Clemson Football: Phil Mafah vs. Will Shipley vs. the offensive line

Nov 4, 2023; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; Clemson Tigers running back Phil Mafah (7) runs for a first down against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the third quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 4, 2023; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; Clemson Tigers running back Phil Mafah (7) runs for a first down against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the third quarter at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports /

Clemson Football put in their best effort of the season against Notre Dame, and it yielded their best outcome yet.

The defense was outstanding against the Irish, but the eye-popping statistic was provided by Phil Mafah.

With usual starting running back Will Shipley sidelined in concussion protocol, Mafah got the start and made the most of it. He rushed for 186 yards on 36 carries with two touchdowns. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry and had a long of 41 yards.

There has been a debate among Clemson fans about which running back is “better” for a couple of seasons now. Mafah has had ardent supporters. Those supporters have been vocal this season, despite the reality that neither back was having a particularly good 2023 campaign.

Shipley hasn’t found a lot of success this season, and the continued favoritism towards him in the snap count has emboldened Mafah supporters who believe the backs should be much closer to equal carries.

Even having missed the Notre Dame game, Shipley still leads Mafah in carries for the season. Before the game against the Irish, Shipley had 112 attempts and Mafah had 73, which is about a 60%-40% split.

This ratio was not egregious in my opinion. 60%-40% is not crazy, and as I already commented, I didn’t think either Shipley or Mafah had done anything to write home about in 2023. I would agree, however, that Mafah had been slightly more effective than Shipley.

I was also of the opinion that it wasn’t even close to their fault that neither was getting production. The run blocking by Clemson’s offensive line has been very disappointing this season. Neither back has had holes to hit most of the time. The line has gotten very little push.

There have been injuries, most notably the loss of Walker Parks, but considering this line was very experienced and expected to have overall depth, the results through the NC State game were underwhelming. It didn’t seem like things would improve.

Then something unfortunate happened. Starting left guard Marcus Tate was injured and lost for most of the rest of the season. Colin Sadler, who had split time with Tristan Leigh at left tackle, would be unavailable against Notre Dame. The Tigers would be playing relatively inexperienced players against the Irish defense which had pushed them around in 2022.

Then something unfortunate turned into something unexpected. The line suddenly was playing much better against the Irish than they had all season. They didn’t become All-Americans overnight, but there was improvement.

Was it that the players filling in were better than the regular players? Perhaps, but a few sharp eyes spotted a notable difference last Saturday.

One of the major changes with the system of new offensive coordinator Garrett Riley was that the offensive linemen would run stunts and pull from one side to the other much more often than they had in Clemson’s old offense. Morgan Thomas had highlighted several times on X this season where the line was having significant difficulty with stunts and pulls. They just didn’t take well to the new blocking scheme.

Was Phil Mafah’s production the result of a better performance by the Clemson Football offensive line?

Suddenly on Saturday, the line stopped running the stunts and pulls and started employing a more traditional north-south, hat-on-a-hat strategy.

Suddenly, Clemson was finding yards on the ground.

The first person I saw point this out was Jason Priester of All Clemson Tigers, who mentioned on Facebook that he had hardly seen any stunts or pulls by the offensive line against Notre Dame.

Head coach Dabo Swinney confirmed this strategy during the week. They felt it would be easier for the guys who had to step into the starting lineup on a more permanent basis to be effective if they ‘simplified’ things for them.

Now we are left with a question. Did Clemson’s ground game find life because Mafah finally got the vast majority of carries? Or was it because the offensive line changed their strategy and it paid off, and would have paid off for Shipley or Mafah the same?

One thing I have noticed about Shipley this season is that he has been very patient behind his offensive line, waiting for holes to develop, but then they never do. I would agree that Mafah is usually faster to hit the hole as it has been designed, rather than wait the way Shipley does.

Assuming the line continues its north-south strategy, we might learn that Shipley will improve as well. It sounds like we might find out. It looks like Ship could return against Georgia Tech.

Swinney acknowledged that Mafah has the ‘hot hand’ and they will feed him, but also said fans shouldn’t get amnesia: Shipley had won them a lot of ball games in his career.

I don’t disagree that at a bare minimum, Shipley and Mafah should split carries evenly. I would endorse Mafah starting this weekend.

I also expect some Mafah supporters to be upset that I am leaning towards the improvement of the O-line’s performance as a contributing factor for Mafah’s sudden surge in production. I am not trying to minimize his play from Saturday. He was fantastic and I hope it continues.

Mafah should start Saturday against Georgia Tech, regardless of Shipley’s availability. There, I said it.

I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Shipley run with more effectiveness than he has all season, even if Mafah still has the better game. I think the line’s change in strategy played a role in the rushing yards boom from last weekend, and we could see that continue this coming weekend.

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