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Clemson Opponent Film Preview: Georgia Tech

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Georgia Tech may be the cure for a sleepwalking Clemson offense -- provided Deshaun Watson can handle the load.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

I ran into Paul Johnson on a plane from Houston to Atlanta back in May, I only know this because he cut blocked me when I tried to board. But seriously he was on my plane, and surprisingly seemed like a decent human being. Naturally, this made me dislike the man even further.

Georgia Tech limps in to Death Valley on a three game losing streak, and it should scare all of you to death. Georgia Tech seemingly exists only to ruin Clemson's season every couple of years, and the timing could not be worse just after we finally put the "ing" word to rest. (The passive voice is another pet peeve, thank you). Make no mistake, a loss to GT would revive it, and rightfully so.

After GT opened the season with two cupcake blowouts, Notre Dame dominated GT in a manner which was more surprising than it should've been, given the considerable talent discrepancy. GT followed this respectable loss to a fantastic ND team with an upset at the hands of Duke, before a blown 21 point lead cost them at home against Carolina.

I collected stills from the Jackets' recent games, since we already know the dangers of their offense you'll find little need to focus on their success against cupcakes. GT ran into a buzzsaw defensive front against Notre Dame which is nearly on the level of the front Clemson throws at them this weekend. That Duke was also able to slow GT with less talent is all the more encouraging.

Defending the "Spread Option"

With the return of four lineman and outstanding option QB Justin Thomas, GT found some rare preseason love and hype. Despite this, GT struggled on offense (by usual standards) in the last three games. I see two differences between this year and last: first, the OL does not generate a consistent push, which means GT cannot establish B-Back Patrick Skov on the dive. If you know anything about the option, you know the dive is the engine that drives their Model T wreck. Second, the lack of any receiving threats -- odd as it seems, GT needs receivers to truly make the offense work. (We can relate since Clemson has no downfield threat right now). Without legitimate receiver threats, defenses can commit safeties to the alley.

GT v Duke 1
This sequence shows a defensive call in which I expect Ben Boulware to wreak his usual havoc.

GT v Duke 2
Since the LB (still circled) crashed the dive, Thomas pulls to find the DE waiting for him. How do you think Thomas will react to Shaq Lawson sitting in his run lane? How you feel when you fail to latch a public bathroom stall.

GT v Duke 3
A simple run blitz and solid outside containment led to a 5 yard loss. Clemson already benefits from outstanding line play against the run, but throwing Boulware on bullets and fires provides another headache for CPJ.

Of course, dominating the interior line and surviving the imminent deep shots are necessary as well. This is a huge test for Scott Pagano and the rest of the interior. Pagano played extremely well against Wofford's option, but GT offers a much more difficult task with better players are far more cut blocks. GT beat Mackensie Alexander a few times last year on comeback routes, but they lack the receiver personnel to attack him successfully this year. Shut down the dive again, and Thomas will have a long day.

Defensive Vulnerabilities

To find exploitable weaknesses in GT's defense, I look to Carolina's success in a similar offensive scheme to Clemson's. Carolina fell into a 21-0 hole last weekend in Atlanta but rallied for two touchdowns just before halftime before an eventual 38-31 victory. It seems Larry Fedora learned from the debacle against a horrible South Carolina team, and fed Elijah Hood often (even at the goal line)!

Hood and Marquise Williams found plenty of running room on the edge, and hopefully Clemson can continue its running renaissance with Wayne Gallman and Deshaun Watson. With Charone Peake at boundary receiver, I've essentially given up on Clemson's downfield passing game. Peake is to blame for two Watson interceptions now, without adequate aggression for the ball. Until proven otherwise, I expect Clemson will have to beat opponents on the ground and on the perimeter.

Speaking of Marquise Williams, he had a phenomenal day on the ground against a GT defense that looked more worried about the pass -- a familiar theme for Clemson fans this season. Our opponents played mostly two deep coverage to make us beat them short, and Clemson has mostly been able to do so.

GT doesn't bring a particularly strong defense into this contest, but again it is Clemson's ground game which must carry Tigers until we hit a big passing play (never thought I'd say that this preseason) or are successful enough up front to bring GT's safeties into the box -- preferably both.

Carolina was able to exploit a soft front similarly to the way Clemson used Watson on the ground against Notre Dame. You'll remember the game plan against GT last year called for plenty of Watson runs since the Jackets were vulnerable to it, and it burned us when Watson went down. To call for the QB run again this year may give you an ulcer (it pains me to admit its necessity), but based on the Carolina game, GT is still vulnerable to it. We must hope Watson can show the same durability as Williams.

Gt v UNC 1

Carolina spread the defense to only leave 6 in the box. With Hood lead-blocking for Williams, we find 6 blockers on 6 defenders and Williams should find an easy running lane if the OL can hold their blocks for 1.5 or 2 seconds.

GT v UNC 2
#70 executes a perfect seal block, #71 reaches the second level freely, and Hood heads off the only defender in position to make a play. Williams is not touched until he is 25 yards downfield.

Carolina's drive nearly stalled after this run, but on 4th and 5 they returned to the well, and gave GT a taste of their own medicine with a speed option.

GT vs UNC 3
Another great seal by the right tackle. The unblocked defender plays this extremely poorly for someone who practices against the option so often. Easy read for Williams, who doesn't even have to fake the pitch.

GT v UNC 4
Wow, insert dumb coack-speak/bad announcer line about the running lane here. Great block by #82 to keep Williams clean. Untouched again, this time for a touchdown to go up by 10 points late in the 4th quarter.

Again, I hate to dump on our passing game, but with Peake and Hopper on the field together the Clemson receiver group  -- dare I say it -- is at worst a liability, and at best a disappointment. Artavis Scott is a beast but downfield ballhawk is not his role. Deon Cain, your opportunity is here.

Thus, it is again Clemson's ground game which will determine our offensive success. Based on what I have seen this year, I worry we can't keep up with GT if our defense wears down or we turn the ball over like last year. On the other hand, the toughest defenses on our schedule are in the past, and perhaps a lackluster GT defense will cure our offensive woes. If Watson stays healthy, Clemson wins 34-24.