With Utah State being the lone exception, it seems like the quality of Clemson’s opponents has increased each week. Saturday’s game against N.C. State looks to be no different.
Don’t let their 4-3 record fool you. They’ve lost to two quality opponents in Miami and Ohio State. Their other loss came against North Carolina, and we all know what can happen in rivalry games.
Clemson continued its trend of defeating ACC foes who had won the previous year when they were victorious over Maryland. If that streak can continue this week, they’ll find themselves back at .500 for the first time since the Texas A&M game.
Otherwise, they’re 3-5 heading to Miami with practically no hopes of making a bowl game.
On the flip side, State has bounced back from their first two losses with ACC road wins. Who’s streak will end this week?
N.C. State may be the best defensive team Clemson has faced and will face all season. That sounds like a bold statement considering Florida State and Miami are on the schedule.
Chuck Amato’s defense is every bit as fast as the Seminoles and Hurricanes. He’s raided South Florida during recruiting season the last few years and it has paid off.
The most impressive State defender, although not from Florida, is 6’7”, 291 lb. defensive end Mario Williams. His combination of size and speed is freakish. He’s an outside linebacker trapped in a big man’s body.
His counterpart on the other end is Manny Lawson. The converted linebacker is a wiry 220 pounds as compared to Williams, but he’s faster and has caused as much if not more havoc this year. Together, they are your classic “bookends.”
The benefactors of their play have been the linebackers. Four of the top five tacklers are linebackers: Oliver Hoyte (73), Patrick Thomas (55), Freddie Aughtry-Lindsay (47), and Stephen Tulloch (42). They have 35 tackles for loss and 8 sacks between them.
Two of their four defensive backs are in their third season as starters. A third is in his second and the fourth has received significant playing time in each of the two previous seasons. Besides being extremely experienced, they are also very athletic.
This defense is ranked second nationally because they have the speed that allows them to consistently attack without fearing the repercussions of blown coverages. In a win against Virginia Tech they notched 10 sacks in 69 plays. Eleven different players have registered a sack while 20 have picked up at least one tackle for a loss.
Maryland managed only 91 yards in their match up two weeks ago. Sixty-one of those yards came on their first drive, after which they went 0-for-15 on third-down conversions.
Miami did put up 38 points and 426 yards of offense, but they’re really starting to come together as an offensive unit and benefited from great field position. They’re also the third ranked team in the country for a reason.
After watching a tape of the Maryland game, the Tiger’s offense didn’t look as bad as I initially thought. The line actually played really well at times, although sustaining blocks is still a problem.
Tommy Sharpe, who turned in another scrappy performance, could’ve made a big difference on a couple of occasions by doing a better job of sealing the middle or backside linebacker. Had he done so, it was off to the races for the running back.
Charlie will have to have his best game of the season because there’s no doubt that Reggie Herring is going to bring the house. The opportunities for big plays will be there if he can finally start connecting on the deep balls he’s missed most of the season.
The blitzing really opens up the middle of the field, as many fans can remember how tight ends used to hurt Herring’s Clemson defenses. The dilemma the coaches face is how to take advantage of that.
Ben Hall is sorely needed as a blocker, especially against a defense as quick as State’s. Reggie Merriweather’s continued improvement as a blocker could be one answer. The other could be using Duane Coleman out of the backfield.
Whatever the coaches do, they have to find a way to capitalize on the Wolfpack’s aggression.
Even in their three losses, the N.C. State offense has been productive, at least in relative terms.
They doubled Ohio State’s offensive production (256-137), went wild against UNC (577-356), and rolled up 421 yards against Miami while giving up 426. Upon reading those numbers, it’s hard to believe they struggled in those contests.
That is, of course, until you realize they committed 12 turnovers in those games.
It’s scary to think where they’d be right now if not for those mistakes in key games. They lost to Ohio State by eight and UNC by six. Going into the Miami game with a 6-0 record may have made a difference, but we’ll never know.
Quarterback Jay Davis has been under the microscope this year after replacing Phillip Rivers. He started the season a little rough but has gotten better each week.
Against Wake Forest he was 15-of-17 for 229 yards in the second half. He had the best game of his career last week by going 20-of-38 for 269 yards and four touchdowns.
He’s been a more than ample replacement for the greatest QB in Wolfpack history.
The chronically injured T.A. McClendon is back at running back. Clemson fans got a dose of how good he is two years ago when he lit up the Valley for nearly 200 yards of all-purpose offense. Last year’s performance wasn’t quite as impressive, but he had been battling injuries for some time.
Against Miami he had 145 yards on 22 carries.
The wide receivers aren’t as heralded as they have been in the past. Richard Washington is their leader and one of the most underrated guys in the league. His size (5’11”, 171) may be the biggest reason he doesn’t get much publicity.
Eight of his 26 catches have resulted in conversions of third or fourth down. As a blocker he’s registered 20 knockdown blocks, with 14 of those coming in the last four games. He may not be very flashy but he gets the job done.
If you can believe what Chuck Amato says, their offensive line is beaten up about as bad as one can be. Their top two centers are out along with starting tackle Derek Morris and backup guard Merci Falaise.
That may help a Clemson defense that had a stingy performance last week and is currently riding a streak of 11 consecutive games with a sack.
State will give Clemson a lot of different looks. They’re good at creating mismatches through the use of motion and formations. The best way to combat that is get to the quarterback before his has time to make a decision.
That’s always easier said than done.
The defensive backs and linebackers are going to really be tested in coverage this week. As athletic as Clemson’s ends are, using some zone blitzes to confuse Davis may be one way to buy some time for the defensive front.
The key for the defense is stopping McClendon, both as a rusher and a receiver. If they can force Davis to make throws to keep his offense moving, there’s a chance they’ll slow State down.
State has quietly caught up with Virginia Tech as one of the most feared special teams units in the country. They led the nation last year with 10 blocked kicks and have more than any other team since 2000 (34).
All of their units are extremely fast and have a lot of big play potential.
Sophomore kicker/punter John Deraney is one of only ten kickers in the country to handle all of the kicking duties for their respective teams.
His 42.4 yard punting average is ranked 14th in the country. Fifty-one of his 107 kickoffs during his career have been touchbacks. He is 11-for-32 this year. As a field goal kicker he’s connected on nine of his fifteen attempts with a long of 53.
Cole Chason had the best game of his career last week. His final eight attempts were all longer than 42 yards.
State did all it could do last week against Devin Hester on the opening kickoff. Deraney kicked it about six yards into the end zone with good hang time, but Hester decided to field it and took off practically untouched for a touchdown.
Unless State starts squibbing kicks, Justin Miller has a chance to make some big plays in the return game.
If this game turns out to be the defensive battle it’s capable of being, special teams will play a very important role in the outcome.
Six of the last seven games between these two schools have been decided by eight points or less. Last year was no different, as Clemson somehow made it a two point game despite going 1-for-12 on third down conversions while allowing the Wolfpack to go 11-for-17.
This year’s match up seems to favor N.C. State. They have a tremendous defense and their offense has been productive when they weren’t turning it over. The special teams are basically a wash.
I’m not sure either team has put together a complete game all season, but N.C. State has definitely come much closer. If anyone is due it has to be Clemson.
The Tigers have to find a way to generate some big plays early on to keep it close. Otherwise, it could get as ugly as the last time the Wolfpack came to Death Valley.
The outcome of the game hinges on the Clemson offense. If they can finally get everyone in sync they have a chance to make a lot of noise. The problem is that statement has been repeated each week since the beginning of the season.
There were glimpses in the Maryland game, but not enough to make one think that this is the week it will all come together, especially not when they’re playing a defense as tough as State’s.
Until they actually prove themselves as a unit, it’s hard to pick a unit that has yet to score a point off a turnover and has had to rely on the special teams to keep them in a few games. State’s speed and talent are too much for the Clemson offense. They win 27-13.