Put away your fear and trepidation. This is no time for the weak of mind, heart, or spirit. What lies ahead is a golden opportunity for greatness. This is a chance to go into the belly of the beast and cut out its heart. If you want respect in this game, in this world, in the narrow minds of the SEC loving talking heads of ESPN, you must rise up and take the glory. On Saturday night, the Clemson Tigers will have the chance to BEAT THE MAN!
Florida State offense versus Clemson defense:
I had to throw this bit in because I wrote this prior to the news of Winston's suspension for the first half of the game. Clearly that improves things for the Tigers and we HAVE to take full advantage. My expectations for the defense in the first half is to load up on the run game much more than it might have otherwise. Otherwise the approach should be pretty similar to defending FSU with Winston in the game. As the old talking cars of the 80's would say, "The door is ajar."
Before I get into the matchups here, I just want to say it is past time for a Clemson defense to really win a game of this magnitude. Since 2011, only the two Virginia Tech games featured what I would call dominant defense. The LSU game was close, but three big plays and 24 points was a bit much. What was the recipe in 1989 when the Tigers did work in Tallahassee? The Tiger defense totally stuffed the FSU offense throughout the first half and was a garbage time TD away from holding that squad under 20 points for the game. We shouldn't require 40 points of offense to win a game like this. If we do, we are in trouble. So, my personal plea to Coach Venables and the Tiger defense is bring the A game and play like you're capable.
Last year's game was a nightmare as we all know. Defensively, Clemson's biggest problems came from inept third down defense. In fact, the two losses last year can be directly traced back to failing to get off the field on third downs (and a bucket of turnovers to boot). The FSU OL made life difficult for the usually potent Tiger front seven. Cameron Irving all but eliminated Vic Beasley from the contest, and hopefully Beasley is preparing to exact some revenge in the rematch. The Tigers were adequate in defending the FSU run game, but could not produce an effective pass rush with four guys. This led to BV pulling out blitzes that Winston and the Seminoles seemed to recognize and shred on just about every occasion. Not being able to get to Winston much allowed FSU to exploit matchups with Darius Robinson and the linebackers/safeties in coverage. They just avoided dealing with Breeland most of the night.
This year, the Tigers simply must have one or two guys win up front in passing situations as well as the run downs. Winston can throw on the run, which is one of the reasons he has been so dynamic, but you still want to move him off his spot and force him to hold the ball. Needless to say that becomes even MORE important when facing an inexperienced quarterback like Sean McGuire. (The last time Clemson beat FSU, the 'Noles played then backup quarterback Clint Trickett. Trickett had a good day passing on the suspect Clemson secondary, but his presence allowed the Tigers to take away the FSU running game completely. ) The couple of sacks Clemson did get last year came when Winston had to hold the ball. Vic Beasley needs to show up this time after getting handled by Cameron Irving last year. The biggest thing for me is seeing the Clemson secondary get more physical with the FSU wideouts and tight ends similar to the way FSU's secondary has done to us the last two years. I like the prospect of getting Jayron Kearse on the field as the nickel because that would allow for him to lock up O'Leary in man coverage. I certainly don't like the other options at SAM trying to deal with O'Leary. I think Wiggins gives up too much size. Rashad Greene was another that really hurt the Tigers last year and nearly every play he made came when he was granted a clean release from the line of scrimmage. His short area quickness is very good but he isn't the biggest guy in the world so I hope Clemson is more physical with him within the 5 yard contact area. Clemson is much better equipped to play this way with guys like Alexander, Peters, and Tankersley. The secondary has touted a "no fly zone" which has held up through two games, though neither UGA nor S.C. State really challenged the Tigers through the air. We will see what we are really made of in the back end on Saturday night. I would try to limit the pressures to 5 man because we have really gotten smoked when we have sent 6 or 7 the last two years. The staff has had extra time to scheme for this one so we will see what Venables has up his sleeve.
Clemson offense versus FSU defense:
It hasn't been too often that Chad Morris has come under fire from the fans since his arrival in 2011. However, The Chad has been a target of more than a few for how he handled the UGA game, especially in the second half. I can understand the staff's approach of "protecting" Watson as a true freshman, but if we have to "protect" our senior quarterback then we have a problem. I would fully expect FSU to sit on the short passing game of the Tigers and flat out challenge Stoudt and the WR's to beat them over the top. I don't expect the Tiger run game to be dynamic, though it will hopefully be efficient. One thing is certain, if the Tigers are going to continue to attack with the perimeter screen game then they better put a tight end out there who can block. With Cooper probably out or at best limited, my choice would be Jay Jay McCullough. Jordan Leggett is way overdue to produce something other than pathetic blocking efforts and lazy routes. Breakdowns at the tight end position were a big part of Clemson's offensive problems in the game last year, and a much better performance will be required for the Tigers to pull the upset on Saturday night.
When Clemson has had success in Tallahassee, which hasn't been very often, it has usually been marked by the offense throwing the kitchen sink at the 'Noles. The win in 1989 featured more passing than usual from Chris Morocco in the first half as well as a halfback pass attempt. The win in 2006 was bolstered by the quick snap zone run by James Davis that caught FSU unprepared. Defensive and special teams breakdowns ruined a salty effort from the offense in 2002 and 2012. In both of those games the Tigers hurt FSU badly with big plays and trick plays in the first halves, but the defense and special teams allowed FSU to stay in those games and pull away in the second halves. A win on Saturday is absolutely reliant upon the offense finding some cheap touchdowns to prevent having to drive the ball for 8 to 10 plays and then holding up on the other side of the ball in response. The only team to put that kind of pressure on FSU last year was Auburn in the title game, and it took FSU pulling out some huge special teams plays to get the tide turned. This FSU team is not as good as last year's team, at least not at this stage of the season, so getting them now is good in that regard. Chad Morris should have a few special things in the game plan this week that will hopefully catch the Seminoles unaware.
Clearly the X-factor here is the presence of Deshaun Watson for Clemson. He has the skill set to blow up a gameplan made for defending Cole Stoudt, and in this regard it actually benefits him to come in off the bench for Stoudt. This is an angle not many have discussed, but we have seen it work in the past. For example, in 1999 Clemson was struggling against Wake Forest with Woody Dantzler running things, but the move to Brandon Streeter totally changed the scope of the Clemson offense and helped the Tigers get a win. The opposite happened against UNC that same year when Dantzler came in and ran all over a Tarhole defense set to defend the quick passing game with Streeter. The very next year, UNC had a good game plan to defend Woody and the Tiger offense, but Willie Simmons entered the game and was able to blow up their defense with perfectly thrown fade passes (something that was not a strength of Woody's). If FSU plans to play tight on the short game, Watson's presence could change things totally. If nothing else, it forces FSU to have more than one plan to deal with the Clemson offense and more on the plate=more chances for busts.
I shutter when I get to this part because it brings back loads of painful memories of inexcusable special teams fiascoes which have killed us on big stages. From shanked kicks to dropped punt snaps to bad snaps to coverage breakdowns to muffed punt returns, we have seen it all from 1999 to 2014. Florida State features the Lou Groza winner at kicker and used special teams to pull the BCS title game out of the fire, so it is safe to assume they will be strong in that area. Clemson must hold up in this area because when you play a team as good or better than you are, you can't survive screwing up this part of the game. For proof of this you can look no further than the trip to Athens in 2002 when Clemson outplayed UGA on offense and defense but performed so horribly on special teams that they lost. Ammon Lakip was much better the last time out and the coverage units got a lot of work against S.C. State, so hopefully that will continue when the competition is much better and the lights are much brighter. It has been a while since the Tigers really had a game changing play on special teams that didn't require a total screw-up by the other team (see Ohio State's muffed punt return last year). It would probably be the 2011 Maryland game when Sammy Watkins took a kick to the house.
Keys to winning:
Much of this is no big secret; the Tigers must protect the football first and foremost. Winning the turnover margin is essential to pulling an upset.
Offensively the Tigers must stay on schedule so Stoudt isn't having to execute third and long plays on a regular basis. The run game needs to be efficient and consistently get 3 to 4 yards, which the team was doing last year had it not imploded with turnovers and protection breakdowns. Winning third down has been at the forefront of every "top 11" win that Dabo Swinney alluded to in his press conference. That has to happen Saturday night.
Defensively, Florida State must be held to under 30 points. They are too good not to expect some scores, but I think 25 or less is essential for a Tiger victory. The chances to do this went way up with Winston's suspension.
It won't be easy to pull all of this off, but nothing worth having ever is. Time to cowboy up and earn back some respect on Saturday night.