I know the hill and student attendance thing has gotten folks riled up, but I had to throw my head back and laugh for a minute realizing this is about all we have to complain about these days with Clemson football. It was just another win, again by double figures, over a conference opponent last weekend. The two garbage time TD’s Wake put together soured the taste a bit (along with Bryant leaving with an injury), but overall it was another good day at the office. Wake is a solid, well-coached team and they were never really in the game. I just sit and meditate on the Hatfield/West days (and even the Bowden) if I find issue with wins creeping into my psyche.
It is true the offense has lacked consistency this season, but if you consider the turnover on that side of the ball, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Coach Swinney and the staff know they are playing with house money in a sense that the team is coming off a title and has trailed for less than a quarter of any game this season. The result of that has been the frequent substitutions which have contributed somewhat to the lack of complete blowouts in some of these games. I think many fans will look back at this and be thankful when the Tigers will not have to rely on a new starter with little to no meaningful snap loads to speak of. Why not win now AND prepare to win later at the same time if you can do it? The defense Clemson enjoys this season is allowing for this approach and I’m coming around to it, even if it means the team doesn’t cover the spread as often or draws the doubt of blowhards like Paul Finebaum.
This week, Clemson travels to the far north of the conference to visit the hated Syracuse Orange. If having to play them wasn’t enough, the ACC and ESPN thought it would be cool to put the ACC’s marquis team on a FRIDAY night. This really makes little to no sense considering the normal draw Clemson now produces. We darn sure know Alabama would never get such treatment. Why not let the UNC’s, the Pitt’s, and the Duke’s of the world get the potential added exposure of a Friday night game? Clemson doesn’t need it, which likewise means Clemson’s weekly opponents don’t either. I get the ACC contracts with ESPN, but the league should have say in what teams are off limits to this type of stuff. There should be advantages to being the bell cow of the conference. Of course, John Swofford is the commissioner, so...
Clemson offense vs. Syracuse defense: The biggest question in this department is how much, if any, will Kelly Bryant play? I know we’ve heard he’s practicing and such, but Dabo wasn’t too pleased with Wake’s deception about its quarterback situation going into last week and seems more than happy to do a little sleight of hand work himself. As of Wednesday night, we were hearing Bryant was full go, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Bryant sits if his ankle isn’t very close to 100%. I’m sure he’ll be available if things warrant it, but Bryant without his wheels is not the same player by a long shot. He is the clear starter, but it is his total skill package that makes it so. Otherwise, the gap between him and the backups is not nearly as wide. Hunter Johnson looked great last week in his limited opportunities, and I feel if Clemson needs to throw to win, Johnson might be the best guy of the bunch. It wasn’t just his delivery that impressed, but also his checks at the line when Wake was loading up on the run.
The good news is Clemson should be able to run the ball as usual against this Syracuse defense. This is a significant step down from what Wake brought to town last week, even if the recruiting ratings don’t say so. The ‘Cuse will no doubt have to commit safety support to corral the running game, which in turn should open things up for the playmakers on the outside. I join many of you in cursing the failed screen game so far this season, and it is easy to say Clemson should just stop running them. However, the screen component is vital to the offense and the threat of it must always be there to help control the numbers in the box. Guys like Milan Richard need to just step up their games and execute better. The fact Clemson is average at the tight end position is one of the biggest reasons for the stretches of sputtering we have seen here and there. Clemson misses Jordan Leggett more than anyone else on offense this season, even more than Deshaun.
The formula for this game shouldn’t be too different than recent weeks. Clemson will look to control the ball with the run game, content to take 4-5 yards and grind out possessions. Clemson did do a little tendency breaking (which I thought they would) last week in the early scripted drives. This led to two easy TD drives right out of the gate. As long as Clemson avoids turnovers and bad penalties, the Orange will struggle to get off the field and keep Clemson under 30 points.
Clemson defense vs. Syracuse offense: I was a little concerned about this matchup last year considering the prowess Dino Babers has shown as an offensive mind. Clemson then proceeded to bully the Orange up front, knock starter Eric Dungey out of the game, and finish an impressive shutout. Once the Orange lost Dungey last year, they were rendered helpless. He is their best player and is their best chance at producing against a defense like Clemson’s. I’ll not call for a player to get knocked out of a game, but controlling Dungey is very important. He is a good player and not afraid to be a gunslinger. He’s also a capable runner, easily as good as anyone Clemson has seen except Lamar Jackson. The Tigers had a few iffy moments last week against Hinton when he ran it.
Brent Venables chose the Syracuse game last year to unveil his walking the DE’s out on the WR bunch formations the Orange like to run. We saw this vs. VT when Austin Bryant blew up a fourth down screen call. The Orange had no answer for this last year, either, and it effectively took their screen game out. I’ve always been a fan of Steve Ishmael since scouting them two years ago. Etta-Tawo got the lion’s share of the throws and attention last year, but Ishmael is now playing that role and is more talented. I’m not sure Dabo’s Mike Williams comparision is apt, but he is a good player and one the Tigers must account for on every play. They will throw the fades and back shoulder balls to him vs. tight coverage. The good news is, those are staples of the Tiger offense and the Clemson corners will have had plenty of work against those throws. Clemson did a decent job bottling up Wake’s Greg Dortch last week outside of his one long catch/run in the first half. They face a similar player in Ervin Phillips who is the main target for screens and over the middle throws. I expect Dorian O’Daniel to have another busy day in coverage after being tested multiple times last week.
Syracuse has begun to employ massive Chris Elmore as a running back in certain packages. He amounts to a short yardage guy, but he also helps their QB run game by providing a large lead blocker. It will be funny seeing a guy that size lining up in the backfield of a spread offense. The Orange’s main running back, however, is Dontae Strickland. He’s a decent player but should find life very difficult between the tackles just as all the other running backs Clemson has faced this season. Dungey is much more of a threat in the run game, IMHO. Those lamenting the substitution patterns for the Tiger defense should like the fact that the Orange run such a fast tempo that subbing within a series will be difficult for Clemson to do. Being good on first down is extremely important against a team wanting to run plays at a rapid pace. Clemson was dominant on first down last year and Syracuse could never get its tempo working in its favor as a result. It also didn’t take Dabo Swinney long to bring up the poor defensive outing against backup QB Zach Mahoney two years ago. The Tigers got ripped on several mid-line option plays where gap integrity and assignment football were nonexistent. Syracuse isn’t running that system anymore, but I’m sure that film will be used as a motivator going into the game this week.
Special Teams: I’m certainly concerned about Clemson needing a big kick going forward now that Heugel is out. Alex Spence has shown some leg strength, but his accuracy and consistency have also shown why the recruited scholarship kicker has been a career backup. Thankfully Clemson continues to control games and clutch kicking has not been needed to this point. I’m hopeful Spence can get things worked out in case he’s really needed. Ray Ray continues to be a threat in the punt return game and seems due to bust a TD return at any moment. Clemson’s kick return game has been limited by deep kickoffs from the opposition in recent weeks. They also are not getting many opportunities thanks to the stellar defensive play. I know we will all live with that!
Overall: Syracuse is yet another ACC team who I believe made a very good hire for football coach. Dino Babers walked into an absolute mess and has made Syracuse a tough out for most. They rose up to upset VT last year in a shocker, and I’m sure that message will be delivered to the team as an added measure to ensure focus. Luckily, the strength of Syracuse lines up on the strength of Clemson, while Clemson’s offense should mostly overwhelm the Orange defense with its talent advantages on the outside and within. The Tigers quarterback play, should it be Bryant as normal or perhaps Cooper or Johnson, is the biggest thing to monitor. Feaster, Etienne, Choice, and Fuller should get plenty of opportunities to take the game over. As long as Clemson protects the ball, the Orange shouldn’t have much of a chance of the upset. The Tigers have survived a tough September and now look to sprint into the needed bye week. I expect Syracuse to make some plays, especially if Dungey can stay in the game, and the anticipated ball control approach from Clemson should keep the game from being a total blowout unless the Tiger backs (mostly Etienne) break some big runs.
Clemson 33-Syracuse 17