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Clemson at NC State Preview: Tigers Attack the Pack

Tigers continue the climb to the top

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

All I could think about as the Tigers put a Biblical beating on the Miami Hurricanes last week was this...

That old school Mortal Kombat fatality treatment!  Flawless victory!  I have to give myself a little credit on the preview for calling out a few things and earning myself some Horowitz points.  Let's revisit:

Point 1: 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.

Yeah, their "toughness" was nothing more than bumping gums and then putting up as much fight as the French at the Maginot line.

Point 2: 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).

Well, we know Golden didn't make it through Sunday with his job so this was truly "it" for him.

Point 3: 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.

Well, the turnover margin did indeed shift against Miami and we got a glimpse at what the Tigers can do to a team that turns it over.

Point 4: 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.

As we saw, the 'Canes couldn't run the ball and Kaaya got taken out by Shaq Lawson.  My official MTD for this game was that the Tiger defense would knock at least one Miami guy out of the game and they knocked out two.  I've certainly missed on a call or two so it is nice to get it right!

The downside, if there could be a downside to this type of win, is the Tiger bandwagon is filling up.  Several pundits have Clemson ranked #1 or #2.  Clemson has climbed towards this rare air a few times and have not been able to hold it.  The 1989 team was in great shape to make a run having conquered FSU in Tallahassee, by far the hardest game on the schedule, but couldn't avoid failure in Durham.  The 2000 team was racing towards a showdown with FSU but stumbled the week before against Georgia Tech.  The 2006 team had nearly overcome an early 1 point setback against a very good Boston College team with wins at FSU (the only one since 1989) and a demolition of a top 15 Georgia Tech squad with Gameday in town before falling flat against Virginia Tech.  The 2011 team got through the gauntlet of Auburn, Florida State, and Virginia Tech unscathed but proceeded to forget how to play football against NC State in Raleigh.  Perhaps the most painful opportunity squandered was when Clemson was crushed at home by Florida State in 2013.

The lofty ranking brings out the best in the opposition and heightens the pressure.  Dabo Swinney and the Tiger staff have gone to battle with the "1 game season" cry in hopes of warding off any lapse in focus.  So far it has worked like a charm.  I think most Clemson fans can be confident that this team might lose, but if it does it is because the opposition just played very well and/or is pretty darn good.  Not only have the Tigers not lost to an unranked team since 2011, they haven't lost to a team finishing a season under 10 wins since then.  That is pretty remarkable.

All this will once again be put to the test in Raleigh.  NC State has a nice record, thanks to some very favorable scheduling, and the Wolfpack are looking for a signature win.  They have derailed Clemson before, as we saw in 2011, and did the same to the Florida State Seminoles in 2012, so they have a little history in making something happen at home.  Clemson's last trip to Raleigh was a very, very sloppy 26-14 win in the third game of 2013.  NCST was a close out of bounds call away from really making that game dicey.  However, there is a big difference in the Clemson defense in 2015 compared to that year (and 2011).  This team can also run the ball better than any of the Morris offense era.  The boom or bust ways of Tajh Boyd have been replaced by the steady hand of Deshaun Watson.  I don't believe the 10 point spread is nearly enough and will explain why.

Clemson offense versus NCST defense: Hey!  It is the third ranked defense in the country!  Where Boston College had at least played Florida State to show their true worth on defense, the Wolfpack have faced a Baylor type non-conference slate of cupcakes.  Clemson's defense is ranked fourth but has faced Notre Dame and Appalachian State (who is killing everybody else they play) and Miami who are ALL superior to the best offense NCST has faced to date: a Virginia Tech squad without Michael Brewer.  Clemson had a dominant defense in 2000...until they played Philip Rivers, then Georgia Tech, then Florida State, then Virginia Tech.  The Pack are in trouble trying to stop this Tiger offense.  The Pack gave up over 200 yards rushing to Louisville and allowed 200 to the Hokies.  Backup Hokie QB Brendan Motley had his highest QBR game by far against the NC State defense...and Motley faced Furman, Purdue, and East Carolina prior to NC State.

NCST has some good players sprinkled throughout their defense, but how they plan to try to stop the Tiger run game without leaving their secondary on islands is beyond me.  Miami elected to keep the safeties back and guard against the deep pass, a common approach to facing a Watson led Tigers, but the result was a systematic demolition via the ground game and underneath precision passing.  The Wolfpack got a full dose of #4 last year when he carved them up for 267 yards passing, 62 rushing, and 4 total touchdowns.  The game was over at the half.  That defense isn't as good up front as Boston College and can't hope to cover the Tigers one on one for very long.  It will take a healthy dose of penalties and turnovers for the Pack to hope to keep this a game.  You can MTD that the Pack won't be the #3 total defense in the land on Sunday.

A couple of guys to watch out for on NCST's defense are Darian Roseboro (who was on the Clemson recruiting radar for a while last year) and Jerod Fernandez.  If the Pack are to do anything game changing on defense, it is likely one of these two guys who will be getting it done.  Meanwhile, the Tigers will look to establish Wayne Gallman early and often as they did last week.  Will NCST load up the box and take their chances in man coverage?

Clemson defense versus NCST offense: I was all in on Jacoby Brissett last year when I previewed this game.  I saw how he shrugged off sacks and made big plays against the Florida State defense.  Brissett is one of the top quarterbacks in the ACC for sure, but that didn't stop the Clemson defense from completely dismantling Brissett and the Pack offense last year.  When Brissett faced the Louisville defense, the best he's seen so far this year, he put up a paltry 37.4 QBR and just 183 yards.  Virginia Tech also kept Brissett bottled up.  The common denominator has been the NCST run game.  When the Pack have been unable to run, their offense has fallen apart.  Brissett is a good player but not good enough with his supporting cast to win a game by throwing it all over the place.

In both of their losses, the Pack have been under 4 yards per carry.  To me, the focus should be on stopping Matt Dayes.  This will be a good primer for having to stop Dalvin Cook the following week.  Dayes is not Cook but he is a capable player who has put up some explosive plays both running and receiving.  He is coming off a 200 yard game against Wake Forest.  I personally worry more about Dayes as a receiver than a running back against the Tiger defense.  The Pack will no doubt look for ways to get Dayes lined up against a linebacker in coverage.  Dave Doeren downplayed the Tigers in his press conference and said it will come down to winning matchups.  Dayes might be the one guy who can do that for them if he is matched up with the right player.

Special Teams: On paper, the Pack have an edge in this department.  Of course, this also is a reflection on the competition to a degree.  If any upset is to happen on Saturday, this is an area where the Wolfpack will need big plays in some fashion.  The Tigers simply need to be sound and not give up a big return or a blocked kick.

Overall: I firmly believe Appalachian State could beat NC State head to head (S&P+ has App State #20 and NC State #22).  The Pack just lack the firepower on both sides of the ball to truly challenge Clemson on Saturday.  The Tigers have owned the line of scrimmage all year long and I expect that to continue in this game.  Owning that part of the game reduces the likelihood of upset exponentially.