I am always amazed at how fickle fans can be. Not just Clemson fans, but fans in general.
Two weeks ago, many were down in the dumps because of the Boston College loss. Message boards and radio shows were overrun with folks complaining about injuries, refs, players not stepping up, and play calling.
Specifically, Rob Spence was too conservative. The same Rob Spence that fans hailed as a genius after his quarterback draw call to seal the South Carolina game last year. The same Rob Spence that resurrected Clemson’s running game upon his arrival.
And thanks to his game plan last week, and his decision to quick snap it on the last drive, he has run the cycle of going from genius to idiot and back to genius in five games.
I understand that my depiction may be a little harsh. After all, it has been said that the folks who use message boards and sports talk to express their thoughts are usually in the minority. Maybe so, but they are the vocal majority.
Now that Spence has regained genius status and things in general look brighter, those that were just talking about how the Tigers could maybe scratch out an 8-4 season, are trying to figure out which two teams will beat Boston College while Clemson runs the table.
As wishy-washy as fans can be, teams can sometimes be just as bad. Clemson is a fine example.
Is there a team in the country that can boast about beating the likes of Florida State a week after being thrashed by a team like Wake Forest? And is there a team that can lose to the likes of Duke – Duke’s last Division I-A win, by the way – the week after beating national power Miami in the Orange Bowl?
The Tigers need to save all the clichés concerning senior leadership, not looking ahead, and focus. Fans have heard them all too often. It is time for Clemson to show they can actually do it.
With just three new starters and a couple of preseason awards candidates on defense, the Tarheels have left a lot of folks scratching their heads.
In the season opener, Rutgers had drives of 63, 78, and 97 yards that resulted in touchdowns. They also had a fourth drive of 87 yards that ended with a fumble.
They seemed to get everything turned around the next week against Virginia Tech. The Hokies were forced to punt six times and committed three turnovers. The longest of those nine drives was 28 yards and four of them were less than 10 yards. Two of their four offensive touchdowns came on drives of two and six yards.
The Tarheels then fell apart again last week. Furman rolled up 446 yards of offense and 42 points. Furman’s average scoring drive was just under nine plays and just over 75 yards. Their shortest scoring drive in terms of distance was an eight-play, 65-yard drive. The Paladins scored touchdowns on six of their nine drives.
There is one first-year starter on the defensive line – defensive end Hilee Taylor. Taylor has been used as a pass rushing specialist during his career. Twenty-one percent of his tackles have been sacks (7-of-36).
Two of the other three have started at least 17 games and the third has played extensively during the past three years.
Outside linebacker Larry Edwards is a preseason Butkus Award candidate after starting all of last season. The man on the opposite side is Durrell Mapp, who spent last season as the starter in the middle. Victor Worsley has taken over for Mapp and will be making his fourth career spot.
All-ACC candidate and third year starter, Kareen Taylor, at strong safety lead the secondary. Free safety Cooter Arnold is spending his first year on defense after being the team’s starting tailback in 2005. At the corners are Jacoby Watkins and Quinton Person. Watkins was the team’s best corner in 2004 and started off 2005 with a bang before breaking his leg.
As has been the case nearly every game since Spence took over as the offensive coordinator, I think Clemson must be able to run the ball effectively. Rutgers averaged over five yards per carry, Virginia Tech was right at four yards per rush, and Furman finished the day with right at five yards per carry.
Furman, despite being a I-AA opponent, is a very good offense that does a lot of things well. The reason they were so successful is they are multi-dimensional. Clemson, although in a much different manner, has that aspect of being multi-faceted in their favor.
The North Carolina defensive line is big, but they are not as fast as Florida State’s and I do not think they are as fundamentally sound as Boston College’s. The Clemson offensive line has been extremely well in pass protection all year, but they have struggled at times with their run blocking. How well they do in the latter will likely dictate the flow of the game.
North Carolina has already had one back go for over 200 yards and another that went for over 100. They have not faced a group of backs as talented as Clemson’s all year. James Davis and Reggie Merriweather should have good days. C.J. Spiller was not used as much last week, because FSU could neutralize his speed and he is still inexperienced. He may play a more important role this week because North Carolina is not as fast.
The receivers have had some big catches this year to go along with some big drops. The opportunity is there Saturday for them to have a big day if they play more consistently. Opposing quarterbacks are 45-of-65 this year with no interceptions. That is a 69 percent completion percentage.
If the onus is on the line, Will Proctor is the wildcard. He has done an excellent job providing leadership and managing games so far. He entered the season with a good bit of hype and has played as well or better than most expected. If the running game struggles, he will have to prove he can do more than manage the offense. He will have to prove he can win games.
New offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti has revived the offense after a few down years following the departure of Darian Durant. North Carolina is third in the conference in total offense with 146 yards rushing and 226 yards passing per game.
The offensive line has three first year starters in center Scott Lenahan, guard Calvin Darity, and tackle Garrett Reynolds. Guard Charlston Gray was a first-team freshman All-American in 2004 and has 21 starts. Tackles Brian Chacos was granted a sixth year of eligibility and is on the Lombardi Award watch list. He has 26 career starts.
Running back Ronnie McGill has battled injuries most of his career enters the season with high expectations. He is on the Doak Walker Award watch list and finished with four touchdowns against Furman.
The receivers are big, physical guys who are pretty good. Senior Jesse Holley earned honorable mention All-ACC honors last season and is one of the top-returning receivers in the league. He is averaging over 17 yards per catch this year and nearly 14 per catch for his career. He is the guy they look to in jump ball situations.
Freshman Hakeem Nicks beat out the man many thought would be the other starter, sophomore Brooks Foster. He was named ACC Rookie of the Week for his performance against Rutgers. Foster will also see a lot of action and will be the third guy in three receiver sets.
Redshirt freshman Cam Sexton has taken over the quarterback job after Nebraska transfer Joe Dailey started the first game. Sexton was highly recruited coming out of high school and likely would have seen action last year had he not suffered a broken ankle in spring practice.
As with any freshman, Sexton is still unproven, but performed well in a close game against Furman. He is very athletic and can make a lot of things happen with his feet.
I think the biggest factor being overlooked in this game is the North Carolina offense. They remind me a lot of Boston College – a big, physical team that will pound it at you. The difference is they don’t have the experience at quarterback, but that can sometimes work against a defense, especially with a kid like Sexton.
McGill is a classic bruiser who is at his best when he is running north and south. The line is much like Clemson’s in that they have struggled with the running game at times, but have been excellent in pass protection. They have given up just two sacks in three games, which is fourth best in the country.
Cignetti made a name for himself at Fresno State with an offense that relied and a good mix of pass and run. He has always had good backs much in the mold of McGill and used a lot of play action in the passing game. They definitely prefer to use the run to set up the pass.
Florida State made it a little easier on Clemson last week because they did not have much of a power running game, and did not do a good job of protecting Drew Weatherford. North Carolina will be better running the ball and should offer more protection for Sexton.
Clemson’s front stepped up their level of play last week and must do the same again this week. They will be challenged much like they were against Boston College.
How well they do against the run will dictate a lot. If they are successful, Vic Koenning will have much more leverage in terms of how he can attack. If not, a lot of pressure will be applied to the linebackers and secondary.
The secondary had their struggles last week when Weatherford had ample time, but all things considered, had a pretty good night. If I were a fan, I would be a little worried by the presence of C.J. Gaddis back in the starting lineup at cornerback.
He has looked confused when he has been in there at that position. I thought Gaddis had a pretty good game against Florida State in limited action at the safety position and believe that is more of a natural fit for him.
Maybe it is a little gamesmanship by Koenning or maybe he really thinks Gaddis will work at corner. I personally would take my chances with Crezdon Butler and Chris Chancellor, but I am not privy to what goes on at practices.
One guy who has been mentioned very little is Chris Clemmons. He had a good game last week and I have been told Koenning is pleased with his progress, especially the way he has handled the calls. I also think Clemmons has been one of the best tacklers on the team through the first three games.
Tommy Bowden called out Jad Dean this week and rightfully so. Dean’s times have been longer than they should and a big reason for three blocks in two games. He has now missed an extra point in four straight games.
Dean needs to grow up and take responsibility. I do not think Bowden or any other coach would publicly chide a kicker without merit, especially considering how mentally fragile so many kickers are. If Jad Dean is to learn anything from this past week, it needs to be this – shut up and kick.
Cole Chason’s role may be more important this week because of the issues with the field goal unit. Bowden may be a little reluctant to go for three points depending on field position. If so, Chason will need to be able to do a good job of pooching his kicks.
North Carolina has been very good in kickoff coverage. Opponents’ average starting field position on kicks they return in the 19-yard line. They are also second in the conference in kickoff returns, averaging 23.4 yard per return. They also average 15 yards per punt return.
Kicker Connor Barth has struggled with his consistency over the last year but has made some very good kicks. He nailed one from forty plus two years ago to beat Miami and has a 46 and 47-yarder under his belt this season.
This is a section that really is meant for the postgame analysis. I would like to mention I think Spence and Koenning have had very good game plans the last two weeks. A lack of execution by the special teams has taken a little attention away from how well both units were prepared.
One other point is how Bowden has approached a couple of reviews in his two games against Florida State since the inception of that process.
He called a timeout with nearly 20 seconds left on the play clock in last year’s game, hoping the booth would call for a review of a catch made by Aaron Kelly. The play was reviewed and eventually overturned, giving the Tigers a touchdown.
In last week’s game he used his one challenge in the first half to challenge what he thought was a fumble because a punt hit a Florida State player.
Again, the call was overturned and Clemson picked up some much needed field position.
In both cases Clemson benefited and I think he was right in choosing to use his challenge so early last week. My problem is how quickly he acts. In both instances, he should have let more time pass in hopes the booth would make the call before he had to waste a timeout. He had ample time to burn in each case.
Wasting a timeout or a challenge so quickly may prove disastrous sooner rather than later.
I think Clemson’s offense has an opportunity to move the ball this week.
The line should have gained a little confidence in how in the last drive of the Florida State game as well as their ability to run right at the heart of the Seminole’s defense.
James Davis continues to get better each week and Reggie Merriweather has been extremely reliable. As mentioned early, C.J. Spiller’s speed could pose some matchup problems for the North Carolina defenders if he is able to get to the corner and/or is used as a receiver out of the backfield.
I also believe North Carolina will have some success moving the ball. Their offense has been fairly effective in all three games even though they have not scored a lot of points in two of them. Turnovers have been the bane of their existence in those two. They have seemingly stopped themselves just as much as opposing defenses. More importantly, their turnovers have led to points, thus putting them in catch-up mode.
I think Clemson’s offense has enough weapons and leadership to get it done.
The defense is still learning but they are extremely athletic and show a penchant for making plays when they need to.
In the end, it comes down to how well Clemson can handle being back in the race for the ACC crown and managing the emotions of a huge road win. More than leadership, I think chemistry is the biggest factor in such situations.
The Tigers really came together during summer workouts. Participation was nearly 100 percent and they worked really hard. I also see the offense picking up the defense and vice versa on the sideline. That shows me these guys really like each other and ultimately want to succeed regardless of who is on the field.
North Carolina is a better opponent than many think, but Clemson appears to finally have the right “team” mentality. It will not be as big as fans want but Clemson wins 38-30.