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Clemson vs. UNC Preview

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Taking a look at the upcoming bounce-back opportunity for the Tigers on Saturday night.

Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

I can easily say that this past Saturday night produced feelings in me that I haven't felt since the infamous implosion against Georgia Tech in 2004.  I was never so sure we were going to win a game only to see us not stop at shooting off our own toes and going right for the entire foot.  The loss has lingered in my mind like a bad hangover, but I fully plan on unleashing my pent up fury in heckling the Tarholes on Saturday night in the Valley.  My hope is the team will be doing the same and put an epic beating on the baby blue wine and cheesers.  Let's take a look at the matchups.  This sums up my approach to Saturday:

Clemson offense versus UNC defense:

You almost hesitate to write the word "defense" next to UNC after what their unit has done this season.  The team dubbed a "darkhorse" by many a media hack going into 2014 began by needing a third quarter explosion to pull away from Liberty, who racked up 29 points and 346 yards on Vic Koenning's crew.  This was just a warmup, because UNC escaped San Diego State the next week in a fashion similar to FSU's victory over Clemson.  The Aztec offense put up 509 yards and 29 points but had 3 turnovers, including a pick thrown in the endzone late in the fourth quarter, that was their undoing.  You would think the two weeks UNC had to get ready for East Carolina would lead to a better effort from the defense, but instead they got absolutely boat raced 70-41 and gave up nearly 800 yards of offense.

Needless to say, the young Clemson offense has a great chance to exorcise a lot of demons from the meltdown at Florida State.  Clemson fans (including this guy) are more than ready to start the Deshaun Watson era in earnest.  I stated in my South Carolina State game review how the ceiling on the offense goes up about three floors with #4, and that has certainly proven to be the case.  It is certainly tough for a guy like Stoudt, but you just cannot deny the talent or the cool as ice mentality Watson brings.  The only test remaining is how Watson bounces back from a bad play on his end, such as an interception or fumble, but the look in his eyes in Tallahassee versus what I saw in Cole's said as much about this quarterback competition as any statistic or measurable.  Watson is a stone cold killer and it is only going to get better as the staff continues to turn him loose.

What Watson needs, which we all know, is for his support to step up and perform with the same steely nerve as he has.  The offense should be chomping at the bit to rip up this Tarhole defense who has maybe three guys on it that we would actually use if they were in Clemson.  One is linebacker Travis Hughes who has been a very good player for them during his career.  He was a guy we tried hard to add to the linebacker class of Tony Steward and Stephone Anthony.  But, Hughes alone cannot plug the gaping holes in the UNC front.

Koenning is not a fan of blitzing much, as we all remember from his time in Clemson, but has been forced to do a lot more of it because of talent problems up front.  They haven't been just getting ripped in the passing game; teams have run the ball very well against them (at least 157 yards given up in every game).  If the Clemson run game is really going to take a step forward, this is a game we should see it happen.  I expect a heavy dose of Davidson, Gallman, and Choice with some Watson runs mixed in.

The passing game may be an even bigger mismatch in this one.  UNC's guys really struggle in space from what I saw out of them in the Aztec game and the ECU game.  That is a recipe for disaster against Chad's system, and I would think a guy like Artavis Scott could put up huge numbers like he did versus S.C. State.  The Clemson wideouts should feel like free men not dealing with the secondary of FSU, who were glued to them almost all night long.  Watson showed he is more than able to take the checkdowns after peeking downfield, so UNC will have to pick its poison.

The one thing UNC has done a good job of is getting turnovers.  They got 6 against Liberty, 3 against SDST, and 1 against ECU.  Clemson does not need to help this wounded animal with bad ball security because otherwise they should have a major problem dealing with the offense.  I would rank ECU's offense ahead of Clemson's right now because of their veterans at the skill positions, but talent wise Clemson is superior and that talent is largely very young and only getting better.  Oklahoma State got 31 on FSU but had 364 total yards against that defense versus the 407 the Tigers put up in Doak Campbell.  As long as Clemson avoids the red zone blunders that have plagued it in the big games this year, scoring will not be an issue on Saturday.  I like the fact that Kalon Davis has moved to right tackle and though he's not as good a tackle as he is a guard, he is an upgrade over Gore who just isn't ready.  The Clemson OL was much better against FSU (who blitzed a LOT on Saturday night) than against UGA, though a lot of improvement is still needed going forward (especially in the run game).

Clemson defense versus UNC offense:

Saturday night's game will really be decided by this matchup.  UNC's only hope is to run a ton of plays and outscore their opposition.  It will be up to the Tiger defense to show that last Saturday night's largely dominant performance was not an outlier.  While UNC features some dangerous skill to go with a run threat at quarterback, they are dealing with multiple injury problems on their offensive line and will likely have only 2 of their projected starting 5 available for this game.  UNC will likely try to attack Clemson with the quick game and zone read/option game as much as possible in hopes of negating the fearsome Tiger pass rush.  However, as TheKraken has pointed out in film review, throwing screens to Garry Peters' side is a risky proposition as he has routinely blown those up.  The key word here will be focus as a lapse in concentration on alignment and assignment will negate the physical superiority Clemson should enjoy in this game.

UNC's top rusher is their starting quarterback, Marquise Williams, who has taken a bit of a beating in the process.  The approach here should be like it is when facing GT, POUND that quarterback on any designed run action play.  UNC is also playing backup Mitch Trubisky a good bit, but he is only completing 55.9% of his passes with a pretty paltry 5.2 yards per attempt and isn't nearly the running threat Williams is.  In fact, neither quarterback is showing much down the field passing to this point and they've have relied heavily on short throws in the passing game.  Peters and Alexander along with the safeties and nickles will need to be physical at the point of attack and challenge UNC to have to beat them over the top.

Quinshad Davis is a pretty good player, but he's no Rashad Greene and I would expect Mac to be able to take him out of the game.  The guys I am more worried about would be Ryan Switzer and Jack Tabb who work the slot and tight end positions.  It will be important to not let these two get free runs in the middle of the defense.  The Clemson pass defense has been pretty stout, and if it wasn't for that slip and fall from Alexander that allowed that 73 yard TD, FSU wouldn't have gotten close to 300 yards.  The best news is we haven't seen the big busted coverage that has plagued the Tigers the last few years to this point.  The talent back there is just too good for teams to have a ton of success if they are assignment sound.

As usual, making the opponent one dimensional is very important.  We all know as Clemson fans that Chad's offense looks a lot different when the run game isn't working at all, even when there is tremendous talent on the outside.  Now Clemson is facing a similar attack to its own and will need to make sure UNC has as much trouble getting a run game going as Florida State and S.C. State did.  If that happens, it will be long night for the 'Heels.  The best news is Clemson should be able to run up a big play number in this one as UNC will play fast.  Force some consecutive three and outs or force a couple of turnovers and the Tigers should run away and hide in this one.

Special Teams:

I almost feel as if I jinxed the whole deal last week when I wrote about this area prior to facing FSU.  I brought up the laundry list of screw ups on special teams that have plagued the program since 1999.  True to form, Clemson lost the special teams battle in such a way that it negated outplaying the 'Noles on both sides of the ball.  UNC poses some potential problems in this area because they have the reigning All American punt returner in Ryan Switzer on their team.  His season last year was akin to what C.J. Spiller did returning kickoffs in 2009.  Needless to say, Pinion needs to not hit a line drive punt to Switzer like he did to Greene last week.  Pinion looked good with the rugby punts, which is something he hasn't shown much of until now.  Hopefully we won't be talking about this part of the game on Sunday because we should aim to not punt at all against these clowns.

I'm not sure what to say about placekicking.  Beyond concerned would be a start, because Ammon Lakip has shown serious cracks in the mental side of things to this point.  We can only hope he will say "well, I've seen the bottom now I can just go do my job" and grow like Catman did, but I don't recall Catman looking the way Lakip looked after that second miss in Tallahassee.  The only thing I care about is having a guy that can knock a kick through from 40 and in.  That should be automatic if a guy is on your team on full scholarship for that one express reason.  I'm not a fan of the pooch kickoff approach either.  Kicking scared and giving teams good field position shouldn't be happening with the type of athletes at Clemson's disposal.  I just know if we have the kind of screw ups we saw in Athens and Tallahassee, I might be a danger to myself and others.

CONCLUSION:

We've gotten the usual dose of Swinney optimism following the FSU game.  I'm glad he brought up 2010 in the press conference because I have been thinking about that very thing myself.  We'll see if the program can move on better than many fans can.  Chances are all hopes of the ACC title are gone, but FSU is not entirely bulletproof this year and so the Tigers need to own the rest of the ACC schedule as they have the past two seasons.  I expect an angry effort from the Tigers against a team some folks claimed would be better than us this year.  This is a program we recruit against and the message needs to be sent that UNC is at best a very lightweight version of Clemson in football.