about who will be QB1, but feels he’s done enough to hold on to the starting nod. Last week, Swinney said Uiagalelei had played his best game yet against Syracuse and attributed many of the drops to the receivers. This week, the sophomore threw an interception for the first time in a month and finished with 128 yards on 12-for-25 passing.
The overall results of a season being Clemson’s full-time QB starter — 1,102 yards across seven games to go with four touchdowns, five interceptions and a 55% completion rate. — aren’t what anyone had in mind, particular when Uiagalelei was forecast as a Heisman trophy front-runner in the preseason.
“This is definitely frustrating,” Uiagalelei said. “This is not the idea of what everyone else had for us to be 4-3 right now, but it is what it is. ... We’re going to accept the challenge and come out this week and prepare for Florida State.
“Each and every week is a new week to go out there, and you’ve got to go out there and show everybody why you deserve to play.”
For a while, the Tigers have rotated players on the offensive line to try and find some continuity, with both Swinney and Elliott referring to it as “musical chairs.” There was some success with Hunter Rayburn at center and Matt Bockhorst at guard against Boston College but Rayburn has been out in COVID-19 protocol and Bockhorst suffered a torn ACL on Saturday and is out for the season.
As a result, not only will Clemson have to contend with injuries on the line, but they’ll also be looking for the best players on offense in general.
“Every position has to do things better to give us the opportunity to win,” Tigers offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We’re struggling with continuity, especially up front. We’ve got the issues up front. At tight end, we’ve got to continue to work to make sure we’re contributing in the run-pass game. Wideouts, we’ve got to get guys healthy and get some continuity there, but most importantly we’ve got to catch the ball. Then quarterbacks have to make the right decision and make the throws.
“That’s kind of been our story, the inability to have that continuity which is going to generate the confidence to build the consistency that we’re used to having on offense around here.”
Next: Clemson vs FSU
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 30
Where: Memorial Stadium in Clemson