It will be 15 days of stewing over that D- performance at Syracuse when the Tigers run down the hill and face Coastal rival Georgia Tech on Saturday night. I don’t ever claim to be a coach on the level of the guys on Clemson’s staff, but I can certainly relate to the sometimes inexplicable mental vacations young players take. I once coached at a school (hoops) where we beat a team 100-34 the first time we played them, only to go on the road a few weeks later and escape in overtime. It was easy to point to the officiating that put the other team on the line repeatedly and put us in foul trouble, but a lot of that had to do with a lack of focus, intensity, and energy from a group expecting an easy night.
Clemson has been as good as anyone not named Alabama at avoiding these types of letdowns. When they have happened, the team almost always figures out a way to win in spite of them. Last Friday was a perfect storm of lacking focus vs. a fired up opponent with just enough good pieces in the right places to make Clemson pay. Outside of not turning it over, though I would argue missed FG’s inside of 40 yards are about the same as a turnover, you would have to trek back to 2014’s GT game for a performance as poor as the ‘Cuse game. The coaching was bad, the execution was bad, the discipline was bad, all of it. Clemson fans can only hope that egg being laid spawns a championship run as it did last year when the Tigers dropped a home game to Pittsburgh as a heavy favorite. Georgia Tech comes to town and are bringing a better team to the game than the one the Tigers thumped in Atlanta last year. Any residual lapses in focus and effort from the Syracuse game will get exposed in a hurry by the Jackets.
Clemson offense vs. GT defense: All eyes here will be on the quarterback play for Clemson. We are once again hearing how well Kelly Bryant is doing and looking and feeling, but we heard a lot of that before Syracuse before it was obvious he was not close to 100%. I’ll leave the controversies concerning the Zerrick Cooper vs. Hunter Johnson for another day, but there is little doubt Clemson’s best chance at winning right now is with Bryant at the controls. The staff was clearly willing to continue with Bryant when he could barely move on his ankle prior to getting knocked out (literally). Dabo even stated in his press conference that Bryant would have remained in the game had the concussion not occurred. I can’t help but think back to the 2005 Georgia Tech game when a very banged up Charlie Whitehurst played the entire game in an ugly, low scoring loss to the Jackets in Atlanta. You think back and wonder if the healthy backup would have given the team a better chance to win, especially if that backup had been prepped accordingly before the game. My sincere hope is the staff has a much better plan B ready to go should Bryant have issues similar to what we saw in New York.
I would bank on GT following a similar script to Syracuse defensively. The Jackets are very multiple defensively, so molding into the 2 deep, heavy zone pressure attack the Orange used is within their playbook. I thought Clemson did some very nice tendency breaking things early in the Syracuse game, but the offense really broke down for the most part as the game went along. I feel strongly teams are going to take their chances with Clemson passing on them in early downs, as long as you take away the deep shots (hence the 2 safeties deep). I would hope the staff used their extra time wisely honing the plays that can exploit that intermediate middle which is getting left open more often than not with these looks. I’ve already mentioned how the screen game needs to get going vs. some of the off coverage looks the team sees a good bit of.
Getting off to a fast start is always good, of course, but it is especially important when facing GT. Syracuse played their own style of keep away last time out, and GT is more than happy to run entire quarters off on a drive. The last two wins in this series have seen Clemson stone the Jackets on defense and put them behind multiple scores before the half. I’m always confident in the scripting that Elliot and Scott put together as the Tigers have almost always come out of the gate strong on offense under their watch. That needs to happen Saturday so Clemson can be content with pounding the ball and not having to throw to win. I’m certainly not nearly as confident this year’s team can really do that after enjoying Watson’s brilliance for three years. GT is just OK on defense as usual for them, but Syracuse was just OK as well and we saw how that went. I stand by my minimum 12 touch rule for Travis Etienne: Give that man the ball!
Clemson defense vs. GT offense: I’m still dumbfounded by the defensive effort vs. Syracuse. I just didn’t fathom such a terrible showing was possible from this mostly veteran unit. Clelin Ferrell was a man, but everyone else played average or below average by my view. I expected Syracuse to hit some passes and Dungey to make a play or two with his feet, but having to endure their offense pounding us with conventional runs with a few passes mixed in and bleeding 6 minutes off the clock in the fourth was excruciating. Of course, Paul Johnson is probably not so happy that the Tigers played that poorly last time out as they will no doubt be foaming at the mouth to get after the Jackets. I am pretty sure we will see GT try to hit a play action ball very early in the game in an effort to catch the Tigers being too eager to stuff the option.
As usual, the number one job Saturday night is for the defense to stop the B back dive play. Several folks wrote GT off when top returning back Dedrick Mills was kicked off the team before the season, but Johnson always seems to find running backs that work in his system. KirVonte Benson is the latest to take the lead as the B back in the offense. I felt GT was in a rebuild situation this year considering they lost multi-year starter Justin Thomas and the aforementioned Mills, but they are playing much better along the OL than they were last year and newcomers Benson and quarterback TaQuon Marshall have stepped up nicely. The Jackets are currently averaging a whopping 5.8 yards per rush so far, up nearly half a yard from last year’s production. I think just assuming Clemson’s DL will overwhelm their front as they did the last two years is a mistake. It could still happen, but it is certainly no sure thing. Guys like Austin Bryant need to show a lot more discipline than what was seen in the Carrier Dome.
I feel good about the physicality of Clemson’s secondary coming up for run support. I feel less good about Tanner Muse’s eye discipline after a very poor overall game last time out. Mark Fields certainly had a few moments to forget last time out as well. Again, the hope is that the humiliation of getting beaten by a team you beat by 50+ the year before will be all the team needs to have laser focus this time out. Tre Lamar saw very limited action vs. Syracuse as Clemson stayed in nickel and dime for nearly the entire game, but he will be a major part of helping control the middle vs. the option this week. GT gets one more year of having to deal with Dorian O’Daniel who has made a living in their backfield while at Clemson. It is always fun to see what Coach Venables comes at Johnson with and vice versa. Two years ago, Venables started the game by blitzing the corners into the option which caught the Jackets off guard. Last year was just total domination by the Clemson front four rarely seen against a Paul Johnson offense (just 95 yards rushing). I would love to see that again, though I wouldn’t expect it. Holding GT under 225 rushing is a reasonable goal to have. Miami held them to 226 last week and managed to win (barely and luckily, I might add).
Special Teams: Well, the placekicking situation crept up and bit the team a little sooner than some predicted. It has now created a serious problem for the team unless Alex Spence or perhaps even newcomer Drew Costa can provide some consistency inside 40 yards. As Coach Swinney said Tuesday, “make the layups!” Not only did Clemson leave 6 points on the board in a 3 point loss vs. Syracuse, but I would also strongly argue the ill fated rugby-option fake punt call AND the third down call before it were influenced by the complete lack of faith in the field goal kicking. Otherwise, Clemson likely calls a safe third down play to get into better field goal range rather than going for it all on a third and long. Even if Spiers made a terrible read on that rugby-option punt, the very fact he was put into that position screams the staff was desperately hoping to find a breakdown. There is no other possible explanation for not using a normal punt in that situation. Make no mistake, poor field goal kicking affects your play calling immensely. It is a real worry going forward now, and the team needs to finish drives with touchdowns or risks coming up empty. GT has made a switch at kicker and their new guy has been perfect so far.
Overall: This is a dangerous game. It would have been one even without the loss at Syracuse, but the Jackets have a good team and are better than they were last year IMHO. Some of the issues Clemson has been dealing with as mentioned above make this trickier than it should be. Of course Clemson should be completely dialed in for this game knowing there is no margin for error. I like that it is at home and at night because the Valley will no doubt be its peak rocking self. A lot of this comes down to Kelly Bryant and his health. If Bryant is able to play at 90% capacity or better, Clemson should win this by two + scores. If Bryant can’t go or is severely limited, things become murky. Throw in the usual X factors like unexpected turnovers or busted coverages and an upset could happen again, but I’ll keep the faith that the staff and team has tightened the screws.
Clemson 28 GT 17