After having two very physical and long games against Miami and BC, the last thing Clemson needs is another very taxing game against a physical team. That’s exactly what Wake Forest brings to the table.
The Tigers’ struggles against the Demon Deacons have been well documented. It took two overtimes for them to eke out a victory last year. Their last trip to Winston-Salem resulted in what may be the most embarrassing loss in recent memory. Wake was up 35-0 at one point on their way to a 45-17 victory.
To say this game doesn’t have the full attention of the players and staff would be a drastic understatement. Everyone knows how dangerous this game can be.
This is a tough game for the Tigers. They have to go on the road after having played three of four at home with great fan support. They’ve lost two consecutive games in overtime, which is tough on the psyche of a team regardless of what anyone says. There’s also the internal battle players will have with doubt because of the nature of the last three games.
This contest will truly test the mettle of the Tigers. How they respond under these circumstances could tell a lot about the remainder of the season. A win is a win is a win, but Clemson really needs to come out and control this game from the start if for no other reason than to prove to themselves they are capable of winning comfortably.
Wake has been a “bend but don’t break” defense over the last few years. There have been a number of games, including the 2003 match up against Clemson, which they’ve given up a ton of yards while managing to keep their opponents from scoring a lot of points.
They led the nation in turnover margin in 2002 and were near the top of the rankings in 2003 and 2004. That advantage has led to some big upsets and kept them in games they never should have been in.
Their defense hasn’t been as opportunistic this season as they’ve forced only three turnovers in four games, all of which have been interceptions. That missing element, which has been a huge factor in their rise from the cellar of Division I-A football, has led to a 1-3 start.
Their record isn’t truly indicative of how their defense has played. Nebraska has three defensive touchdowns in a 31-3 victory. The Cornhuskers managed just 234 yards on 66 plays for an average of 3.5 yards per play. Nebraska was forced to punt eight times.
Maryland also picked up a defensive touchdown in their 22-12 win. The Terrapins also had to settle for three field goals, meaning they only managed one offensive touchdown on the day.
Sophomore middle linebacker John Abbate is the leader of the defense. He runs well, is strong for his size, and his scrappiness always has him around the ball. He was the ACC Rookie of the Week after last year’s performance against Clemson, an award he won on two other occasions.
Defensive tackle Goryal Scales is the most experienced player on the entire unit. He’s a physical player who, despite his size, is a good run stopper. His greatest contribution may be his leadership. At 273 pounds, he is the largest of all the starters.
Corners Alphonso Smith and Kevin Patterson may be the weakest link. Both of them are first year starters.
The coaches have been very impressed with Smith because of his instincts and speed. He intercepted a pass last week as the Terrapins were operating inside the red zone. Patterson is not as gifted athletically but has a nose for the ball and loves to hit. Both are redshirt freshmen.
If last year’s game is any indication, the Deacs will make up for their lack of size and speed with a plethora of stunts and blitzes. Clemson’s line will have to do a good job of adjusting on the fly to ensure they give Charlie Whitehurst time to throw.
Charlie should have more chances to make plays than he had through the first four weeks. He must have patience and do a good job of reading the disguised coverages.
The running game should get back on track after facing two of the better fronts they’ll see all year. Wake is not nearly as talented or big as Miami or BC. Clemson has struggled with their running game against the Deacs the last few years, but the line is much better than in the past and they finally have the ability to control a smaller front.
The third down issues that plagued Clemson last week will have to be corrected. Wake opponents have converted on just 30 percent of their attempts and are a pathetic 1-for-21 in third-and-long situations.
This could and should be a repeat of the Texas A&M game plan with a few more passes mixed in to test the young corners. The key is to make the most of the ground attack in order to keep Wake honest. Otherwise, Clemson will be forced into another one-dimensional performance, which plays right into the hands of Wake Forest.
Clemson simply hasn’t been able to figure out the Wake offense over the last two years. They have scorched the Tigers for an ungodly number of yards and 75 points in those two games. They have averaged 290 yards rushing, 420.8 yards of total offense, and 28 points in their four games against Clemson under Jim Grobe.
Running backs Chris Barclay and Micah Andrews are the biggest reason why Wake is the only school in the country to have two players averaging over 100 yards a game rushing. Barclay has led the ACC in rushing for the last two seasons and is the 14th player in league history to have consecutive 1000-yard rushing campaigns.
Andrews has played himself into a role as the team’s best offensive player. He leads the ACC with 120.8 yards per game and had a 254-yard performance against Vanderbilt. He is a powerful runner that excels between the tackles.
Tackle Steve Vallos is the team’s best lineman. He has started 27 consecutive games, is a Lombardi Trophy candidate, and played every snap of offense this season. The man on the other side, Wesley Bryant, has also been on the field for every play.
The biggest question for their offense coming into the game is at quarterback. Ben Mauck took over as the starter with three games left last season even though he still shared time with Cory Randolph.
Randolph made the move to receiver this year because the staff felt he was too talented to sit on the sideline. He has been a valuable addition to the receiving corps but may play quarterback this week because of Mauck’s lack of production.
Randolph is much more of a threat to make something happen with his feet and the coaches think that asset may provide a spark for the offense. Clemson will likely see both under center and a slightly different plan of attack for each.
Wake is tough to defend because their offense is so physical and unique. Many claim the Deacons are dirty because they employ a lot of cut blocks that seem illegal. The truth is their blocks are legal and extremely effective.
The Tigers have to have to really rely on their keys and stick to their assignments this week. The linebackers must get good reads from the guards and guard/center combo to help solve the misdirection Wake will use to confuse the defense.
There’s no doubt the Deacs will work to establish the run and hope to work their play action passing game. They will attack the soft spots in the Clemson zone that have hurt the Tigers so much in recent weeks.
The front four has to have a big game against the run and pass. The latter is extremely important because Randolph and Mauck can really hurt the Tigers if they are given enough time to allow the receivers to settle into the weak links in the zone.
Wake has one of the best weapons in the country in punter Ryan Plackemeier. He leads the ACC and is eighth nationally in net punting at 40.1 yards. He has 12 career kicks of 60 yards or more. Two of those came against Maryland (60 & 61) as he ended the day with four kicks over 50 yards. He is also very accurate as evidenced by his three kicks against the Terrapins that were downed inside the 20-yard line, two of which were killed at the 2.
First-year kicker Sam Swank is 7-for-9 on the season. He is 3-of 3 from 40-plus yards with a long of 51. Six of his kickoffs have gone for touchbacks and opponents have an average starting position of the 25-yard line.
Clemson punter Cole Chason is now firmly on the hot seat after another average performance against BC. Tommy Bowden opened up the battle for the starting position earlier this week but has been mum when it comes to naming a starter.
Jad Dean has an excellent season going so far. He’s 12-of-13 with his lone miss being a 51-yard attempt against Miaimi.
As close as these games have been in the past, special teams could be an integral part in deciding the outcome. That was the case last year as Justin Miller’s punt return for a touchdown proved to be one of the deciding factors in the overtime win.
It’s going to be a physical and mental challenge for Clemson. They’re a little banged up right now and the trip up I-85 will bring back some very bad memories. It’s not the ideal scenario for Tommy Bowden as he tries to get his team back on track.
Clemson has much better talent and should win this game. Fans know all to well that the Tigers have struggled with the so-called “gimmies” over the years, and that’s what makes this game a tough one to judge.
If Clemson protects the ball as they have all season, they should have more than enough success on offense to form a comfortable lead by the middle of the fourth quarter. A couple of turnovers and the make up of the games takes on completely different complexion.
Clemson coaches, players, and, probably most of all, fans need a win that doesn’t come down to the final play of the game. All of the close contests have taken their toll on everyone involved in some way. The inability to deliver a knockout punch has cost them two games against very good opponents. It’s going to eventually cost them a game against a team that should’ve never had a chance if they continue taking it to the razor’s edge.
That’s not going to happen this week. Clemson will get some help from the ground game, and the defense will finally get some consistent pressure as they march to a 27-14 victory.