Keys to Clemson vs. NCSU Game


by - Correspondent -
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This is Clemson’s David vs. Goliath game. Now, that is not to say N.C. State should be considered a huge favorite that is nearly unbeatable. At 4-3, their season has been a rough ride that very few predicted.


Rather, it is a chance for Clemson to prove to everyone that they are for real. The 4-2 Tigers have more doubters than believers at this point and rightfully so. No one thought the Tigers would win this game before the season started and, if you believe the odds makers, the skeptics are still out in full force. N.C. State may not be the Top 10 team many thought the Wolfpack would be, but Clemson still faces a stiff challenge.


For starters, Clemson is 0-4 all-time in Thursday night ESPN games. Ironically, the last of those games was a humiliating 38-6 loss to State just last year. As bad as that score looks, the outcome was much, much worse. Clemson was dominated. They were outplayed and out coached. The Tigers have to find a way to get over the mental hump of playing in such games.

Secondly, State may be better than some think. They are a team full of athletes that possess lots and lots of speed. And unlike last year’s early season schedule, they have played some pretty good football teams. To add to that, they have spent much of the first seven games without the services of star tailback T.A. McClendon. They are a team that has been battle tested.

Finally, this is a State team that is going to fight. As much as the Clemson players and coaches do not like to have their toughness and attitude questioned, State does not like having their preseason hype questioned. They feel they are still a very good team. They will not approach this game with the overconfident swagger Goliath possessed. They enter the game with a chip on their shoulder.


Had Goliath approached his match with the same mentality, David may have never had a chance.

So, on one side you have a team trying to live up to expectations. On the other, is a team trying to establish some expectations. Both have a lot to prove but for very different reasons.

That is why this game is so important for Clemson. They are presented with an opportunity to put together two consecutive victories over favored teams. This is an identity game for them. Will they shed the stereotype of being a team with no attitude that falters in big games, or turn some heads by playing fearlessly and earning a victory? The choice is theirs.

Most favorites lose not because they are not the better team, but because they overlook their opponent. That will not be the case. If Clemson wins, it will have nothing to do with N.C. State looking ahead or looking down upon the Tigers. Amato and his boys will put together their best performance Thursday night. Not just because they want to, but because they have to.


The ESPN jinx notwithstanding, Clemson does have a few numbers in their favor. Bowden has an 11-7 road record in conference play. That is slightly better than the 10-7 home record. For whatever reason, the team seems to be more relaxed when on the road.


Breaking it down a little further, Clemson is 7-1 under Bowden when playing the Tobacco Road schools on the road. The only loss came to N.C. State back in 1999. The Tigers have done well in the Tarheel State.

OFFENSE


The Tigers face an extremely young N.C. State defense. Of the 25 players listed on the depth chart, only 4 are seniors. Of the four, only one is listed as the starter. Nine of the 25 are freshmen. There is no substitute for experience, but the speed and athleticism they have on that side of the ball goes a long way.


A quick look at their defensive numbers show they are not very good. Their pass defense is ranked 116th out of 117 schools as they give up 325 yards per game. Their rush defense is much better as it comes in at 24th while allowing 101 yards per game. Overall, they have the 95th best defense in the country.

Of course, those are nothing but numbers. Paper battles do not mean much.


A closer look reveals some oddities. Against Texas Tech, they yielded 681 yards of total offense while only gaining 474, but they won by a score of 49-21. Of the 681 yards, 586 of them came through the air. On paper, there is no way they should have won that game.

Against Wake Forest, they only gave up 375 yards while gaining 511. Yet, they lost 38-24 with their final touchdown coming with just over a minute left in the game. Wake Forest physically pounded N.C. State. On paper, there is no way N.C. State should have lost that game.

Such is life when you have a young unit that is learning on the go. Some games they may give up a ton of yards, but manage to keep the opponents out of the end zone. In others, they may give up points while limiting the number of yards.

The tendency for their pass defense to resemble a sieve is promising for Clemson. After all, most of the Tigers’ success has come through the air. The problem is, that 116th ranking is a number that may be a little skewed. The word “little” should be emphasized. Consider just two of their opponents and the game situations.

Everyone knows Texas Techs airs out. They are currently averaging 520 yards per game passing and just over 620 yards per game in total offense. They do not struggle when it comes to moving the ball. After going down 21-0 with over five minutes left in the 2nd quarter, Tech presumably took to the air even more and N.C. State loosened up a little to protect against the deep balls.

In the UNC game, N.C. State took a 21-3 lead into the 2nd quarter and a 44-21 lead into the 4th quarter. Again, the Tarheels were playing catch-up most of the day and had to sling the ball around the field. That may be part of the reason N.C. State gave up 469 yards passing that day.

All of that being said, throwing out the game against the Red Raiders means the Wolfpack would still be giving up 281.66 yards through the air on average. Toss out the UNC game for good measure and they are allowing 244.2 yards. The former would rank them 109th in the country. The latter would place them as the 89th best team.

The strange thing is they gave up all of those yards and still won the games. You can throw those two games out in order to make the numbers look better, but then you have to consider that their record drops to 2-3. Numbers are supposed to never lie, but they sometimes do.

Clemson’s offensive hopes hinge on their ability to throw the ball. That has been apparent ever since the Georgia game. However, this week’s success may depend upon how well Clemson can run the ball.

The Tigers are 17-1 under Bowden when they have rushed for 200 or more yards. In games in which they have had a 100-yard rusher, their record is 15-3. There have been 31 games where the Tigers have out gained their opponents since 1999 and they have won 26 of them.

Clemson does not need to line up in the I-formation and pound away like they did against Georgia. Passing the ball should remain the top priority. However, a decent ground game will help neutralize the speed of the N.C. State defense and allow Charlie to get comfortable back in the pocket. Having Kelly back there is a step in the right direction. He can get the tough yards needed to loosen up the defense. Coleman offers a good change of pace as well as a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield.

If Charlie gets the time he needs, there is no reason why Clemson should not successfully move the ball and score points. As it will be every week, the Clemson wide receivers have a size advantage over the N.C. State defensive backs. The absence of Airese Currie will hurt the Tigers in that it takes away their top deep threat, but all should be well.

There is no reason to think N.C. State is not going to come after Whitehurst all day long with pressure from all angles. How well the Tigers handle that pressure will dictate their success.

DEFENSE


The Clemson defense looked helpless in last year’s game. Even though Philip Rivers was held to a season low 129 yards passing, N.C. State looked unstoppable. Most of the credit for that performance goes to T.A. McClendon and the offensive line. The freshman running back had 178 yards rushing as the Wolfpack racked up 240 yards on the ground.


Rivers is having an outstanding senior campaign. He has completed 72% of his passes while throwing for 16 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He is averaging 332.29 passing yards per game and 333.14 yards of total offense. He is second in the nation in total offense. More importantly, he is getting his team in the end zone, as they are 11th in the nation in scoring at 38.43 points per game.


There is no question that Rivers is one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC if not the country. Despite his awkward release, he puts up huge passing numbers. His arm strength is questioned because of said release and the nature of their passing attack. Their controlled passing game does not require him to make many of the “strength” throws scouts like to see.

Even so, his leadership and consistency make him a winner.


Many consider Rivers to be the heart and soul of the Wolfpack. As Phillip Rivers goes, so goes N.C. State. Very few people will disagree. Without him, their offense surely would not be the juggernaut it is today. It may not even be competitive.

As good as it is with him, the man that makes that offense spectacular is T.A. McClendon. He allows them to take it to another level. When he is in there, the focus of the defense cannot be solely on Rivers. Just reference the numbers from the 2002 game and ask John Lovett. He found out last year that N.C. State’s offense is a two-headed monster that can operate independently of one another. Clemson shut down Rivers, but McClendon had a field day.

Add to that mixture a couple of speedy receivers with big play ability and these guys can light up a scoreboard very quickly. And they have done plenty of that this year. What is scary is they have put up many of the points as a one-dimensional offense while McClendon has been hurt. The only game he was truly healthy came against Texas Tech when he went for 115 yards on 10 carries. He did not play in two of their three loses and was hobbled in the third. Fortunately for them, he looks to be back this week and near 100%.

I hate saying this because it has gotten old but it bears repeating – the performance of Clemson’s front four will signal the success of the defense. If they can contain McClendon while pressuring Rivers, the nastiness Clemson showed last week could be even more prevalent. Do not get me wrong; N.C. State will move the ball. But, Clemson can successfully slow them down. In a game like this, that is all you can really hope to do.

The interesting part of the match-up between the Clemson defense and N.C. State offense is the battle of coordinators. John Lovett butts heads with Noel Mazzone. Mazzone was the offensive coordinator and Lovett the defensive coordinator under Tommy Turbeville at Auburn until the end of the 2001 season. Each should have a good feel for the tendencies of the other. It shapes up to be a game of chicken within the proverbial chess match.

SPECIAL TEAMS


N.C. State has made a name for themselves with their special teams in the last few years. They have become the Virginia Tech of the ACC in regards to blocking kicks. Whether it is field goals, extra points, or punts, they have made their fair share of plays.

Much like their offense and defense, speed is the basis of everything they do. Their specialty units are loaded with athletes who can run. They are extremely aggressive.


They are near the bottom of the national rankings in kickoff returns, but the potential is there. Clemson gave up a huge return on their last kick against Virginia. The same lackadaisical coverage this week and they may not be as lucky. Jad Dean has to find a way to return to his early season form when he was booting kicks deep into the end zone. It is impossible to give up a momentum changing return when the ball is being spotted at the 20-yard line.

Clemson is still near the top of the charts nationally in kickoff returns. If Miller and/Hamilton can have a big week this week, it would tremendously help the offense and Clemson’s chances of winning the field position battle.


The special teams may very well be the deciding factor for Clemson. It is not so much that they need the big play. They just need to stop N.C. State from executing a big play. The key to that is the Tigers must improve their punt protection. After watching the Virginia film, it is obvious that N.C. State will bring the house. They do not mind sacrificing return yardage in hopes of blocking a kick. A blocked punt is what started Clemson on a downward spiral last year.

As for field goals, Bowden may take more risks on 4th down. Hunt is in a funk right now. These things happen to kickers and there is not much anyone can do other than give it time. Going for a 35-yard FG is not a sure thing right now. Why not go for the 1st?

SUMMARY


This has all the makings of a scoring fest. ESPN’s made the decision a couple of months ago to air this game even though it looked like it could be a blowout. Now their decision looks almost prophetical. At the very least, it should be an exciting game to watch.

Clemson they must establish some semblance of a running game. If they cannot at least keep the N.C. State defenders guessing, Charlie Whitehurst may experience flashbacks to the bowl game against Texas Tech. Clemson’s offensive line will not be able to successfully slow down the Wolfpack linemen and linebackers, if they are allowed to pin their ears back and blitz all night long.

Whitehurst has looked a little rusty the last couple of games. He needs to get that out of his system and return back to the form he has displayed at times in the past. He does not have to be spectacular. He just needs to be accurate. If he gives the receivers a shot at catching they ball, they will come through.

The defense has to step up their play from last week. At times, it looked like a late 80s Clemson defense out there…especially in the first half. If they play like that the entire game, they will have a lot of fun during the game and even more fun celebrating afterwards. If they play like they did in the third quarter, McClendon and Rivers will not want the game to stop because of the numbers they will be amassing.


This game is huge. That cannot be stressed enough. Both teams need a victory in the worst way. A Clemson win could very well mean a 7-2 record when Florida State comes to town Nov. 8th. That will almost assuredly mean an ESPN night game and an atmosphere that will be electric. At that point, a 3rd place finish and Peach Bowl invite could be a near definite. Not bad for a team expected to finish with a losing record.

But that is nothing more than a scenario at this point. None of it will come true if Clemson does not beat N.C. State. The players and the coaches know that. And considering they want such a scenario to unfold more than any of the fans, it appears the promise of good things to come combined with last year’s ugly performance will serve as motivation.

N.C. State is looking for a fight and Clemson is finally ready to give them one. The Tigers’ new attitude will allow them to scratch out a victory. It may not be pretty but the Tigers win 35-30.

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