Roy Martin: Miami - Clemson Preview


by - Correspondent -
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In some ways, this game is a death trap of sorts for Clemson fans. Win and expectations surrounding the program may swell beyond reason. Lose, and it kills the momentum as well as reveals those who love a good ride on a bandwagon. Once those folks gather their feet after their crash landing, the undue criticism and coaching searches will undoubtedly begin.


The coaches and players understand this. It is just one of the many different aspects they must deal with from a business point of view. They do not live and die with each game in the manner fans tend to do, at least not on the same emotional level. They try to approach each game with the same mentality.


That is going to be a tough task for everyone this week because of the magnitude of the game. It has all of a sudden become the biggest game in Death Valley since the ’92 tilt against FSU, when Clemson had a chance to make a statement in the newly expanded ACC and gain a little of the national spotlight. This week is a chance for them to do the same, but the importance on a national level is even greater this time around.


This will be the 14th time two ranked teams have met in Death Valley, with Clemson holding a 9-4 advantage in such situations. The Tigers have won five of their last seven games against ranked opponents. Meanwhile, Miami has an all-time record of 236-58-2 when they are in the polls and they have won 20 of their last 25 battles with ranked foes.

OFFENSE


There is no doubt about it; this is the offense’s toughest test to date and possibly the best defense they will see all year. They are extremely athletic, fast, and experienced.

Coming into the season the defense had a combined 181 starts. That is a good foundation for a defense that has traditionally been one of the best around, especially in the last six years. Since 1999 Miami ranks fifth in the country with 230 sacks and second in touchdowns allowed (127).

There is nothing spectacular concerning their mode of operation. They do not bring a lot of unusual blitzes or try to confuse opponents by disguising many coverages. They basically line up with the mentality that they are better athletically and that advantage, along with very good fundamentals, will get the job done.

A look at their defensive roster does not reveal anything extraordinary in terms of height and weight. In fact, they may be a bit undersized in some regards. What those numbers do not reveal is speed. The tackles run like ends. Their ends run like linebackers. Their linebackers run like safeties…you get the point.

It sometimes appears as if the only thing that can slow them down is the injury bug, which has bitten them in the last few weeks. Starting linebacker Tavares Gooden is out with a shoulder injury. Rocky McIntosh, who just happened to start nearly all of last season, replaces him. Safety Anthony Reddick is out for the season after suffering a knee injury. After shuffling a few players, All-ACC candidate Greg Threat is now starting for Reddick.


All four defensive linemen are returning starters, the linebackers are extremely deep, and the secondary has as much experience as anyone. Kelly Jennings and Devin Hester are rated the sixth and seventh best cornerback prospects in the country, and Hester does not even start.

The week’s column is a little shorter because there is not much to say in terms of weaknesses that need to be attacked. There are very few. The teams that have had the most success against Miami have neutralized the Canes’ speed by going right at them.


Clemson needs to do the same. The offensive line and backs need to pound the ball as early and as often as possible if they have any hopes of softening the defense. Many of the quick screens utilized so far this season probably will not be as effective unless the Tigers can catch Miami in an all out blitz. Otherwise, they are just too fast.

It is tough to throw against a team like Miami when you spread the field or are in true passing situations such as third-and-long. That is why the success of the running game will likely dictate how well the passing game functions.


By continuing to gain three to five yards on first down and having successful ground plays on second and third downs, Clemson should be able to utilize more play action passes. Again, play action helps negate the Miami speed by delaying the drops and reads of the linebackers and secondary.

DEFENSE

The Tigers struggled against the run versus A&M and the pass against Maryland. The question this week is have they finally corrected the mistakes that have led to those struggles?

Vic Koenning insists it is not the scheme and the players seem to agree. By their own admission they have played rather carelessly the last couple of weeks. Mental mistakes have been a thorn in their side. Those that look at the glass as half full note that mental mistakes are not all that bad because they are easier to correct. It also says a lot about the talent level when that is the coordinator’s only gripe.

Regardless of the reason for the mistakes, Clemson better find a way to have them corrected this week. Miami has a tradition of scoring a lot of points. They’re 177-16 since 1983 when scoring first and they’ve won 143 consecutive games when scoring at least 31 points.


The offensive line returns four starters, including all-everything candidate Eric Winston. He missed all but four games last season with a knee injury and looked a little rusty against Florida State, but the former tight end has a ton of talent and moves extremely well.

FSU was able to apply a lot of pressure two weeks ago, but that probably had just as much to do with their talent and the inexperience of Miami’s quarterback. Do not let those numbers fool you – Miami has a good line.


Speaking of their quarterback, Kyle Wright looked like he was acting out is own version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the opener. His second half performance was much better than the one he turned in during the first two quarters. He managed to finish the game with over 230 yards passing despite being sacked 9 times. To say he was resilient is an understatement.


His favorite target that night was Greg Olsen. The sophomore tight end had 8 receptions for 137. Four of those catches accounted for 67 yards on Miami’s final drive that should have tied the game. Buck Ortega, who was the starter before Olsen transferred in, backs him up. Ortega is not as good of a receiver, but adds a little more from a blocking standpoint.

The receivers are led by Ryan Moore and Sinorice Moss. Moore is another highly touted player coming off a major injury. His size (6’3”, 215) and speed make him a big play threat and a tough match up for most corners.

Tyrone Moore averaged over four yards per carry against Miami as he racked up 102 yards on 23 carries. The junior is similar to Reggie Merriweather in stature and maybe has just a tad bit more breakaway speed. He has been bothered by a leg bruise and could be replaced by all-purpose back Quadtrine Hill, Derron Thomas, or Charlie Jones.

The Canes have historically been a very balanced offensive team. They are one of only two teams to surpass 2000 yards passing and rushing at least 6 times since 1998. Much like their defense, they stick to the basics and do not get very imaginative.

Again, not a whole lot to talk about. They use the run to set up their play action passes, although they do go deep a little more often than most teams with the same philosophy.


As good as Wright may turn out to be, he is still very inexperienced. Because Koenning likes to run a lot of zone, he needs to do a good job of mixing and disguising the different types of coverage. The defense can not allow Wright to get in a rhythm or he may pick the Tigers apart.

The game could ride on the performance of the front seven. The linemen need to apply constant pressure and the linebackers have to stick to their zones when they are not blitzing. Creating collisions with Olsen will be a big factor in how well he performs. If the ends and linebackers can not prevent him from getting a clean release, his routes will suffer, which will directly lead Wright’s timing being thrown off.


If Koenning does stick with a majority of man coverage and Wright is given enough time to settle into his throw, he is going to find enough holes in the zone to make the Tigers pay. He would have to have an off day and/or his receivers would have to drop a number of balls for that not to happen under those circumstances.


SPECIAL TEAMS


Devin Hester probably is the most dangerous return man in the country but there is no need in going over his resume. Bowden has said time and again he is not going to kick to him. End of story.

Kicker John Peattie is very good. He had 22 field goals in 2004 and 15 in 2005. He has made 83 consecutive PATs and kicked 5 FGs in one game. He does not have the strongest leg out there, but he is as accurate as any kicker in the country.

Punter Brian Monroe has quietly been a weapon for them on special teams. He had a net average of 41.2 yards in ’04 and 20 of his 64 attempts were downed inside the 20-yard-line. Ten of those twenty were downed inside the 10. Opponents averaged a mere 5.4 yards per return.

Miami has led the nation in scores by returns since 1999. Granted, counted among those statistics are interception and fumble returns, but it does show how good they have been in the kicking game over the years. Just in 2004 they returned five punts, one kickoff, two blocked punts, and one blocked field goal.


Cole Chason needs to have great hang time and enough accuracy to kick away from Hester in a way that he does not give up a lot of yards on his gross average.


Jad Dean needs to either kick it out of the back of the end zone or pooch it to the 15-yard-line or so. You do not want to give up a big return, but you also do not want to kick it out of bounds and give them the ball at the 35.


Clemson’s return and coverage units have looked pretty bad other than Chansi Stuckey’s big return. They desperately need a big game from all of the special teams units this week. Just like offense and defense, how well these units block and tackle will tell how improved they are.

Miami’s special teams cost them the game against Florida State. They had a punt blocked, botched the snap on game tying field goal attempt, and just looked very undisciplined throughout the entire game. Look for significant improvements this week after having nearly two weeks to prepare.

SUMMARY

Clemson is looking to hand Miami their first 0-2 start since 1977. Losing is not something the Canes do very often, especially when they have revenge on their minds.

It should be a fairly simple game plan for the Tigers. Nothing too fancy. Just play fundamental football and go straight for their throats. Make Miami play all 60 minutes and, as Bowden said, good things can happen.

The greatest attribute Clemson has going for them is their desire to compete. They have won 10 games since 2000 within the last 3 minutes, 9 of which have come within the last 30 seconds. Six of those victories have come since the beginning of the 2004 season.


The question some are asking these days is does Miami know how to lose. They are now 5-4 in ACC play, which is abysmal for a program like Miami.


They began the season with a conference loss. The fact that it was to their archrival, which they had not lost to in six years, only made the loss that much worse. How does a team not accustomed to losing deal with that double whammy? Do they fight harder than ever or do they give up if Clemson catches a couple of early breaks?

No one really knows the answer. It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds, especially if the Tigers do gain early momentum and Death Valley starts rocking. It is hard to pick against a prizefighter that has only taken a few big blows, but it is also hard to pick against the underdog that seemingly defies odds time after time.

I have to go with the Tigers until they prove me wrong. They finally get a victory that is not a battle to the very end as they win 27-14.

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