Well, I used Neo escaping bullets last week to describe the escape against Louisville. This time I'll go with:
The Tigers have indeed discovered how to DIE HARD during the absence of Deshaun Watson. The result is a 5-2 record and a slow but steady recovery in the top 25 polls. Now the Tigers bring in ACC newbie Syracuse to Death Valley in an effort to educate the Orange on what true crowd noise sounds like. Hopefully the education will extend to the football game itself much like it did last year when Taj Boyd and company lit up the Carrierdome for 624 yards and 49 points. Most Tiger fans don't believe the offense under Cole Stoudt can produce anything to that level, but with the defense hitting its stride, scoring 30 points will probably result in a 2 or 3 score win. Let's take a look at the matchups.
Clemson offense versus Syracuse defense:
The offense should feel a bit better watching film of the Syracuse defense instead of Louisville or Boston College. Though the Orange bring a heavy blitz package to the table, they simply lack the real difference makers up front to scare you and they essentially are forced to blitz to create anything on that side of the ball. Chad Morris had the answers last year and the offense just ripped the Orange's defense up. However, it should be noted that the presence of Sammy Watkins was a large factor in this going on. I touched on this back in the summer with THIS article and it details three of the big plays in the Syracuse game last year.
Now Clemson is without Jordan Leggett, who has largely disappointed this season but remains the most dynamic threat at tight end on the roster, and Adam Choice who was emerging as the top running back on the team. This is in addition to playing without starting center Jay Guillermo, starting receiver Charone Peake, and likely starting running back Zac Brooks. Of course, the biggest loss at the moment has been dynamic freshman Deshaun Watson who immediately put the teeth back into the offense despite the limitations caused by the injuries and problems on the offensive line. Boston College used the predictable approach of loading up on the run game and daring Stoudt to beat them with the pass. Though Stoudt put up adequate numbers, he narrowly avoided at least two interceptions and could easily have served up five or six the last two games. The Orange will undoubtably take the same approach, so I expect Chad to feature a heavy dose of play action passing like we saw in the second half of the game in Boston. Even though the Tigers aren't running it that well, teams are still more afraid of that in comparison to dealing with Stoudt. The upside to last weekend was an improvement in the pass protection. Part of that was due to Boston College not having an NFL level defensive end like Mauldin, but part of it was due to better concentration and effort across the board. The Tiger WR's still had a couple of critical drops last week and that simply has to stop happening when Cole is behind center. Watson can make up for these types of mistakes, but the margin of error has shrunk considerably with Cole at quarterback.
Syracuse will hope to confuse the Tiger front with different pressures in an effort to force a mistake or to get Stoudt rattled. The good news is that the Tigers have seen just about everything you can see in that regard and Morris has slowed the pace down in an effort to get the defense to show its hand pre-snap. We see this when Stoudt acts like he wants the snap and then looks over to the sideline for the check. This will work just so long as the offense goes first time enough to keep the defense honest. Otherwise, the defense can force the offense into checking by showing a front it doesn't plan to use. This is what "confused" former offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain in the infamous 2004 Duke game debacle. I fully expect some kind of deep play off of the quick screen action with Artavis Scott. We've hit that play about 15 times the last two games and eventually we will fake it and look deep.
Should the Tigers get any kind of run game going, this will be a blowout. Syracuse's only hope is the same as Boston College's: stop the run and force the Tigers to execute a bunch of pass plays to score. Cole completed an impressive 29 passes last week but could only muster 17 points out of it. Just for comparison, Tajh completed 20 in the Syracuse game last year but put up 42 points and Deshaun completed 17 against NCST and put up 34 points. Boston College largely got away with man coverage on the outside because Cole struggled to throw an effective deep ball (some of this was due to a lot of contact the refs let go, admittedly). Syracuse will roll the dice and it will be up to Cole to get the ball out sooner and with the kind of decisiveness he showed on the big throw to Williams on the critical game winning drive. Just hitting two or three of these will be all the offense needs to take the Orange out of the game.
It will be very interesting to see what, if any, role Tyshon Dye has in this game. He is certainly a wild card going forward because he flashed very impressive ability prior to the injuries hitting. However, as many on here have noted, an achilles injury is a wild card in itself. It will largely be up to Wayne Gallman and C.J. Davidson to carry the load. Gallman must not bust blitz pickups like he did in the Louisville game or the staff will have to settle for using D.J. Howard a lot more.
Clemson defense versus Syracuse offense:
On paper this is the biggest mismatch of the game. Clemson's defense has been as dominant as it has been since 1991 outside of the fourth quarter in Athens. I hesitate to truly count the UNC game fully because we were blowing them out and it surely contributed to the drop in focus seen that day. When the defense had to be good against them it was. It surely goes without saying that keeping the opposition under 20 points should mean victory every time and the last three games have seen just that. Meanwhile, Syracuse is already on their second offensive coordinator of the year and a backup quarterback who is a freshman. Louisville and Boston College are not considered offensive juggernauts, but the Cardinals feature a tremendous offensive mind in Petrino along with a few standout players on that side of the ball and the Eagles sport 5 grad students on the line and as dynamic a runner at quarterback as there is in the nation. Syracuse has a good running back in Prince Tyson-Gulley, but there isn't a whole lot else that scares you (despite the best efforts of Venables and Swinney to do so). Most of the stuff mentioned from the FSU game happened when the outcome was not in doubt. That would be like putting a lot of stock in what UNC was able to do in the second half in Death Valley.
However, the defense is clearly needed to carry the day during the Stoudt stretch we are currently in, so a focused effort is needed. There was plenty of scary moments in the secondary in Boston, as we all know, and Syracuse won't think twice to throw caution to the wind and chuck every gadget play they have in the book at us. One interesting thing to watch is how Syracuse chooses to handle Vic Beasley. The Orange feature one of the best left tackles in the ACC, if not the country, so will they trust Hickey to handle Vic on his own? The bigger problem for them will be dealing with Grady Jarrett in the middle. Outside of getting washed out of a play by a double team in Boston, they too could not handle him inside and he all but eliminated that part of their attack (along with great effort from Williams and even Carlos Watkins getting into the act). The refreshing thing for me is knowing it is the opposition, not Clemson, who needs the trick plays and gadgets in hopes of finding something on offense. I fully expect visor boy to break some crap out in November, so it suits me to be seeing stuff now so we can adjust and learn.
Clemson should be at full strength on defense after losing Robert Smith for the second half in Boston. Stephone Anthony had to come out for a brief bit as well (and B.C. busted one of their best runs inside while he was out). I believe I saw Anthony, Steward, and Boulware on the field together a couple of times, so it will be interesting to see if Venables does more of that this week. T.J. Green got a trial by fire when Smith went down and was picked on a few times. I'm certain his focus will be magnified now that the "one play away" statement has been realized. Mack attack and the Gambler all but eliminated the Eagle wide receivers and will be called upon to do the same on Saturday night. Syracuse does not have Louisville's skill outside, but I would rank their WR's ahead of Boston College and NCST, so the corners are likely to be tested more than last week. All in all, the defense should be in fine shape just so long as the offense doesn't hang them out to dry with turnovers or multiple three and outs.
I'll take a moment to send a shout out to Bradley Pinion. Clemson lifers fondly think back to the days of Chris Gardocki or Dale Hatcher booming punts, but Pinion is having a year as good or better than those two had in the 80's. Pinion's last punt in Boston was perhaps the most important when he rocketed a 50+yarder that forced the Eagles to execute a long drive to try to win. Outside of maybe two punts this year, Pinion has been a serious weapon and one whose value has gone way up during the Stoudt stretch. The Tigers can play field position football with anybody as a result. Heck, Pinion can even make tackles in kick coverage if things hit the fan. The one long return in Boston ended partially due to B.C. actually having to block Pinion which left others free to stop the play. Most teams just don't bother with the kicker feeling the return guy will beat him one on one every time.
Lakip was solid on the road for the first time this year. You remember not to take those chip shot field goals and extra points for granted, especially when you see the opponent shank an extra point at a critical time. The remaining sore spot on special teams is the kickoff return group. The blocking has been horrible and now it appears folks WANT us to return the kickoff. It's hard to say if Green is good because he hasn't been given any kind of lane to hit this year. STS managed to get this exclusive video from a recent special teams meeting with Coach Pearman:
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There are all kinds of reasons to hate Syracuse and to show them no quarter in the Valley Saturday night. From Jim Boeheim's thinly veiled insults to Shaffer's cursing tirade in last year's game to the preposterous notion that the Carrier Dome could in any way shape or form compare to the noise level of Death Valley, the Orange deserve whatever beatdown they get. I actually have decided to place my undying hatred of former ACC member Maryland and its fan base at the feet of the Orange. So there, Syracuse, feel the aura of hatred swelling around you. Go Tigers and RUTS.