CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson coaches saw in practice every day what the world expected to see every game: Freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence slinging the ball into tight windows, his highly skilled receivers making one catch after another, forming the high-powered passing game they all sought after more than a year of searching.
Co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott huddled with quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter and they all agreed: In practice, anyway, the Tigers were throwing and catching as well as they had in, oh, maybe three seasons.
In the actual games, though, all that pitching and catching showed tantalizing, but erratic flashes, allowing Travis Etienne and the running backs to take a starring role. Midway through their season, Clemson ranked No. 4 in the nation in rushing, behind three triple-option programs.
Nobody ever expects Clemson to be in the same rushing neighborhood as Navy, because that is not the way Clemson is built. Clemson wants what it had with Tajh Boyd and Deshaun Watson, an elusive balance that is achievable but not easy: explosive plays in the passing game to match its powerful run game. The Tigers had that the year they won the national championship. Last season? Not so much. Its explosive passing game was essentially nonexistent.
After Lawrence signed with Clemson, everyone assumed he would be the one to get it back. When Dabo Swinney made the calculated choice to go with Lawrence as his starting quarterback, though, the results in the passing game did not immediately show. In his first two starts, one in which he left early with a neck injury, Clemson rushed for 764 yards.
While this all helped the Tigers win games, the quest to unleash the passing game grew more urgent during the recent bye week. So coaches hammered down one main point to their players: The passing game is better than what they had actually produced. Time to prove it.
Truthfully, there was no better time to prove it than Saturday, with undefeated NC State coming into town. Swinney sensed such an amped-up group, he had to tamp down their excitement. But he also challenged them to play their best game, keenly understanding this would be the perfect time to make a statement.
Clemson took the opening kickoff, marched down the field with ease and scored on its opening drive for the first time all season, using six passes and three runs. From the outset, it was easy to see Lawrence and his receivers were on a mission.
"I think people didn't believe we were any good at receiver. We just took that: Man, let's go make some plays today," receiver Tee Higgins said.
When the 41-7 win ended, Clemson had a reel filled with passing highlights and a quarterback who looked comfortable and confident in his biggest start to date. Simply put: It was the Clemson offense we all expected to see weeks ago. Lawrence finished with a career-high 308. It was not just his first 300-yard passing game, it his first career 200-yard passing game, too.
Afterward, Swinney, his hand arcing upward like an airplane, said, "I think Trevor is just going like that."
"You've got to remember," Scott said. "Trevor and those guys are true freshmen out here playing in these kind of games, and so it makes you smile knowing what you have coming here the rest of this year and the future."
The season has been unorthodox compared to the last three, if only because the quarterback situation presented a conundrum. Lawrence has been heaving passes like darts toward a bull's-eye since the spring, but veteran Kelly Bryant retained the starting job. Both played in the first four games, but the same deficiencies Clemson had in the passing game with Bryant under center kept showing up.
With Lawrence? In each of the first four games, he had at least one passing touchdown go 40 or more yards. When Swinney decided Lawrence would start against Syracuse, Bryant left the team. It was only that week, starting Sept. 24, that Lawrence started taking first-team reps.
That is why the bye week came at such an important time. Lawrence got an extra week to work on rhythm and chemistry with the first-team receivers, and that was obvious against NC State.
"It's building, and it's going to keep building," said Higgins, who had 119 yards receiving in the game. "All the receivers, we talk every day. I tell him where I'm going to be on this route, he says where he's going to throw it, where the ball's going to be. Just the little things, we just have to keep building on that."
Clemson anticipated NC State would load the box to stop Etienne, only fueling their desire to jump-start the passing game. They believed their receivers would win their one-on-one matchups and Lawrence would get the ball to them. Scott estimates that at least 10 passes started as run calls, but Lawrence switched to the pass option when he saw the stacked box.
What also caught Swinney's eye was the way Lawrence scrambled -- in a good way this time. Clemson coaches have repeatedly told Lawrence he needs to learn how to slide properly, after he bulldozed forward on a run against Syracuse and got hurt. On a third-and-10 against NC State, Lawrence slid for what he thought was a first down, but didn't realize the ball gets marked where a player starts his slide.
Lawrence ended up a yard short, but the play is one Swinney believes shows growth.
"No one's really seen him move around a lot, but that kid can run," Swinney said. "He's a really fast kid, but he looked very confident with his feet. He'll learn from that mistake, but the point is it's third-and-10 and they go two-man on us. That's one of the things we've been really challenging him on -- if you recognize that, a lot of coverage, make plays with your legs. It's not like he's a statue and he can't move back there. He made big steps forward in managing the game especially with his feet. He's a guy that can make all the throws, but I thought that was a huge difference in the game."
Lawrence also says he feels much more comfortable in the offense, and is more confident in his checks and getting the protections right. As for the offense's potential, Lawrence said, "I don't know. We have a really high ceiling."
The sign of a great team is one that gets better each week. Clemson is doing that, and it will continue to put stress on opposing defenses as it works to find that perfect balance between run and pass.
"For us to be at our best, we need to feel like we can be dynamic running the ball and throwing the ball and it's up to the defense how they want to play us," Scott said. "How good can this group be? I don't know, but we've got a really strong trajectory and to go along with the defense that we have, it can be a special finish to the season if we continue to work and continue to improve."