There is only one way to open up this game preview against the would be engineers...
Yes, nerds! It is the third of four opportunities for this team to right some wrongs of the past. Unfortunately, the team is 0-2 so far because it was unable to notch a win in Athens for the first time since 1986 and unable to beat FSU in Tallahassee for the first time since 2006. Now the Tigers face Georgia Tech in Atlanta where the team hasn't won since 2003. It has truly been a house of horrors for either the offense or the defense depending on the year. Scheduling quirks brought GT to Clemson the last two seasons, so it has been since the humbling 2011 debacle that ended a magical run of wins for the team that the Tigers have played in Bobby Dodd. Clemson has been chugging along during the Cole Stoudt stretch doing just enough to win games, but everyone knows that the team will need to elevate its play, especially on offense, to win the game Saturday. Let's look at the matchups.
Clemson offense versus GT defense:
Welcome back Deshaun Watson! It seems like forever ago when #4 was dropping incredible throws over secondaries, leaping defenders, and generally being a B.A.M.F. (I'm sure you can figure out that acronym). As I stated back in September after the S.C. State game, the ceiling on the offense goes up about three floors when #4 is the trigger man. The Tigers have been working on the running game and short passing attack a TON while Stoudt was running the show and the execution of those things has gotten better. Now that Watson is back, the Tigers can take the lid off the deep shot attack that has been a staple of the Chad Morris offense since his arrival in 2011. Georgia Tech's defense has given up a ton of points and yardage this year and has problems that can be exploited for sure, but they have been very good at creating turnovers and scoring some points the last few weeks. Job #1 will be making sure every drive ends with a kick of some kind. Do that and Clemson should win this game.
I expect GT's defense to take plenty of chances in hopes of forcing a mistake from the Tigers. Ted Roof knows that just sitting back in deep zones isn't going to work against Watson, who can easily run for first downs as throw for them. Wayne Gallman has emerged as the feature back that had been sorely missing and is coming off two straight 100 yard outings. Now he will have the benefit of running against a defense likely worried to death about getting beat over the top, something he hasn't had a chance to take an advantage of the last few weeks. Gallman has improved his pass protection and has proven he can be a weapon catching the ball as well as running it. Tyshon Dye looks ready to be the primary backup and provides a more physical style to compliment the slashing runs Wayne Train brings. More good news is the availability of Jay Guillermo. He provides a nice security blanket for Ryan Norton and allows Webster to platoon with Crowder at guard. The OL will be as close to 2 deep as it has been in a long time on Saturday. The final cherry on top would be if Charone Peake can return to action. He's a veteran who can play all the WR positions and was making plays even on a bum knee earlier in the season.
As for Georgia Tech, they are as feast or famine as it gets on defense. They'll give up a 70 yard run or a 68 yard pass but can turn teams over as well. They have 13 interceptions and 8 fumble recoveries (a whopping 5 of those 8 came in the Pitt game). What they don't have is a guy like Attouchu was last year who could give you big trouble off the edge. It has led to Roof blitzing a lot more to generate pressure. The only offense really comparable to ours that they have faced this year was UNC who dropped 579 yards and 48 points on the Jackets. GT's defense has given up over 500 yards three times this season but did have an impressive showing against Miami when they held the Hurricanes to 352 yards and just 107 yards rushing. A big factor in that game was time of possession as Miami only got to run it 19 times. Bottom line, there is no reason why the Tigers can't move the ball and score on this defense provided they don't kill themselves with turnovers or penalties.
Clemson defense vs. GT offense:
As Hamlet famously said, "Aye, there's the rub." This is where the rubber really meets the road when you face the Yellow Jackets. The Tigers have had some truly nightmarish outings trying to slow down the Paul Johnson triple option attack since he arrived in Atlanta. The two games in 2009 stick out the most, especially the ACC title game when ANY semblance of defense would have put the Tigers in the BCS and a favorable matchup with the Iowa Hawkeyes. Last year, the Tigers finally showed some real teeth in defending the option attack, especially in the first half when the defense totally dominated the Jackets and allowed the offense to run out to a nice lead. To me, this game will likely come down to which defense can set up its offense the most. If either team strings stops together, it is likely the offense for each will be able to create a two or three score advantage. I expect Johnson to really throw the sink at the Tigers with tendency breaking fakes and looks to the A backs over the top. It will be imperative that Kearse, Wiggins, and especially T.J. Green don't get caught peeking and give up the cheap score. I feel pretty good about Peters and Alexander handling the outside WR's for the Jackets. Their biggest challenge will be not getting blocked on the perimeter runs.
The Jackets have their usual dangerous running threat at quarterback in Justin Thomas. He's not as big and physical as Nesbitt was or even Vad Lee, but he is quicker and faster than both. He's also proven he can hit some throws beyond the usual deep heave off the play action. This was very key to their victory over Virginia Tech when Thomas executed some key passes to put GT in position to win. Their best WR without question is Deandre Smelter, the former baseball player. He is the typical big and fast outside guy the GT offense tends to have. Although he doesn't have the top end speed of D. Thomas or S. Hill, he is probably more versatile than either of the others were at GT. Either Mack or Peters will need to eliminate him from the equation.
Defending the option has been covered a ton at STS over the years, and two things are always at the forefront. 1. Stop the dive play. This is essential and is the goal of every team that faces GT, but few (especially lately) have been able to do it. Last year, the Tigers totally stuffed the dive and forced GT to go outside where Quan Christian had a field day blowing up plays. I expect GT to option off of Grady Jarrett a good bit rather than attempt to block him, so it is up to the others and especially Stephone Anthony to take advantage of that concession. Johnson will find something that works from time to time, he's too good for that not to happen, but the key will be stuffing them initially and running out to a lead before he can adjust. #2 is punishing the quarterback at every opportunity. Thomas is not the biggest guy and the Tigers need to make him pay on every option play they run. It is a free opportunity to hit the quarterback. Doing that effectively usually leads to a bad pitch situation at some point.
Georgia Tech's lone soldier last year was A back Robert Godhigh who piled up 126 yards rushing and 103 yards receiving on the Tigers. This year, GT has Tony Zenon, Charles Perkins, and Broderick Snoddy who are all physically capable of doing what Godhigh did if the Tigers lose leverage or forget to cover them. Zenon and Snoddy appear to me to be the fastest of the GT players. Clemson's defense will look to be more physical than they are and punish them at the line of scrimmage. Attack those stalk blocks rather than try to fend them off with your hands. Clemson must make these guys run sideways as long as possible so they can rally to the ball. Once they are able to get north/south they are really capable of causing problems. GT doesn't really have many slippery guys like an Artavis Scott and focus more on one cut runners for their scheme. Ironically, a guy like D.J. Howard would probably be a good A back in their system versus trying to be a back in our zone run heavy scheme.
Clemson embarrassed the GT offensive line last year and it will be interesting to see if they can do it again. GT is better on the line for sure, but Clemson is better in the front seven as well. Guys like Tavaris Barnes have improved a ton (and Barnes has challenged Crawford for his starting job). Shaq Lawson really flashed last week in the Wake game and has the type of size to give GT problems up front. Clemson will likely use Korrin Wiggins in Robert Smith's spot in the first half and use B.J. Goodson a lot more at SAM. It will be fun (hopefully) to watch this matchup of strength on strength.
Well, after a couple of pretty clean weeks from this unit, the royal screw ups raised their ugly head once again at Wake. Adam Humphries was the main culprit with two very bad decisions in the punt return game. The wind was pretty gnarly out there in Winston-Salem, so I'm hopeful more normal conditions will keep those mistakes out of the equation in Atlanta. Ammon Lakip continues to impress after his rocky start to the season and I'll put a shout out to the snappers and holder who have not given us a 2004 Georgia Tech moment (or a Ryan Norton moment) thankfully.
It's past time for Clemson to go out and play a sharp game from start to finish. This is an excellent time for doing just that. Of course, I'm hoping the best performance of the season comes against the coots, but I'll take the next best thing happening in Atlanta at high noon. The Tigers, as usual, should have a very strong crowd to help things along and to yell "YOU SUCK" every time the GT band does that Mortal Kombat song.
And, as we all know, the only good bug is a dead bug!
Fellow writer Ryan Kantor shot an accompanying game preview video that you can see below.