COLUMBIA, S.C. – Many teams with five-game win streaks can't wait to return to the field. No. 22 Clemson is happy for some time off.
Coach Dabo Swinney said Monday the Tigers (6-2, 5-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) will use the free weekend to recharge a defense ranked No. 3 in the country and rehab several players on an offense struggling to score points.
Clemson won its fifth in a row this past Saturday, defeating Syracuse 16-6 by largely following its successful blueprint of the past few weeks — stellar defense saves a stagnant offense.
The Tigers managed just one offensive touchdown and committed four turnovers (three by quarterback Cole Stoudt), yet were rescued by a defense who limited the Orange to 170 yards of offense.
Now Swinney turns his attention to the break so his defenders can get some rest and his banged up offensive players can heal up for the final stretch.
"Proud of the month of October that we had," said Swinney, who team went undefeated in October for a third time in four seasons. "The big focus this week is to really get our players and staff recharged."
Clemson's offense needs plenty of it. The team lost starting quarterback Deshaun Watson, top rusher Adam Choice, offensive lineman Jay Guillermo and standout receivers Charone Peake and Jordan Leggett during this stretch.
Swinney expects all to return except for Choice, a freshman who tore a knee ligament two games ago at Boston College and will have surgery on Friday.
"Got to get some of these guys back," Swinney said.
Peake is a junior considered the equal of NFL first-rounder Sammy Watkins when the two signed in 2011. He entered the season off knee surgery and played in Clemson's first three games, but more problems flared up and his missed the past five contests. Swinney said Peake will start running outdoors this week.
Watson, the five-star freshman, took over at quarterback from starter Stoudt against Florida State on Sept. 20 and energized the offense with his ability to run the Tigers' fast-paced schemes. Yet, he broke a finger on his throwing hand against Louisville on Oct. 11 and has not played since.
Swinney has said Watson was expected to miss a month, meaning he could return for Clemson's final ACC game at Georgia Tech on Nov. 15.
Swinney thought Watson would test his surgically repaired hand — he had four screws inserted to set the bone — when Clemson returns to the practice field Tuesday. "We think he's going to be able to do a little bit more this week," Swinney said. "He's got a little bit of a different splint that should give him more range of motion."
Watson's performance edge over Stoudt, and what it means to the Tigers' offense, is clear: The freshman has thrown for 12 touchdowns and two interceptions in 112 attempts while Stoudt has just two touchdowns and four interceptions in 192 passes this season.
Swinney was most bothered by Clemson's two fumbles and two interceptions against Syracuse. "The biggest frustration is we didn't finish drives," he said. "The name of the game is points. We've got to come away with points. We just had some untimely miscues that really made it a much closer game than it needed to be."
Most of Stoudt's throws against Syracuse were to the sidelines behind the line of scrimmage, which Swinney said were part of Clemson's game plan as the Orange look to lock down the middle of the field. The result was an ugly looking show on that side of the ball.
"Things go wrong. You can't be perfect every play," Stoudt said after Saturday's victory. "There's a little bit of frustration here and there, but we found a way to win."
That's easier with a defense playing as well as the Tigers, who led the country in tackles for loss and third-down conversion stops. Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett said it's simply players doing their jobs.
Once the offense kicked in, 'we turned out with a win," Jarrett said.