This appears to be a game of two teams headed in different directions. Clemson has lost three straight, all of which came down to the last play of the game. N.C. State won on the last play of the game against a nationally ranked Georgia Tech team a week after suffering a loss to North Carolina.
To say each team is badly in need of a win is a huge understatement. Of course, who isn’t at this time of the year? Those battling to make the most of the season are searching for wins however they can find them. The rest are left fighting for a spot among the upper echelon.
The five combined losses between the two schools have all been by a touchdown or less. State blew a chance to defeat Virginia Tech in the first game of the season by killing themselves with penalties. A little more discipline and they be a one-loss team right now, if not undefeated.
Likewise, Clemson has imploded in each of their three losses by committing a bevy of mental mistakes. Two blown coverages resulting in TDs, two dropped passes that led to interceptions, and a mental mistake in punt protection cost them the Wake game, not to mention the errors made in the losses to Miami and BC.
That leaves two teams struggling to put it all together in hopes of building enough momentum to start a march through the rest of the schedule. What makes the match up even more intriguing is there aren’t a lot of secrets at this point. Most teams have put all the cards on the table. The team that executes the best will typically win.
In terms of yardage, the offense has increased their production from last year by twenty percent (60 more yards per game). Charlie Whitehurst is completing 66.5% of his passes and has only three interceptions, as compared to 50.7% and 17 picks in 2004.
They have to continue to build upon those improvements this week if they are to have any chance. State boasts one of the best defensive lines in the country. Ends Mario Williams (6’7”, 290) and Manny Lawson (6’6”, 245) work with tackles John McCargo (6’2”, 292) and Demario Pressley (6’4”, 288) to form a formidable front.
Williams, Lawson, and McCargo are potential first round draft picks. This is the best front four Clemson will face all year.
Linebackers Stephen Tulloch and Oliver Hoyte lead the team in tackles. Tulloch ranks sixth nationally in tackles per game with 13.3.
Cornerbacks A.J. Davis and Marcus Hudson have been the keys to State’s high pressure defense that relies on tons of man coverage. Their play has kept the completion percentage of opposing quarterbacks at a paltry 40.3%
NCSU opponents have converted on just 15 of their 62 third down attempts and scored on 9 of their 17 journeys into the red zone. All nine scores have been touchdowns, which would signify they’ve been pretty good at not giving up big plays. There’s no wonder the Pack is giving up only 18.8 points per game.
How they defend Clemson may be the biggest question heading into the game. As has been the case this year, they ran a steady dose of man coverage last year leading up to the game in Death Valley.
They changed their mode of operation that week and implemented a two-deep zone. The offense struggled mightily because they lacked a running game and had trouble finding holes in the zone because of State’s speed and ability to create pressure with their front.
Clemson’s running game has improved this year, as has the line. But have they improved enough?
This is the biggest game to date for Rob Spence. State’s game plan last year has planted a seed of doubt among the staff in terms of preparation. In all likelihood they will run more zone this week than they have all year. How well Spence and the running game adjust on the fly will be the difference for the offense.
The one thing Tiger fans may see more of if they run a lot of man coverage is boots and waggles. Georgia Tech rolled up 443 yards of offense by effectively using such plays to keep State’s defense off balance.
NCSU also gave up 321 yards to North Carolina mostly because the Tarheels managed to generate a solid ground game. The Wolfpack has given up more than 300 yards in two consecutive games after going six straight without doing so. Despite State’s athleticism and toughness on defense, Clemson will have an opportunity to put together a winning offensive effort.
Clemson is giving up 358 yards and 26.2 points per game. Those numbers are somewhat skewed after giving up 22 points and nearly 100 yards in four overtime periods. Still, the numbers are a tough pill to swallow for Vic Koenning.
The defense has played well enough to win despite the stats. They gave up 20 and 10 points in regulation to Miami and Boston College, numbers that usually equate to wins against those opponents, much less anyone else. The two aforementioned gaffs against Wake led to the easiest 14 points they’ll score all year.
It’s no secret the defense has struggled with the new scheme. That’s to be expected anytime a new coordinator is brought in. The secondary can no longer use youth as an excuse.
The busted coverages aren’t a matter of dealing with complexity or not understanding what it is they’re supposed to do. They’ve been practicing for two months and should be comfortable with what’s expected of them. Physical miscues are one thing, but mental lapses are something only they can correct.
Their maturation will be tested a great deal this week against Mark Tressman’s offense. The long time NFL coach has installed an attack that relies on formationing and motion to confuse defenses. It’s a West Coast style offense dependent upon a short to intermediate (15 yards) passing game.
Senior Jay Davis leads the ACC in passing with 258 yards per game. He has thrown for 200-plus yards in 11 of his last 12 contests, a span in which he’s accumulated 2805 yards and 15 touchdowns.
His favorite target has been tight end T.J. Williams. He’s as good, if not better than, Maryland’s Vernon Davis, who gave the Tigers fits in their game earlier this year.
Flanker Brian Clark has only played in two games but leads the team in average yards per reception with 26.4 (7-185). Tramain Hall, widely regarded as State’s big play guy, has 16 grabs.
Darrell Blackman is listed as the starter at running back. The sophomore had a good freshman season in which he picked up the slack for an oft-injured T.A. McClendon. However, he is no longer the feature back in their offense.
That role has been filled by true freshman Toney Baker. He was the third highest rated high school running back in the country last year and his performance so far has shown why. He has speed to get to the corner and the power to keep it between the tackles. He is a very dangerous threat that could cause all sorts of trouble for a Clemson defense that has tackled poorly.
Their line has been the lone issue for them this season. They have some new faces and a little youth mixed in the bunch. Injuries ravaged them last year and that’s the biggest reason why they’ve had some problems. Even so, they’re quite capable and will offer another tough task for Clemson’s front.
Unlike many of their opponents, State has made the most of their opportunities inside the red zone. They are a perfect 18-of-18, making them the only ACC school that’s scored 100% of the time they’ve been inside their opponents’ 20-yard line.
As good as they’ve been in scoring situations, they’ve been nearly as bad in third down situations. They have been successful on just 15 of their 51 attempts (29%). Clemson’s defensive success on first and second downs will once again play a huge role. Forcing State into third-and-long will only help to keep them from improving that number.
Charles Bennett and Gaines Adams have accounted for over half of Clemson’s quarterback pressures this year. They need to continue their attack on Davis while receiving some much needed help from the others along the front four. Although a great threat, Davis is much more mobile than Phillip Rivers ever hoped of being. They must contain him in the pocket.
State punter John Deraney is averaging over 40 yards per attempt and a net of 35.2. He has downed 11 of his 22 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
He also serves as their field goal kicker and is a perfect 7-of-7 on the season. He has not had an attempt over 37 yards. Two of his attempts have been between 20 and 27 yards and five have been between 30 and 37.
Darrell Blackman has continued State’s tradition of solid return men. He is averaging 35.5 yards per return, which is good enough for fourth in the country.
Their kickoff coverage unit doesn’t look to give Clemson’s struggling return unit any relief. They are allowing just 17.5 yards on the 10 kicks that have been returned with a long of 38.
They punt coverage unit is allowing just 8.2 yards per attempt but they have given up a touchdown on a 40-yard return.
Jad Dean has continued to shine for Clemson as his has quietly made a push to be Clemson’s player of the year at midseason. His missed only one kick this year and is the leading active kicker in the country throughout a career in terms of percentage (25-of-29).
Cole Chason has been struggling and his knee injury suffered against Boston College hasn’t helped. He has to have a big game this week because this is the type of contest that could easily be decided by special teams.
Clemson fans cringe when they see a Thursday night ESPN game on the schedule. The Tigers have yet to win a game in six such attempts. It should be noted that five of the six have been against top 25 teams and four of the six have been on the road.
It doesn’t help that State is looking for their first win at home since a win against Wake Forest on October 2nd of last year. They are hungry to get back on track in Carter-Finley Stadium.
Penalties may play a decisive role in the game. Clemson has been one of the least penalized teams in the country as they have accumulated only 17 for 146 yards in five games. State, on the other hand, has racked up 40 for 358 yards in just four games. The Tigers have to be very cognizant of the fact that the Wolfpack may try to goad them into some cheap fouls.
Special teams and penalties aside, this game is going to come down to what decides most games – who wins the line of scrimmage. Clemson must develop some sort of pass rush to keep Davis from getting on track. On the flip side they have to be able to run the ball to keep the State defenders from pinning their ears back and doing what they do best.
The Tigers have been just a play or two away in each of their three losses. They’ve had nearly two weeks to correct those mental mistakes and perfect their execution. If they can do that against a team as undisciplined at State there’s no reason to think they won’t win.
This is the toughest game of the year to predict because no one really knows how the Tigers will react. They can continue the downward spiral or finally play up to their capabilities.
I’ve always been a numbers guy that’s gone with the trend but I think some personnel changes and the senior leadership along with the extra preparation will give the Tigers the edge. They win another nail biter 24-23.