For the second year in a row, the de facto ACC championship game isn’t the usual Clemson vs FSU collision. After laying an egg to a poor South Carolina team in its opener (ignore the Gamecocks’ 6-2 record; they’re falling butt-first into bad wins as only Will Muschamp can), State earned what were seemingly program-defining wins against FSU and Louisville in the first half of their schedule before it was evident the Noles and Cardinals are in free fall. Now they look to recover after falling apart against Notre Dame and all but wrap up the division championship — which would be their first opportunity to win an ACC crown since 1979 — at home against the defending national champions.
I want to preface with the admission I was never particularly high on State in the preseason nor at any point over the last month. I really like the roster; the front-line talent alone led me to pick them ahead of Louisville, and should’ve made 9 wins the absolute minimum for this team. State has an insanely efficient quarterback, an explosive running back, a superstar play-maker/nightmare at tight end, and one of the best defensive lines in the country. But Dave Doeren and his staff offer me little confidence the program will ever climb beyond the “Clemson under Tommy Bowden” level of perpetually unmet expectations. Now, fresh off Notre Dame exposing State and Kelly Bryant’s refreshingly great performance against Georgia Tech, Clemson is catching them at the right time.
That said, State is the best remaining team on Clemson’s schedule, and it’s fun to play these meaningful November games against unexpected faces. Even after State’s worst performance of the year, the Wolfpack sit at 4-0 in conference play and this weekend’s contest is nearly certain to determine the Atlantic Division champion. The easily-gleaned impressions heading into this game all favor Clemson. But this weekly column, as ever, focuses on deeper scouting: where defenses can either harass or fall prey to Bryant and the Clemson offense. With State’s defensive line, there’s much more to worry about up front than usual, but even this front may not be able to keep Clemson from successfully attacking a weak secondary.
Like just about everyone else on the schedule, particularly against Clemson’s spread, State operates out of a base 4-2-5 which relies on its fantastic defensive line to take away the run and generate a pass rush while the back 7 try to survive with a lot of cover 2, cover 4 or the occasional disguised single high safety look; i.e., conservative coverages/looks which attempt protect the secondary.
But man, is it a good front. The headliner is of course Bradley Chubb at defensive end, but opposite end Kentavius Street and tackles B.J. Hill and Justin Jones complete a solid-senior laden line which is second only to Clemson’s defensive line in ferocity. Whether with its pass rush or ground control, State’s best hope Saturday lies in its front controlling Clemson like Auburn’s did.
The downside is State doesn’t have the elite players in the back to play as aggressively (and thus extremely well defensively) as Auburn did in week 2. On the second level, the player worth watching is Mike linebacker Jerod Fernandez; he’s State’s leading tackler and smartest player, almost always patrolling the intermediate middle in coverage and first to arrive should any run slip through the State front.
Behind him, though, State runs into personnel problems which Auburn lacked, and it’s why State needs a transcendent effort up front to corral a healthy Bryant off his most impressive (given the circumstances) performance through the air of his career. Finally, we saw Clemson attack the middle of the field, in a torrential downpour no less, which should be readily available for Bryant to hit zone windows against both cover 2 and cover 4.
The greatest vulnerability I see when I watch State is undeniably safety play, which even great defensive lines can’t always protect (see: Clemson 2015). This is yet another reason why Kelly Bryant’s clean bill of health is so crucial; not only do we need his legs to make the offense run smoothly, but fewer things manipulate safeties quite like a run threat at quarterback. As such, I chose to focus on how State defended Syracuse’s Eric Dungey (I’m sorry) and Notre Dame’s Brandon Wimbush.
Against Dungey, State was content to sit in zone, shading the free safety to the boundary to better defend against Steve Ishmael while the rest of the defense kept everything in front of them with their eyes on Dungey. Against ND, State chose to be more aggressive against a freshman QB known for his legs, not his arm, but wanted to disguise their coverages in an effort to confuse Wimbush and protect themselves. From the first play of the game, State attempted to disguise a man cover 1 nickel fire blitz, but if I saw it 5 seconds before the snap, you can bet ND’s staff did:
State’s secondary did not look nearly as comfortable with the more aggressive calls meant to pressure Wimbush. The disguises either did not fool him or State busted them, like on the first Irish touchdown when Wimbush makes cover 3 look silly:
The inability to play sound aggressive coverage against Notre Dame was a huge issue given the strength of the ND run game — since State wanted to devote an underneath robber safety to the box whenever able — and will prove equally problematic against Clemson this weekend. Bryant has proven remarkably deadly against man coverage and the soft zone which State favors, but State struggles with the sort of aggressive zones with which Bryant struggled against Boston College. In fact, all the same issues which derailed State’s chances at Notre Dame are present here against Clemson, but with far more danger out wide. It’s a conundrum I don’t think the State can overcome without a dominant performance from its defensive line.
With Clemson boasting a powerful offensive line to counter the State DL, and a defensive philosophy which makes consistency all but impossible (you need explosiveness or defensive busts to beat Brent Venables), Clemson is a horribly bad match up for State. There are of course concerns in pass protection against such good defensive ends, but Clemson’s interior run game will benefit from Bryant at 100% and should thus make life easier for the rest of the offense.
Clemson will then separate from a Wolfpack offense which is due to struggle against a Venables defense which won’t allow them to operate with the needed efficiency (especially if running back Nyheim Hines is at all hobbled). State will put up a huge fight, but this is too tall a mountain for them to climb without unforced Clemson errors; a rarity for a fully mature Dabo Swinney program when it’s under the spotlight.