I was pretty confident that Clemson would prevail last week, as noted in my preview. My confidence only grew when Dabo was interviewed before the kickoff. You can sense his confidence in this team and there is a look in his eye of knowing. The post game interview felt more like we just finished whipping Kent State, not a top 20 Cardinals squad on the road in primetime. It is crazy to think how routine these types of wins on that type of stage have become. Just like that, a game many felt would be one of the “2-4” losses for the 2017 Tigers became an emphatic win. Now the Tigers return home for what should be a breather game before another big road trip to Blacksburg.
The BC Eagles are once again struggling and are looking up at the rest of the ACC Atlantic. The likable Steve Addazio has remained steadfast in his positivity, but one has to think his days in Boston are numbered. The Eagles fans probably look back and lament running off Tom O’Brien with a low ball salary. They seemingly found an even more effective coach in Jeff Jagodzinski, but they unceremoniously fired him for interviewing for another job (which BC Interruption wrote about here). Since then, the Eagles have been in a tailspin as a program with only two 7 win seasons behind Andre Williams and then Tyler Murphy since 2013. The Eagles have not been able to capitalize on Penn State’s scandal or the decline of Notre Dame nearly to the degree they should have.
BC started this year with a decent win at Northern Illinois (considering NIU just went and beat Nebraska on the road, for whatever that’s worth). However, Wake Forest rolled them in week 2, then Notre Dame rolled up a Georgia Tech-like 500+ yard rushing performance on them last week. They find themselves heavy underdogs to the defending national champs.
Clemson offense vs. Boston College defense: It is funny thinking how BC used to be the team that brought the serious war daddies to the line of scrimmage. The days of Ron Brace and BJ Raji made life miserable for teams trying to run the ball inside on them. The Eagles still have some size inside, but only defensive end Harold Landry really gives you pause. Landry vs. the Clemson RT position could be a concern, but the Tigers could always option off of him in the run game if he proves too tough. The Tigers had little trouble blowing out the Eagles last year on a Friday night and this Eagles defense is about the same, if not worse after losing top LB Conner Strachan to a knee injury. Meanwhile, the Tigers offense is humming behind Kelly Bryant. Complacency is the most menacing enemy in this matchup.
Clemson can run the ball in a way not seen since the 2006 team. When Reggie Merriweather is your third team back, you are deep at running back. Now the Tigers have Travis Etienne as the FOURTH guy off the bench. Kelly Bryant is as dangerous, if not more, than the running back lining up with him. Tavien Feaster looked as good as he ever has running between the tackles last week. Thankfully, Bryant has more than enough arm and ability to burn folks over the top for loading up on the run, unlike Will Proctor back in 06. I was tough on Taylor Hearn at times last season, but I will say he’s been mauling people more often than not this season. His short stint at LT last week wasn’t great, but he’s been very good at guard (moreso than the more touted Tyrone Crowder). Falcinelli has been a pleasant surprise at center after entering the season as a serious question mark. If the right tackle spot could get fully cleaned up, look out.
Bryant continues to check all the boxes for the Tigers this year. He made a big time throw to Hunter Renfrow on the first drive last week, which showed he was more than ready for the moment. He had the one miss to Cain when he put too much air on the ball, and he’s had some spotty moments in the screen game, but I’ll take what I’ve seen from him all day, every day going forward. What is even scarier is a portion of the team battled a stomach virus prior to whipping Louisville. The Eagles have to be wondering what they can possibly do to slow down the Tigers.
It is unlikely BC will attempt to press-man or run single high looks as their secondary just can’t match Clemson man to man. However, they might hope Landry or another guy up front can get to Bryant before he can get it downfield if they are aggressive. The trouble with man coverage is a running QB can kill you if he breaks the line of scrimmage. BC has traditionally played two high safeties vs. Clemson with the hopes of keeping everything in front. However, their former advantages in physicality have long vanished with Dabo taking over the Tigers. BC was willing to load it up against Notre Dame, but that only led to the Irish busting multiple long runs on them. Even when they went two high, their safeties struggled to tackle Adams or Winbush in space. Their defense is also having to now work with a tempo offense on the other side which puts them out there more quickly when things break down. We’ll have a chance to see some big plays on Saturday for sure. Clemson protected the ball very well last week and hopefully that trend will continue.
Clemson defense vs. BC offense: All hail Coach Venables. Once again, he put together a plan that befuddled the Petrino/Jackson attack. Instead of the heavy blitzing with man coverage or quarters we saw in 2016, Coach V employed as much zone under as I’ve ever seen him run in a game. This effectively eliminated the crossing routes and kept multiple eyes on Jackson in the event of scrambles. The Tigers rarely sent more than a five man pressure and had the linebackers taking deep drops, daring the Cardinals to try to run the ball up the gut against our DL. As usual, the top outside threat for Louisville, Jaylen Smith, was basically eliminated until the game was out of hand. The scariest thing is, the Tiger defense played relatively poorly by all accounts. When a “poor” performance effectively takes a Heisman candidate out of the race, that is something else.
Addazio, bless his heart, has once again changed things up on offense in the desperate attempt to repair what has been an anemic unit over the last three years. Now the Eagles are running their own HUNH smashmouth spread hoping for 90+ snaps a game. They have most of their dangerous players back from last year in running back Jon Hilliman and WR Jeff Smith, but they lack any real threat to beat you over the top in the passing game. Starter Anthony Brown is averaging just 4.73 yards per attempt and 55% completions. Contrast that to Kelly Bryant’s 8.83 yards per attempt and 68.7% completions and you get the drift.
All that HUNH from BC is likely to give Clemson even more chances on offense than usual. We saw what could happen with that last year when Syracuse came to town. When you think about it, Clemson’s last loss was a one point game against a future NFL draft pick QB having the game of his life. You figure no team without a serious player behind center has any real prayer against the Tigers.
I expect heavy rotation of personnel throughout the game on Saturday as the Tigers continue to foster the depth on the team. Even the linebacker position, which Venables has rarely substituted for in the past, is seeing more guys getting snaps in competitive moments. The secondary is playing very, very well overall. I echo Quacking Tiger’s call to rest Van Smith as much as possible this week to get him right for VT. Smith is a very good player when healthy, but you could say Clemson is even faster when Wallace is back there instead of him. The quartet of Mullen, Muse, Wallace, and Fields would have to be among the fastest back fours in the nation. Scarier still is Isiah Simmons is even faster than Muse. The result of that speed is Clemson can recover from the mistakes they do make even better than before, which is likely how we didn’t see the defense hurt more from errors last week.
One thing that has struck a cord with me is the selflessness of the front four. For example, Clelin Ferrell is one of the most dynamic pass rushers in the land, but he was often dropped into coverage last week on zone blitzes. That versatility pays off for the team even though Ferrell is getting fewer opportunities for sacks and TFL’s. It takes all the guys staying in the scheme to make it work like it should, and this defense appears to have all the guys working in that manner. Dexter Lawrence had “his best game” according to Dabo, even though his stat line didn’t jump out the way, say, Austin Bryant’s did the week before. Lawrence was forcing things into his teammates; just doing his job regardless of the stat payoff.
The news of Logan Rudolph’s injury was not good. This is a game where Justin Foster will need to see more action, but the chances of Wilkins moving outside more going forward are much higher now.
Special Teams: Just as Falcinelli has eliminated much of the concern going into this season at his position, Will Spiers has more than just adequately filled the punting role. His first punt last week was the best punt I’ve seen since Gardocki. It sure is nice knowing you can get a 50+ yard bomb out of your own end from your punter. In other exciting news, Clemson is now sending Tavien Feaster AND Travis Etienne back to return kickoffs. While Etienne had some bobble issues no doubt related to nerves, I know I’m excited at the prospect of having two electric guys back on return. Feaster was a sub 10.5 100 meter guy coming out of high school, and we have all seen what Rumbalaya can do when he puts the hammer down. Those two, along with Ray Ray on punt return, has the potential to give us some 2009 type return moments when C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford were the most electric returners in the nation.
Greg Huegel has had a bit of a shaky start this season, but nailing that 49-yarder last week should give him a confidence boost. However, news of the injury to Huegel broke Thursday so the Clemson placekicking situation becomes a concern since he is lost for the year. Alex Spence will need to earn that scholarship he’s been on, and we’ll likely see him get a shot this weekend. It’ll certainly be something to keep an eye on.
Overall: I find myself in constant “pinch myself” mode these days. Could Clemson actually be good enough to make the playoffs for the third straight year after losing its best player ever, one of the best WR ever, one of the top 3 TE ever, the guy who caught the most balls in program history, and the single season rushing record holder at running back? Well, there is a lot more football left to be played, but the eye test is saying YES. There is only one program that looks truly able to occupy the rarefied air of Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, and it is Clemson. Boston College simply serves as a speed bump on the road to greatness, and not one of those big airport ones, those little old school ones I used to like to jump with my bike back in the day.
Clemson 52-Boston College 10