Wolfpack 'D' Provides Opportunities For Big Plays

by - Correspondent -
Charlie Whitehurst could have a chance to complete more passes downfield vs. N.C. State, if his pass protection holds up.

CLEMSON - In four of Clemson's five games this season, offensive coordinator Rob Spence figures the Tigers have faced future early-round draft choices on the opposing defensive lines.

So why should Thursday night be any different? North Carolina State boasts the kind of line talent that ranks up there with Miami, Florida State and any number of other upper-echelon teams in the country.

Defensive ends Mario Williams (6-foot-7, 290 pounds) and Manny Lawson (6-6, 245), along with defensive tackle John McCargo (6-2, 295) present a unique challenge for Clemson Thursday (7:45 p.m., ESPN):

They are a combination of size and speed that forces the opposition to specifically account for them in the offensive game plan.

Just the kind of task, perhaps, for the man they call the Mad Scientist.

"I think you have to blend a lot of different thoughts on offense," Spence said following Tuesday's practice. "You can't just do one thing. You have to keep their defensive linemen at bay with different movements in the backfield - shifts and motions. Throw the ball on different time frames. Move the pocket some.

"You've really got to keep them off balance in order to function on offense."

And if none of that works?

"You have to have a Plan B if you can't protect (the quarterback)," head coach Tommy Bowden said.

Such a backup plan might be keeping a tight end in to block, in effect adding one more offensive lineman to the package. Or maybe you chip with a running back, asking a James Davis or Reggie Merriweather to get just enough contact on an oncoming pass-rusher to slow him down, before drifting into the flat as a pass-play safety valve.

But the trouble doesn't stop there.

The Wolfpack backs up its pass rush with a tight, press man-to-man coverage on opposing wide receivers. The aggressive coverage is designed to take away the shorter, high-percentage passes and force the offense to throw further downfield, where completion percentages drop.

The combination has been successful so far. State is allowing opponents to complete just 40.3 percent of their passes so far this season, far and away the best in the ACC and second only to Miami in overall pass defense efficiency.

What does it all mean?

If the Tigers are to have offensive success, running the ball remains the first overall objective. But beyond that, one or more of the Clemson wide receivers will have to find a way to make plays against the Wolfpack's aggressive coverage.

"It will be a game of one-on-ones," said Spence. "It will come down to making a play against a defender covering a receiver one-on-one. When they rush the passer up front it's going to be one-on-ones up front. All the different coverages they use, for the most part, force some sort of man concept.

"You've got to make plays against man, and you've got to protect the passer while doing so against a tremendous rush."


Backup offensive tackle Christian Capote remains injured and will not make the trip to Raleigh.

Bowden said Tim DeBeer will be the backup at both tackle spots in Capote's absence. If DeBeer were to go down, the backup would be Brandon Pilgrim - currently a guard.

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