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Clemson vs. Wake Forest preview

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The Tigers travel to Winston-Salem for a Thursday night introduction to November.

Wayne Train
Wayne Train
Streeter Lecka

I'll start this with a final parting gift for the Syracuse Orange....

The money month has arrived in the world of college football: November.  Clemson has positioned itself exactly where most felt it would at this point, which is 6-2.  Now the Tigers get ready for the final two road games of the year beginning with Wake on Thursday night.  It should also be the final game of the "Stoudt Stretch" as I coined it in previous articles as Deshaun Watson is right on target to return to action against GT.

It wasn't all that long ago when this type of game was a major concern for Tiger fans.  In Winston-Salem,  Clemson managed to produce one of the worst efforts in program history in 2003 when Wake rolled the Tigers and very nearly ended the Tommy Bowden era.  The Tigers returned there in 2005 and made another load of mistakes against an inspired Deacon squad and lost again.  Due to a scheduling quirk, Clemson had to go back in 2006 and were thoroughly outplayed for three quarters before THIS happened and the Tigers got off the mat and won.  Then, in 2008, Jim Grobe finally dealt the blow that ended Tommy Bowden's career at Clemson in one of the ugliest offensive performances in recent memory.  I bet the Wake faithful are a little sad that happened because ever since, the Tigers have absolutely throttled the Deacs no matter what venue.

We have much to be thankful for as Tiger fans.  At the risk of being branded a sunshine pumper or whatever, I will just remind readers that Swinney's program has put the minutia of the ACC in its place better than even Danny Ford's did.  After losing to NCST in 2011 (who did have a current NFL starter at quarterback for that game) Clemson has dominated the ACC not named Florida State.  Even suspect performances here and there (such as the last couple of games) have resulted in victories.  Most of the time, the Tigers have shellacked unranked opponents.  His program has also put an end to the Thursday night blues.  Clemson was simply awful in Thursday night games under Tommy Bowden.  The lone exceptions were against a terrible Temple team in 2006 and the 2005 NCST game when a fluky play that probably should have been a pick 6 against us worked out and James Davis went bananas.   Swinney has put an end to that at least.  With that, let's get to the matchups!

Clemson offense versus Wake Forest defense:

I feel sorry for Wake's defense.  They actually have been a pretty good group this year but have been hung out to dry repeatedly.  Good ol' Jimbo Fisher went as far as calling this unit the best in the conference (which is B.S. of course, but it was said).  They are more than capable of giving the Stoudt-led Clemson offense some problems, so if the Tigers are finally able to show some real teeth on offense in this game it will be a very good sign because Wake is a better defense than the remaining one's on the schedule.  The only teams to go over 30 points on the Deacs all had at least one defensive score in the process.  They are not flashy but are very assignment sound from what I've seen from them.  They are good enough at corner that they don't have to play zone all the time and can mix things up.  They have been better than the Tigers at recovering fumbles (9 recoveries on 14 fumbles vs. 7 recoveries on 15 fumbles).  As always, not giving gifts like Halloween candy (see the FSU and Syracuse games) is the most important thing for the offense.

Clemson put together one of its best looking drives of the year to ice the Syracuse game.  The offensive line got a consistent push when the Orange knew we were going to run it.  You only need to look at the issues the chickens have been having in the fourth quarter to see that is nothing to sneeze at.  For all the supposed superiority of the chicken OL to ours, they haven't been able to just line up and run out the clock in games even when they tried.  Tyrone Crowder is beginning to emerge at last and adds a physical element at guard the team has really missed.  If he can continue to grow, you can then play Davis and Crowder together on the right and have a go-to place to run it.  Clemson had this last year on the left with Brandon Thomas and either Davis or Beasley at the guard.  With Isiah Battle back at LT, Davis will be at RT and Webster will start at center (thankfully).   Meanwhile, Wayne Gallman appears to have gotten his pass protection issues fixed and can be the feature back.  We are still awaiting the debut of Tyshon Dye and perhaps this game will be it.  Swinney said Tuesday that Dye will play, but my guess is that the team will need a two score lead at least for us to see it.

The other storyline for the offense is the health of Deshaun Watson.  It is clear the staff wants to hold Watson one more game if it can, which is a move I endorse, but it is nice to know we can bring him in if we have to.  It will be interesting to see how Cole Stoudt performs in what should be his final start.  My hope is he plays his best game as a Tiger and can get a little love for his contribution to this team.  I'll admit to having bashed his efforts and play some this season, but he has done enough to win these games and made some of his best throws of the year in tight situations against BC and Syracuse.  Here's to Stoudt going out like a champion on Thursday night.

Wake will employ the same plan the Tigers have seen the last few weeks on defense.  They will do all they can to stop the run game and hope Stoudt can't beat them throwing the ball.  Syracuse really sat on some of the quick screen action early, but Morris did counter it with faking the screen and looking over the top (even though we were not able to hit that play).  We will see how Wake chooses to defend a staple of the offense with Stoudt and if they can stay disciplined enough to not get burned over the top.

Clemson defense versus Wake Forest offense:

This is how I would sum up opposing offenses dealing with this year's Tiger D...

This is one of the biggest mismatches in recent memory as Wake sports an offense ranked in the 100's in every major category while the Tigers sit at or near the top in defensive numbers.  It all starts with a very weak offensive line that has given up a whopping 31 sacks and produced less than 2 yards a carry in the run game.  Then you mix in a true freshman quarterback and youth at nearly every skill position to get the Wake Forest offense.  Now, the last game out the Deacs were able to get some offense going in the second half against BC.  However, BC was making a living by blitzing and Wake finally started picking some up and were able to attack BC's suspect secondary.  Clemson doesn't need to blitz to get pressure and has the athletes in the secondary to completely smother the Wake skill guys.  This has a chance of looking like the SC State game or worse.  Clemson should be comfortably at number one in the country in defense by the end of the weekend.

Vic Beasley has been held without a sack the last two weeks, mostly due to the opposition doing anything and everything to keep him off the quarterback.  That decision has led to others getting into the sack party as the Tigers have 16 different players with a sack this season.  That is a crazy statistic and a testament to the "We Too Deep" anthem.  Vic will no doubt be very hungry to add to his sack record and get into double figures for the season.  I've been amazed at just how little teams are doing anything beyond a three step drop against this defense.  They know that holding the ball might mean needing a stretcher for their quarterback before game's end.

Special Teams:

Not much to say here beyond what has been said in the last two previews.  The kickers are playing very well and the coverage teams are playing well.  The last area of ineptitude is the kickoff return squad which continues to produce nothing in the way of good field position or explosive plays.  I've reached the point where I hope teams will just kick it into the endzone so we can down it, but they have been smart enough to force returns from us.  Perhaps the open date afforded the staff some time to work on this area.

OVERALL:

The Tigers are a 20-point favorite and should comfortably win this game.  Despite the issues on offense with Stoudt at the helm, the Deacs will need turnovers and mistakes beyond what the Tigers provided for Syracuse to have any hope of staying close.  Eventually their defense should wear down as it has against talent similar to the Tigers and the Deacon offense has been providing many defensive scores during the course of the season as well.  It is hard to imagine a team that is forced to throw it to move the ball not putting the ball in serious jeopardy at times during the game Thursday night.  I look for much improved consistency on offense and to avoid injuries so the team can be at relative full strength for the show down in Atlanta with the Jackets.