Where are these two teams in comparison to where they were a year ago for the annual ACC Atlantic Championship football contest? I've had the chance to briefly review a bit of last season's football game and here were a few observations, takeaways, and more thoughts on how these areas may play out Saturday against the ‘Noles...
Clemson's defensive line was completely dominated in last season's football game. Florida State whipped us up front all night long. It got so bad that Venables made the conscious decision to play a 3-3-5 halfway through the game because our line was doing such a poor job against a pretty good FSU offensive line. Malliciah Goodman was reached on nearly every OZ play. Our DTs were nowhere to be found inside. I don't believe this is the case going into Saturday's football game. Clemson has improved steadily up front and now are actually controlling the LOS these days. I complained repeatedly that we did a poor job recruiting in years past because we basically had two seasons (last and the year before) of no depth or no experience. We've been patient and now have an experienced and deep group of linemen. We should not have to wait 2 bad years to do that, but the line right now is probably as deep as it has been in a while. Florida State will not dominate this defensive line like last season.
This group has to slow down the running game and contain/pressure Jameis Winston. Not exactly rocket science, but hurrying the opposing quarterback greatly helps the secondary--a secondary that will be called upon to defend a very, very good group of Seminole receivers. Most ‘Nole fans point to this line as the overall deepest in years (I believe they only have one player in the OL two-deep who is not a Jr. or Sr., and Ruben Carter is a redshirt Soph.) so the battle in the trenches will definitely be one to watch...if Clemson's DL comes out looking like roses then the overall two year turnaround will be tremendous--and highly appreciated by the rest of the CU defense.
Clemson's secondary got rolled up last year. A lot of this blame does fall on the shoulders of the defensive line and their lack of pressure. To this point in the season, I have to say that Clemson looks much improved in the secondary. Breeland appears to be very comfortable out there, is more physical, and has shown a knack for finding the football. The questions arise from the play of the safeties. Clemson has to assure the defense can adequately fill the alley, take proper angles, and assure you wrap up instead of going for some sort of Randy Savage off the top rope kill shot on every tackle attempt. FSU is extremely talented at the quarterback, receiver, and Nick O'Leary is no slouch at TE so they will move the football through the air. Clemson's secondary has to keep the big plays to a minimal and force the freshman QB to stay patient, make a mistake, then capitalize on that mistake.
FSU could have run for 400 yards last year. Chris Thompson had 15 carries for over 100 yards last year and seemed to run at will. Wilder got his fair share of action late in the game. However, the FSU playcalling went the other direction early on and I thought Clemson caught a break. Clemson's front seven were not impressive at all stopping the run but Fisher chose not to pound that front--especially throughout the first 2-3 quarters of the game. Had that happened, Florida State could have gained control of that football game much earlier. They had their fair share of yards early on the ground but I definitely thought during the game that if I were calling the FSU plays, I'd have made Clemson stop the ground attack. This is an example of how Fisher does not see the forest for the trees sometimes. I guess this is a two-fold item with two distinct questions (A) Can Clemson stop the run? (B) If FSU is gashing the CU front, will Jimbo get all pass-happy again? My guess to the last question is "No" because he has a freshman playing QB in a hostile environment and Clemson's secondary looks to be improved year over year.
Clemson gave up on running the football. If there is one consistent item we've complained about with The Chad's playcalling over the years it is that he abandons the run just when it looks like we can run the football down the opponent's throat. Clemson didn't run it all over FSU but they got some yardage by getting the linebackers to move laterally, then got away from running Ellington completely for nearly a quarter of the second half after the third quarter Clemson field goal, and stopped running sweeps that were useful earlier. The result was a series of three and outs that eventually led to FSU busting the game wide open by the mid-point of the 4th quarter. The first part of this equation is can Clemson run (with the running backs) the ball early? If Clemson cannot, will The Chad simply give up or continue to at least try to establish the run? If Clemson can run, will The Chad stick with it or move away when it seems like Clemson can control the game by grounding it out? I have no answers for this one.
The Clemson offensive line played pretty well last year. Aside from a couple areas and situations we knew would need help, we played pretty well up front. This group was able to open a few holes for the backs (well, until we quit trying to run the football) and was able to provide adequate protection for Tajh most of the night. This year's group makes me a bit nervous as we have simply gotten no push and have not looked good at the right tackle position all year pass blocking. Last week made me even more nervous as Tajh was on the run more than I'd like because BC was able to dial up some things that we had trouble mitigating. FSU is much more talented up front than BC and has much more speed. I am concerned about them coming off the end with a speedy linebacker/DB and hope that we'll be able to both identify these items during the presnap read then pick them up during the play. Hopefully Shaq Anthony will look outside instead of inside every play.
FSU was able to jam at the LOS and reroute Clemson's receivers last year. The Chad-in a later presser-made it sound like our guys got completely manhandled. I don't agree with that for the most part but do know that the Seminoles were able to adjust the Clemson receivers off the football at will and did an excellent job fundamentally jamming the crap out of our guys. Sammy discussed this over the summer and Morris was clearly distraught about how FSU didn't give the Clemson receivers a free release so you would intuitively think this was an emphasis area. Clemson hasn't played a secondary with this much talent all year and probably won't again. I'd love to see straight up bump and run against our receivers because I think guys like Bryant and Watkins can get off the jam then make the defense really pay with speed down the field. The other key item to think about here is the timing. A jam of a receiver will throw off timing even if the receiver is able to swim, rip, or juke out of the jam. This means that Tajh will have to be alert and adjust to where his receivers are located on the field. A concern there is Tajh has gotten happy feet in the past--particularly if he has been pressured early in the game. All of these items work together on topics of this nature.
Tajh played well enough for Clemson to win last year. Tajh Boyd definitely wasn't the reason Clemson lost last year. He played a hard game and did all he was asked to do even though a lot of his stats weren't especially spectacular. There were some complaints about his play, but I will not even think to point to anyone on the offense (QB in particular) as a reason for last season's loss. The one big mistake he made was the late interception. We need Tajh to maintain good decision making this week and avoid getting flustered. FSU has the best defense we've played this year and will pounce on any mistake made. No one is asking Tajh to "manage" this game--just keep playing smart football and do your thing...after LSU last year, no one can question whether this guy is tough, has heart, and is a winner.
Special teams play was both good and bad for Clemson last year. Clemson couldn't get the proper personnel on the field for a freaking extra point and burned an unnecessary timeout. However, Clemson was able to fake a field goal in the first half last year then went on to score a TD on that drive. Catman kicked a 50 yarder on his only field goal attempt. However, Clemson was able to generate little returning punts and kickoffs. Coverage was moderate / scary at best-including a 90 yard kickoff return given up to the Seminoles that sparked their big scoring spurt. Clemson really hasn't done much returning the ball. Their speed really scares me. I hope we can kick the ball through the endzone to avoid allowing their talent touch the ball on a kick return. If Pinion's knee is fully healed that won't be a problem. I won't even think about the shenanegans that could happen on fakes with our staff (and fakes that occur in Death Valley with a top 10 FSU team playing a Top 5 Clemson team on national TV). I guess all I can hope is that there are no fakes and Clemson isn't forced to take a special teams timeout-we had to last week-in this game.
Clemson had a double digit lead in the third quarter last year. The Tigers were able to take a seven point lead into half, come out and stop FSU, then use a little trickery (Watkins pass to Ellington) to jump up 28-14 early in the third. Clemson kicked a 50 yard field goal to go up 10 with 7 minutes to play in the 3rd period. Then, the wheels fell off. Clemson gave up a huge kick return that resulted in an FSU touchdown. Clemson then refused to run the football and could not convert third downs...resulting in avalanche of FSU scoring. If Clemson gets the ‘Noles down big, the question is can our Tigers put them away. Even if we give up the big play, can we come back and not allow one play to simply deflate the guys and the staff. If any of this happens, can Clemson maintain their strategy and avoid pressing no matter the swings? After watching last season's Peach Bowl, I know Clemson has the ability to overcome most any obstacle and after watching the UGa game I've realized that Clemson can hold on against a quality team-and offense in particular.