On the final play of the Clemson Football loss to Miami on Saturday night, the Tigers lined up within the 1-yard line, needing a touchdown to extend the game to a third overtime.
Quarterback Cade Klubnik could have handed the ball off to running back Will Shipley. A touchdown wasn’t guaranteed. Clemson’s offensive line had struggled against Miami’s run-stoppers all night, but all they needed was about 18 inches.
Instead, Klubnik pulled the ball from Shipley and attempted to run around the left side. He was quickly tackled and the game ended.
This brought back memories of the last time the Tigers lost in double overtime earlier this season to the Florida State Seminoles. Needing a touchdown to win, Clemson lined up for a third down, needing about a yard. The play call was a run-pass option, where the first option was to give the ball to Shipley.
Klubnik read the signs from the defense and determined the right choice was to pull the ball from Shipley and throw to a wide receiver on the far side of the field. Klubnik thought the receiver had enough blockers. He was wrong.
After the game, head coach Dabo Swinney confirmed that Klubnik made the wrong choice, but admitted that the staff had to do better. There was no reason to call an RPO if the obvious choice was to hand the ball off to Shipley.
Swinney and the staff learned from their mistake. On Saturday, they didn’t call an option play. They called a straight handoff. Klubnik took matters into his own hands anyway.
Klubnik is a true sophomore who didn’t see a lot of playing time last season, but Saturday was his eighth start. He isn’t that green anymore. This is the point that you often expect things to fall into place for a first-year starting quarterback.
This instance is even more alarming. Klubnik made this mistake once before, and it directly led to a loss. He should have learned from it but unfortunately made the same mistake again in almost the same situation with the game on the line.
Swinney was asked about the possibility of playing a different quarterback.
"“No. Cade gives us the best chance to win. We really believe that. I mean, he made some amazing plays, and his good is really, really good, we just gotta grow through some growing pains with him. I really think he’s going to be a great one, and he made, like I said, some big-time plays. But just definitely some miscues as well. So, gotta just kind of grow through it with him right now. That’s where we are but we feel he gives us the best chance.”"
Swinney and his staff are the ones who know best about the options on the bench behind Klubnik on the depth chart. Clemson didn’t entertain the possibility of putting Taisun Phommanchanh in the game until DJ Uiagalelei made a critical error against Pittsburgh, in what became the third loss of the 2021 season.
When DJU made the ill-advised shovel pass that was picked off and returned for a touchdown, Swinney made the call to bench him briefly.
Clemson Football isn’t giving up on Cade Klubnik yet
Klubnik’s critical error happened at the end of the game, so there were no more plays to consider putting Hunter Helms or Paul Tyson in the game.
Swinney still believes in Klubnik, at least publicly. I admit I am less confident. I haven’t given up on Klubnik, but I do think his ceiling isn’t as high as I once thought it was.
It would be wonderful if all freshmen came in ready to play like Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, but it isn’t reality. Some need time to acclimate. Some need multiple seasons.
The most critical component of potential is the ability to learn and grow. Learning from your own mistakes is perhaps the best teacher.
Klubnik didn’t learn from his mistake. He repeated it.
I’m not surprised that the staff is sticking with him and giving him another opportunity, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if privately Klubnik is on his final chance. If he can’t learn from critical mistakes, his ability to improve is greatly diminished.