It was nice to get back in Death Valley last weekend. I was able to take my 8 year old son to the game and I know down the road he'll be able to say he was there for Deshaun Watson's first start when he threw for over 400 yards and 6 touchdowns. I just wish the defense would have stayed on task and allowed the beating to be as bad as it should have been, but I won't quibble too much with a two TD victory. Now, it's on to the Wolfpack (aka wolfpeckers).
Clemson offense vs. NCST defense:
Thank goodness for #4 and the emerging playmakers on the outside because the run game is just stuck in 1st gear. We've heard about loaded boxes and bear fronts the last two days, but what I observed from the North Stands was a combination of poor push from the front, totally blown assignments from the tight ends, and poor vision from the backs. UNC had allowed 157 yards or more to every opponent before holding the Tigers to under 100. It is hard to imagine getting much better there with the current personnel. We will see what Sam Cooper is able to bring once he is able to get back into the action (hopefully this week).
Meanwhile, NCST is coming off an inspired performance against Florida State. They were playing very well on both sides of the ball in the first half, but their lack of depth really showed up as FSU wore them down and then wore them out in the second half. They can present some problems up front, especially Art Norman who will be facing our right tackle (now Kalon Davis because of Joe Gore being out). They were able to get pressure on Winston several times and it would be foolish to think they cannot or will not do the same against Clemson. It is very important that the Tiger front play a focused game against NCST who will bring a lot of shifts, twists, stunts, and zone blitzes to the table. Clearly it is advantage Clemson if the front holds up and allows Watson to do his thing. The good news is that the message has been sent loud and clear that not playing 2 deep safeties against Watson is a dangerous proposition in the passing game. Clemson saw a ton of 2 deep safeties with Boyd and company because of their fear of the deep ball which really helped in getting 1000 yard seasons from Ellington and McDowell despite average OL play. I certainly would try to handle the Tiger run game with six in the box (or a standard box) until Clemson proves it can really hurt you there. I think NCST will start with that approach and see how patient Morris and Watson can be.
Personnel wise, the 'Pack have most of its secondary back from last year but they are not that great. The strength of the team is up front with their top 5 DL. Freshman linebacker Jerod Fernandez has made some plays, including a two interception performance last week, but was also exposed on some of the big runs FSU was able to produce in the second half. It will be interesting to see how losing that game affects the 'Pack. Will they feel more confident and play that way or was that a best effort gone awry? We saw some Clemson teams in the 90's play inspired football at home versus loaded FSU teams only to sputter the following week. Having rewatched the FSU/NCST game, I can say FSU played significantly more sloppy in Raleigh than against Clemson. It will be an interesting test that going into the season looked like an easy win for the Tigers.
As for Clemson, I was really encouraged by the play of Mike Williams. We've seen flashes of the ball skills and ability, but he truly began to look like the next big thing on the outside against UNC. He repeatedly had UNC's corners beat and a couple of better throws from Watson (and especially Stoudt) would have resulted in over 200 yards. The emergence of Germone Hopper is another pleasant development. It is too bad we haven't had a 100% Charone Peake this season, but to be honest I didn't think that much about him on Saturday due to the play of the others. NCST comes with the 4-2-5 similarly to UNC but have played a lot more disciplined than the Tarholes. Still, if Clemson can just play adequately up front, there shouldn't be much of an issue scoring points. Clemson has shown it will spread the ball out to just about anybody so it makes defending the passing game very difficult.
And this was a sweeeeeet throw:
Clemson defense versus NCST offense:
Just like last week, this game should be decided by this matchup. Clemson's defense played strong in the early going against UNC and it allowed the Tigers to build a comfortable cushion it would need in the second half. NCST's gameplan will be very similar to last week's, which is try to jump on the Tigers early and hold on for dear life. It will be up to the defense to ratchet up the focus and allow for Watson and company to get going. I actually am of the opinion that the second half last week will be a positive for this week because Venables will be all over the guys for what happened. Much of what NCST might have surprised us with would have been along the lines of what NC already showed (such as really quickly snapping the ball and the quick screens).
The biggest difference between the wolfpeckers and tarholes is at quarterback. I was very impressed with Jacoby Brissett in the FSU game after being lukewarm about his play at the beginning of the year. He is a dangerous player and will present some Conner Shaw-type issues to the defense if it isn't disciplined. NCST's offensive line play has been up and down but showed some ability against the good FSU front seven. NCST rolls three running backs at you who are all seemingly more impressive than the Clemson stable. State has some veterans up front on the line, one of the few things the O'Brien regime left Doeren. It hurts to see Robert Crisp out there at left tackle for the 'Pack when Clemson couldn't sign him. Should Clemson remain strong against the run game, which it has been for all but the fourth quarter against UGA and the OT in Tally really, NCST will have its problems. Their plan will be like last year where they threw about every shift and formation they could think of at the Tigers in hopes of getting us out of whack. Of course, this year they have better personnel behind center and can really punish us if we don't get lined up correctly. You just know they are going to come with a heavy dose of quick throws and quarterback run action to try to slow down Vic Beasley and the Tiger front.
Clemson's secondary played extremely well against the standard passing game stuff last week. We all know it was the middle screens and the quick tight end dump (which was a total bust because we didn't get lined up right) that did the major damage. When Clemson got lined up right they stoned just about everything the 'Heels ran, but the pace really affected the defense in the second half and contributed to the focus problems. Garry Peters, aka The Gambler, was great once again and had his standard two or three kill shots on screen plays to his side. Alexander was solid outside of getting beat on the first TD, which was more of a great adjustment by the UNC WR than poor play from Mac. I expect Venables to really challenge Underwood and Valdez-Scantling on the outside, so the pressure will again be on the nickle and safeties to handle the slot guys like Alston and the tight ends. The running backs are also a threat in the passing game so they can't be ignored.
This is a good NCST offense and it will say a good deal about the Clemson defense should it really put the clamps on it. FSU got good pass rush most of the day despite not having an elite pass rusher like the Tigers have, so I am hopeful we will get to Brissett. The key will be getting him to the turf when we do get there. If not, we are going to see another shootout in Death Valley.
Clemson was a good bit better last weekend in this area, but there was really nowhere to go but up. Pinion continues to play well and really kicked off well to go with his punting. He's also a very good tackler for a kicker and has saved our bacon in that regard more than once. Lakip looks like a different guy at home, but the question remains about how he can function on a real pressure kick. Hopefully it won't come to that.
We did get one decent punt return amid the flurry of fair catches (and one muff that went out of bounds, thankfully). Is it me or does every team's punter seem like Ray freaking Guy when facing the Tigers? NCST's punting has been the best in the ACC this year, so I wouldn't expect anything in the return game again this week. Hopefully Clemson just doesn't beat themselves in this area which is about the best we can hope for at this point.
Tiger fans need to bring the noise to the Valley on Saturday. This is not a cupcake team and Dave Doeren's staff has done a good job taking what was a horrific squad last year and turning into a team you better not overlook. The Tigers cannot afford the type of effort we saw in Raleigh last year when the game wasn't put away until the fourth quarter. Brissett is a legitimate player (Muschump and company are looking like total idiots for losing him at this point) and presents the same run threat as Marquise Williams but is a much better passer. Clemson will need to treat him the way they treated Braxton Miller in the Orange Bowl.