There are two images of Clemson Football from Saturday’s loss to South Carolina that I think I will remember for a while.
The first was a shot of Phil Mafah on the sidelines after he lost a fumble following the kickoff return after Clemson scored a safety.
The second was Coach Swinney talking to Antonio Williams on the sideline after he lost a fumble on the final punt by the Gamecocks.
Both players are young. Mafah is a sophomore and Williams is a true freshman.
When Mafah lost his fumble, I may have said a few words I wouldn’t want my children to hear. I have no problem with the play call for the huddle which put the ball in Mafah’s hands. The huddle didn’t result in the fumble. Once Mafah was on the run, protecting the ball was no different in that situation than any other time the offense puts the ball in his hands. If they are comfortable handing it off or passing it to him, then there was no reason to not run that play. If they put the ball in a second-string linebacker’s hands, then yes, it’s a bad decision. As it was, the call was fine and moderately successful. Mafah just made a bad mistake.
Williams knew what was at stake when he received that punt. He won the punt returner job from Will Taylor earlier in the season. He did so because he is a wonderfully talented player, even as a true freshman. There was a lot of pressure on his shoulders in that situation, but I don’t think it was too much for him. He just made a bad mistake at the most inopportune time.
Although that moment hurt because I knew the game had slipped away from Clemson, I immediately felt bad for Williams. He has worked hard and made a positive contribution this season. He is from the Columbia area and I know he wanted to play well.
Every player who finds the ball in their hands makes a mistake from time to time. The timing just made Williams’ mistake seem much worse.
As I saw Dabo on the sideline coaching up his young player, I thought back to Mafah standing on the sideline, alone and disappointed in himself. I have no idea if anyone came to coach him up. It was a different point in the game. Clemson still had the lead and every reason to think they would win the game.
Mafah hadn’t fumbled all season long. The timing of this one just made it feel worse.
Mafah got the ball again, and ran well, so it seems likely that someone boosted him back up, but like with Williams, I’m sure the fact that Clemson ultimately lost the game will amplify that mistake from Mafah’s perspective.
I suddenly felt guilty for the unkind things I said about Mafah’s fumble when it happened.
Mafah and Williams will be key players for Clemson Football in 2023
Thinking back on it now, I hope Coach Swinney gave Mafah the same pep talk after the game that he gave to Williams on the sideline. Both players will be key for the Tigers as they wrap up this season and start the 2023 campaign. Mafah asserted himself this season as the second-string running back, and Williams will be the Tigers’ primary receiver target for whoever starts at quarterback.
What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. I understand those moments were hard for both players, but I believe they will help shape both of them into who they will become, and they will be stronger from the experience.