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Clemson versus Miami Preview: Tigers Invade South Beach

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Miami has been the site of some very memorable Clemson games.

Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

So far, so good!  The Tigers have gotten to the middle of the season undefeated and have almost every major contributor still in play.  The offense was very impressive last weekend taking on a very good Boston College defense.  The offense had to earn what it got as BC didn't turn guys loose with busted coverages or miss tackles all over the place.  BC didn't set up Clemson with ideal field position either.  The Eagles were able to stop the run game for the most part.

As Kraken noted in his film review, this was more a sign of a defense committed to taking that part of the game away than the Tigers being inept against a good front.  As Clemson fans found out in 2006, a defense with enough talent can take the run game away no matter how good that run game is.  The Tigers were an elite running offense in 2006, but it didn't matter when the ineffective Will Proctor couldn't hurt the stacked boxes the Tigers faced.  This team, of course, has the quarterback to hurt defenses selling out to stop the run and quick pass game.  Even though Deshaun Watson struggled to connect deep early, I knew Clemson was getting open and it was just a matter of time before the lightning struck.  He reminded everyone why folks have kept the safeties back and deep against him 90% of the time.  420 yards passing could have easily been 550 to 600.  The Tigers showed more empty/spread formations last week than I have seen in recent memory, which just showcases the versatility this offense has.

Now the Tigers face a very different kind of team in Miami. The Hurricanes remind me a lot of the teams Tommy Bowden fielded at Clemson.  They have some talent on both sides of the ball, but they have struggled for signature wins.  In the end, the Canes have lacked that extra something to get them over the top.  My observations of them this year lead me to believe they just aren't that inherently tough despite having some tough players scattered throughout the roster.  They do have some very good skill talent but lack the real difference makers on the lines of scrimmage that you have to have to win the really big games (and some of the not so really big games as well).   The great Miami teams  had that edge up front even though their flashy skill guys got most of the press.

Dabo Swinney's biggest impact on the Tiger program has been to cultivate that same thing at Clemson.  Now it is the Tigers who sport the nail eaters on the defensive line and linebacker, and this year's team has an offensive line with some bite to it as well.  Good recruiting and some good coaches on the staff have really paid off.  Now the Tigers are facing the Hurricanes in full circle the wagons mode.  Al Golden simply has to win this game to gain any real hope of securing his job.  Their previous opportunity at Florida State was an inspired effort that didn't pay off.  This is it for Golden (if the ship hasn't sailed already).

Clemson offense versus Miami defense: The Tiger offense should be chomping at the bit to play on Saturday.  The BC game promised to be a slugfest in the trenches and slugfest it was.  The offensive line had to deal with extra numbers in the box all day long, and Watson had to take some hits that you are going to take when you go spread and face blitzes.  Now it is time to get the Wayne Train fired back up and rolling against a Hurricane front seven that has struggled to contain the run and is now missing its leading linebacker presence.  If they experience any of the drop-off the Tigers would expect from losing either Ben Boulware or B.J. Goodson, it is going to be a long day for the Canes.

They have more speed in spots than Boston College does on defense, but they are not nearly as assignment sound and don't tackle nearly as well.  Not tackling well is a recipe for disaster against the Tiger offense sporting guys like Gallman, Zac Brooks, Artavis Scott, Ray Ray McCloud, and Deon Cain, not to mention Watson's running ability.  The Canes do have some guys who can deliver a big time hit, such as Deon Bush, but they also have taken some risky gambles which have resulted in explosive plays for the opposition.

The Canes have been great at generating turnovers, and they certainly will need to do that on Saturday to win the game.  The Tigers have turned it over more than they should, especially Watson, but #4 was dynamite in his last three series against the Eagles and should carry that momentum into this game.  It is hard to expect Miami to maintain this crazy good turnover margin, so this week is as good as any for it to start to turn the other direction.  I cannot imagine how badly the Tigers would be beating people this year if they were +12 in turnover margin.

Zac Brooks is coming on stronger by the week.  I called for him to have a big impact against Louisville and it didn't happen, but what I envisioned from him is now coming to fruition.  He is a great compliment to Gallman because of his different running style and ability as a receiver.  Actually, both guys have looked capable in the pass game and that allows the Tigers to go 5 wide and empty with a running back in the personnel grouping.  Having Leggett as a flexed out tight end means the Tigers can stay in base 11 personnel but feature multiple formations out of it. Gallman really missed a chance at a huge run early against BC on a draw when he read the block wrong, but Brooks has been spot on as evidenced by his tremendous 9.1 yards per carry mark.  I think we will see more of an 18-20 and 8-10 rush distribution between the two backs going forward.   It will be very interesting to see how the Hurricanes elect to defend the Tigers and how they deploy their safeties.

Clemson defense versus Miami offense: The marque matchup this week is on this side of the ball.  There has been a lot said on this site about Brad Kaaya and the debate on who is the best quarterback in the ACC.  I'm sure there has been something said inside the Tiger locker room to this effect as well.  Brent Venables pushed the buttons last week stating "the team with the best defense will win."  I wonder if similar logic has been applied in the quarterback meeting room?  Kaaya is a very good player and has done a great job of not turning the ball over.  He has had to overcome the relatively one dimensional status of the Hurricane offense as well.  It certainly will take a best in the ACC type effort from him to get the job done on Saturday.

Clemson faced a Notre Dame offense with an equal or better array of wide receivers and a much more effective running attack to deal with and shut it down for the majority of the game.  The Irish were also much more adept at handling the Tigers pass rush and had a more mobile quarterback than the Hurricanes.  Miami is no dink and dunk passing offense, so Kaaya is going to have to stand in there against what promises to be a full array of blitz packages from the base, nickle, and DIME OF DOOM.  Clemson also sports two of the best defensive ends in the conference.  It is hard to imagine the Hurricanes being able to win this game being completely one dimensional.  They are going to have to find a way to run the ball enough to keep the Tigers honest or Kaaya might not make it through the game.

One thing about Kaaya, he will throw into tight coverage.  He trusts his arm and his skill guys to make plays in 50-50 situations.  BC wasn't going to put the ball in jeopardy at all last week, but the Clemson secondary can expect to see the ball coming even if they are right with their man.  It will come down to ball skills and positioning.  Can Kaaya consistently execute against the tight coverage?  He certainly is capable if he is kept upright.  I'm sure Brent Venables is focusing on making Kaaya move off his spot where making those types of throws become much, much more difficult.  The lack of a consistent run game has led to the Canes having to settle for field goals a lot more than they'd like.  Their touchdowns have generally been of the big play variety.  It will be aggressive scheme versus aggressive scheme which should surely lead to some highlight reel plays for one side or the other.  With all due respect to Florida State, the Tigers are more complete on defense than anything Miami has faced to this point.

Special Teams: Knocking on wood, it has been two solid weeks in a row from the 3rd dimension.  Lakip began putting kicks into the endzone and Greg "the bag boy" Huegel knocked down his two field goal attempts.  The punt game was underwhelming, and the Tigers got pretty fortunate not to have a punt blocked.  That is twice the Tigers have flirted with disaster in the punt game and the protection/get off time needs to improve.  Miami is a desperate team and I would expect them to take chances in this area in hopes of gaining an edge.  The Canes have the dangerous Herb Elder in the return game who is averaging 14.2 per punt return.  The Tigers kept Alston in check last week and will need to do the same with Elder here.

Overall: It has been a long time since the Tigers were on the road.  Clemson played perhaps its worst game at Louisville.  Many of us have chalked some of that up to the short week, but the jury is still out on what kind of road warrior team this Tiger squad will be.  I don't worry so much about the smallish crowd considering many of these players know the Miami brand and will be attentive as a result.  Miami has certainly been the site for some huge Clemson moments both good and bad.  I certainly don't forget the epic 2004 game when the Tigers played like grown men in the second half and took away an OT win.  The folks in the box inexplicably played "Eye of the Tiger" during that game which only served to fire up the Tiger fans in attendance and the team.  The 2009 game was a wild west shootout with big plays coming from all over. The 2012 Orange Bowl was a nightmare, but the result help bring Brent Venables to Clemson.  The 2014 Orange Bowl was one of the greatest wins in school history.  Heck, even though the 2005 Clemson/Miami game was in Clemson, it remains one of the most memorable and, for my money, the loudest game in Clemson history.  It is always fun to take on Miami.