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Clemson looks to Rebound at Wake Forest

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ACC Atlantic Championship Clincher, Take Two

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson fans have often romanticized the Danny Ford days, especially during the leaner years between Ford and current head coach Dabo Swinney, and there was a lot of good to reminiscence about indeed. As I quietly exited Death Valley last weekend trying to figure out just what had happened, I couldn’t help but be reminded of how I felt many years prior after Clemson’s 1989 team lost at home to Georgia Tech...on Homecoming. That Tech team had a mediocre record, but it was turning a corner and would actually propel itself from that upset win to a share of the national title the following season. I don’t mean to say that Pitt is on that trajectory, but seeing a loaded Tigers team underperform and get beat at home after seemingly clearing the most difficult hurdles on the schedule is not unprecedented. Very few saw that one coming, but unlike the 1989 team, this team has a mulligan and can right the ship very quickly by defeating an overmatched but scrappy Wake Forest team. It hasn’t been that long ago that trips to Winston-Salem were wrought with danger and some terrible losses have been sustained there. I was in the stadium when Wake nearly got Tommy Bowden fired with that 2003 debacle. I was there in 2005 when the Tigers once again found a way to lose to the Deacs. The 2008 game, another Wake win, would finally finish off the Bowden regime, paving the way for Swinney’s rise to power. I guess we owe Wake and former coach Jim Grobe a debt of gratitude, but there should be no gift giving on the agenda for the Tigers Saturday night.

Clemson offense vs. Wake defense: It is amazing how much one or two plays can completely change the narrative of a game. Had RB Wayne Gallman and the Tigers converted that short yardage run and won the game, the record setting aerial assault put forth by Deshaun Watson and the skill players would be getting so much more credit than it is at this point. It’s just those mind numbing interceptions and a handful of ill timed drops that have kept Watson from having perhaps one of the greatest seasons throwing the ball in college football history. 70 passes and well over 70 percent completions is astounding, but in the end the lack of real balance in the Tiger offense was a major contributor to the upset loss. It is clear that every single team Clemson faces is going to roll the dice with the Tiger passing game and do everything it can to stop the run. Auburn started this process and it has been copied in some form or fashion by every team since. As good as Clemson has been throwing the ball, there have been just enough drops and ill timed interceptions to keep teams believing this is the way to go. Watson’s shoulder is a major factor in regards to the run game as the Tigers were very, very reluctant to use quarterback run plays vs. Pitt. Just like the loss of Gallman vs. NCST, the removal of Watson as a legitimate runner is a major blow to the offensive attack. Hopefully he will be in better shape to help the team out on some designed runs this weekend.

Wake Forest is nothing to sneeze at on defense. In fact, I would say they are as capable on this side of the ball as Pitt was on the offensive side. The key is making sure to dominate on the other side where the mismatch is much more pronounced. Wake is sure to employ many of the baiting strategies used by Clemson’s opponents hoping to get that bad throw or two out of Watson. He simply has to be more careful with the ball, especially in the red zone. I realize that much of what has allowed Watson to make some of the ridiculously great plays he has made is part of the reason these mistakes have occurred. It is hard to temper one without harming the other, but when Clemson is superior as they are here and were against Pitt, ball security is even more important than gunslinging. This is the final step in the progression of Watson and no doubt the one the NFL scouts are most watching as he finishes up his career at Clemson.

The Clemson offensive line continues to draw the ire of fans. In some respects, this is completely warranted as the short yardage failures and run game sputters are mostly due to issues up front. Clemson had to go with both true freshmen tackles for nearly every snap against Pitt with RT Jake Fruhmorgen on leave of absence and LT Mitch Hyatt nursing a foot injury. Even still, the tackle play was largely solid last week. The critical breakdowns are coming mostly from the guards (especially Taylor Hearn) and tight ends. The OL can be commended for the pass protection against Pitt considering how many attempts Clemson had, but they simply have to be able to produce in the run game even when a team is selling out to stop it. Wake features two of the best defenders in the ACC in Marquel Lee and Duke Ejiofor. The two have combined for 29 TFL and 15 sacks so far this year. Clemson has to contain these two so that the advantages on the outside can be exploited. Wake’s defense has held up well nearly all season but has had to once again drag a poor offense along which has led to its wearing out in some games. The Louisville game is a good example as the Deacs simply ran out of gas in the fourth quarter as their offense couldn’t do anything. Clemson can’t allow this defense to play from a position of strength (i.e. having a lead). Hopefully the team we saw in Boston and against Syracuse is the one that will show up Saturday night.

Clemson defense vs. Wake offense: Clemson’s defense, as the legendary Dezi Arnaz used to say, “has some ‘splaining to do,” after that performance last week. While the defense can be praised for saving the day several times this year, it ultimately was the goat in the loss to Pitt. You can’t have your offense roll up over 600 yards and 42 points on your home field and LOSE. Special teams had nothing to do with it either. Quite frankly, the Tigers lost their minds on defense for much of the game. Guys were missing assignments and being overly aggressive left and right, and for what? The defense simply needed to be solid and allow the offense’s superiority on the other side to win the day. Other than a small window when the defense forced two short fields off punts (which the offense squandered, ironically), and the one fumble recovery, the defense stank up the joint. Sure, the turnovers were terrible but Clemson was never able to force a field goal inside the red zone like a good defense has to do. Hopefully this is the one bad day at the office for defensive coordinator Brent Venables and his crew, and I certainly expect a much more focused group for this game. Simply put, the Tiger defense should completely overwhelm the Wake offense. They are a little better than last year, but they still are one of the worst units in the ACC. Clawson is a good coach and they do a great job masking their talent problems. They certainly do a better job of taking care of the ball than Clemson. They will no doubt employ as much misdirection, option-type football as they have in their system in an effort to duplicate what Pitt was able to do. Luckily they don’t have a James Connor at running back who ran through contact as well as any back has done to Clemson in a long time. They do have a very good tight end, so that little shuttle pass or the throwback stuff we saw Pitt use to great effect will likely be tried again. Clemson has to find a way to get the safeties on those routes and not Ben Boulware.

Wake’s passing game will likely start with the quick game as much as they can get by with it. They know they can’t protect John Wolford for long and will need to move him around and get the ball out of his hands quickly. We are going to see that play action off the zone read with the tight end drag and the wheel route without question. Wolford is a run threat as well so punishing him in that phase is also very important. Wake is without backup Kendall Hinton so they would be in serious trouble if Wolford had to leave the game. Wake shouldn’t sniff 20 points in this game, especially after that putrid performance last weekend. I’m sure Venables is breathing fire at practice with the expectation to redeem the unit.

Special Teams: While Clemson did an outstanding job of taking Quadree Henderson out of the game as a return threat last week, the unit was unable to make a game changing play outside of the field goal block at the end of the first half. It was sorely needed on a day where the defense struggled as badly as we’ve seen. Every kick return was right up the middle for the most part with little success. The punt return game was non existent as well. It would be nice for the team to break something big here, but I guess we should take the status quo as it is a step up from last year. As I’ve said in many of these previews, Clemson can’t gift Wake anything with a special teams blunder. Their hope needs to be squashed early. The close game magic seemed to slip away last week and I don’t want to test it again.

Overall/Prediction: Well, if there is any silver lining to last week’s loss, it is the importance it has placed on this game. The Tigers preach the one game season philosophy, but this team has had some crazy ups and downs in performance which hints that everyone isn’t practicing that approach. How else can you explain the NCST game after the dominance at Boston College? Or the loss to Pitt after crushing Syracuse? Those big wins were supposed to signal the team was locked in for the stretch run. I foolishly believed so heading into last week. I’m very interested to see how this team reacts to a loss. We have gotten the predictable message that the team is “mad” and “will be more focused than ever,” but the proof will be in the performance. Not just this week, because I do believe the team will perform well, but also the next two (likely). That 1989 team responded to the unthinkable GT loss by destroying 12th rank NCST and every other opponent it faced that season. Will this team decide to dominate like that, or will it be more helter skelter football? As for me, I’m betting the team looks good this week at least. We’ll see about the next.

Clemson 35 Wake 10