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Clemson vs. Georgia Tech Football Preview

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The Tigers Look to Topple Tech and Avenge Last Year's Loss in Atlanta.

Train keep a rollin' all night long!
Train keep a rollin' all night long!
Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

I'd like to start with a few thoughts on last week's epic victory.  I talked about separating men from boys and it was once again pleasing to see the Tigers playing like grown men on the big stage.  2008 seems like a lifetime ago when the Tigers got massacred by Alabama in the Georgia Dome.  Despite having elite running backs in C.J. Spiller and James Davis, that team was completely incapable of running the ball against legit front sevens.  Now the Tigers have hit 200 yards rushing in back to back games against some legitimate front seven talent.  Wayne Gallman is a very good running back and is getting better, but I think most would agree he isn't C.J. Spiller or James Davis at this time.  This is extremely encouraging going forward, especially when you envision a Gallman/Feaster combination next year.  It is very unlikely the Tigers will lose a game hitting 200 or more yards on the ground.  In fact, you can probably find just a handful of games in the last 20 years when the Tigers ran for 200 or better and lost.  In the immortal words of Danny Ford, I'm "very, very excited; very, very proud" of the development of the Tiger run game.

Now, on to the Jackets.  GT is always a worrisome game for Clemson and even some years when Clemson clearly should have won the game, such as 1989, 2004, and 2005, they have gotten stung.  GT has sputtered after beating the brakes off of two patsies to start the season.  What we have learned about GT to this point is that they are not very good up front on offense and sorely miss the Smelter and Waller duo on the outside. They are also missing the one OL they didn't return in Shaquille Mason.  Mason was a major factor in their run game last year and helped mask some of the issues the other four guys had at times.  I have watched a lot of their games so far and they have had a big problem getting that B back dive going because of getting whipped up front.  Notre Dame's front four just ate them alive and held Tech to 216 yards rushing (which is very good considering GT usually goes over 300 on the ground).  What was more encouraging to me was what Duke was able to do to the GT offense.  Duke held the Jackets to just 160 yards rushing, mainly by utilizing their dynamic safety Jeremy Cash in a lot of creative ways.  It almost looked like Cash was given free reign to line up and attack however he wanted, which is brilliant in the sense that Paul Johnson couldn't ever get a read on him in order to adjust as he normally is very adept at doing.  Cash was a one man wrecking crew in that game whose impact went beyond the 12 tackle, one sack stat line he put up.  The Jackets have had to put up 20 or more passes in three straight games, and it certainly would play into the Tigers' favor if the Jackets have to throw that much again.  However, this series has proven that GT tends to put its best foot forward when playing the Tigers, so Clemson certainly can't (and likely won't) expect to just show up and win.

Clemson offense versus GT defense:  I saw a tweet this weekend where Cole Stoudt said he's coming to the game.  The irony, of course, was Stoudt's lowest moment as a Tiger occurred in the loss in Atlanta last year.   Cole was banged up and not expecting to play, but when DeShaun Watson hurt his knee, Stoudt was thrust into the game in the red zone and promptly threw the first of two pick sixes that helped bury the Tigers.  Somehow Clemson made a very mediocre GT defense look good that day, but that is what being completely one dimensional on offense can do to you.  Clemson, at full strength, should be no match for the Yellow Jackets who struggle to create pressure and to stop the run.  They are OK in the secondary with some veteran talent, but even a pretty good secondary has a hard time when the opposing QB has all day to throw.  Notre Dame ripped them for 215 yards and 6.7 per rush, Duke got 165 and 4.5 per rush, and then UNC racked up 231 and 7.5 per rush.  Clemson should be able to run the ball and force GT to come down with extra guys in the box, which will then open up the big play opportunities.  UNC had a lot of success with QB runs, and as much as it scares many Clemson folks, it is likely Clemson will continue to attack with Watson as a runner in this game.  Of course, Clemson was having very little trouble doing this last year until Watson got hurt (with no contact) on a run that was about to break big.

I know Clemson fans have started to wonder about the passing attack after two sub par games in that area.  This is a game where I think we should see that part open back up and look more like the passing attack Clemson is used to seeing.  Louisville and Notre Dame presented some legitimate concerns with pass protection, but Georgia Tech doesn't have the kind of difference makers up front those two teams have.  It appears to me that Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott have put a real emphasis on not getting behind the chains and that has led them to calling less true drop back pass plays.  However, I fully expect to see some major play action passing now that the Tigers have shown they are willing and able to pound the run game.  Although the Tigers do not appear equipped to just rip GT through the air like the 2013 team did, they should be in better position to protect the defense and keep GT's offense off of the field.  That will be important as the Tigers are lacking depth on defense.

Clemson defense versus GT offense: Last year was an aberration due to Watson going out of the game unexpectedly.  In every other game against GT in the Paul Johnson era since 2009, the Tigers have moved the ball pretty easily and put up points on GT.  The difference in the games have come in the ability of the Tiger defense to limit the GT option game.  It certainly has not been easy and there have been plenty of terrible moments for the Tigers defensively in that span.   Even some of the wins, such as 2012 and 2013, the Tigers gave up a lot of points and yardage.  Johnson is the best option coach around, for sure, and can be expected to create some good moments for his team.  It will be important for the Tiger defense to follow its own blueprint of starting like a house of fire and totally stuffing the opposing offense in the first part of the game.  When the first unit is fresh, it is scary good as we have seen all year.  The problems have occurred when the snap totals rise and the game has not gotten out of hand.  Dabo dismissed the tired talk and blamed execution and focus, but everybody knows that execution and focus become much harder when YOU ARE TIRED.  I clearly believe it has been a factor.  GT has to hope to run a bunch of plays, stay in the game (or find a way to run out ahead), and hope to wear down the Tigers.

I mentioned what Duke did earlier using their safety Jeremy Cash.  The best news for Clemson is that we have two guys that can do what Cash did in Kearse and T.J. Green.  I would expect Brent Venables to get very creative with his two playmakers in order to keep Johnson guessing.  The area of concern I have comes from not having Grady Jarrett.  Carlos Watkins, Christian Wilkins, and Scott Pagano have gone a long way to help us not miss Grady too much, but Jarrett was an absolute nightmare for GT the last two years.  Clemson blew up the dive play in 2013 and 2014 which severely limited GT's offense.  By the time GT got to the edges for some plays, the Tigers had raced out to a nice lead in 2013.  GT had to rely on some very good pass plays from Thomas and Smelter to get things going on offense last year, and they were only able to generate 14 points of true offense even then.  Can Clemson stuff the dive?  That is always job #1 in this game.  Heck, Duke had Cash taking the dive a couple of times in that game so there are different ways of skinning the cat.   Clemson cannot allow GT to run out to a 21-0 lead as it did against UNC, but it shows the problems GT are having in that they couldn't protect that lead with their run game the way you would expect.  Clemson's defense is better than any the Jackets have faced, especially in the back four, and the Jackets are much worse at wideout this year than last.  If the Tigers stuff Skov, GT will have to hope it can sneak some pass plays to create offense.  Justin Thomas's struggles in the passing game this year have a lot to do with not having Smelter and Waller on the outside.

Special Teams: Clemson actually showed some improvement in this area last week, though the Irish's first 3 points came largely from surrendering another long kick return.  However, Artavis Scott was able to hit some nice returns and Ammon Lakip showed even our kicker can hit (let's see Elliot Fry try that).  The Tigers did dodge a bullet when Scott muffed a return, but under the weather conditions the ball security was very good overall from the Tigers.  Meanwhile, Georgia Tech has been a total dumpster fire in the special teams department lately.  They have done about everything you can do from giving up long returns to botching snaps.  I certainly won't complain if they continue their pathetic ways on Saturday.  I certainly want to see the Tiger coverage team really lock it up for a change.  Dabo was right about Lakip's hit, that guy should have never gotten to Lakip in the first place.

Overall: I know GT is dangerous.  As long as Johnson is there and they have guys like Justin Thomas at QB, you have to worry about them.  However, I just feel Clemson is so superior on both lines of scrimmage that it will take some really poor play on the Tigers' part to lose this one.  Can GT execute timing routes with Thomas and Ricky Jeune the way they were able to on critical third downs last year with Smelter?  I just have a hard time seeing Mackensie Alexander giving up anything.  Defensively the Jackets are just very average.  They have some decent back seven players but lack a true difference maker in the front four and have been exposed the last three weeks.  They are going to need help from Clemson to stay in this game in the form of turnovers like we saw last year or good fortune with an injury to Watson or one of Clemson's main linebackers.  All the upset alert stuff should just add fuel to the fire to a team that has to be hungry knowing everything they want is in reach at this point.  If nothing else, throw on the film from last year.  I leave you with this...