The weather has finally begun to hint at fall around these parts which means the contenders are called upon to rise. I used to wonder what it felt like to be a Florida State fan in the 1990s when winning the league was a foregone conclusion. Even in my childhood of the 1980s, the Tigers found a way to stumble more than they should have and won 3 to 4 fewer titles than they should have. Of course, three of those stumbles were to North Carolina State...in a row. 1987 was particularly frustrating because the Tigers had beaten Georgia, which was the best team on the schedule, and had the Pack at home but lost anyway.
Now the Tigers have become the new version of the 90’s Seminoles with three straight ACC titles and only 2 losses in the league since 2014. North Carolina State comes to town trying to duplicate the feat of those old Dick Sheridan squads who upset the more talented Tigers and kept them out of the national championship picture. Although it isn’t mathematically the Atlantic Division title game, everyone knows the winner of this game can book hotel rooms in Charlotte.
Clemson defense vs. NC State offense: Back before the Syracuse game, I discussed how the Orange’s upset hopes rested almost entirely on the back of its quarterback and offense. Dungey was one of the few quarterbacks with the makeup required to truly challenge the Clemson defense, especially in Death Valley.
The other is Ryan Finley of the Wolfpack. While I wouldn’t compare Finley to Dan Marino, I do recall what the 1984 Miami Dolphins were able to do against the best NFL defense I have ever seen with the 85 Bears. Marino’s quick release and fearless decision making, along with some capable wide receivers, found a way to score 38 points. Finley was nearly lights out enough to carry the Pack to a win last year in Raleigh, which was pretty impressive considering Nyheim Hines was banged up and couldn’t really help give the Pack balance. Of course, the Tigers were extremely banged up in the secondary, so much so that Amir Trapp got extended snaps, and Ray Ray McCloud had to change numbers so he could play corner as well.
The Wolfpack won’t be so fortunate this year as Clemson will have its top three corners at full strength, as well as safety Tanner Muse (playing with a broken hand last year) who is playing by far the best football of his career. I still snicker at the ever salty Dave Doeren lamenting losing Muse to us when he was on that coaching roundtable broadcast of Clemson-Bama 1. Last year’s game was a breakout moment for current starter K’Von Wallace.
The good health of the secondary is very important because Brent Venables will need to challenge the NC State wideouts at the line of scrimmage. The Tigers played mostly off coverage in the first half of last year’s game and Finley promptly hit just about every pass he threw on a bevy of outs and slants. The Tigers challenged those routes more in the second half and were able to hold Finley off enough to win the game. Finley threw it a whopping 50 times last year, and I expect we will see a similar number this time around.
The Pack are not nearly as good on the ground as the last three editions of the team which had upper level running backs Matt Dayes and Nyheim Hines, along with the do-it-all Jaylen Samuels. This year’s team struggles to get push up front and lacks a difference maker at running back. Finley has been good enough to make up for that to this point, but is he really good enough to carry the Pack to victory Saturday? The 2018 Clemson defense has been incredible against the run, allowing a paltry 2.5 yards per carry, and that number really is a little higher thanks to garbage time runs by Hinton from Wake Forest two weeks ago.
Finley will make some throws and the Pack skill on the outside is good. Harmon in particular can make contested catches on fades and was the one who burned Trapp badly for the first Pack TD last year. Still, in my opinion Clemson needs to force the Pack to make those higher difficulty fade/back shoulder plays and not allow Finley to create a rhythm with the quick game and timed out routes. Once that happens, it is up to the Tiger secondary to make some plays on the ball and finish interception opportunities.
As great as the Tiger defense has been the last few years, they have not been able to equal Alabama’s ability to turn people over and score on defense consistently. This game would be a perfect time for a couple of those huge defensive scores to happen. NC State has not had to truly play come from behind football the last couple of years, but once they were really put in that position, Clemson was able to intercept Finley twice apiece in 2016 and 2017.
I really cannot wait to see what Venables has in store for the Pack this time. The continued emergence of Xavier Thomas does not bode well at all for NC State, whose weakest link on the OL is probably at right tackle. As we saw against Syracuse, when Clemson gets a team in pure pass mode and Thomas can just get after the quarterback, that quarterback is in serious trouble. This doesn’t even take into account the greatness of Clelin Ferrell on the other side. While Thomas is the X factor for me in this game, on the other side of the ball I’ll be looking at 6’7” tight end Cary Angeline. That is a big body to deal with over the middle and will provide a unique challenge for Isaiah Simmons and Kendall Joseph who primarily draw coverage duty in the linebacker corps.
Finley is hard to sack because of how well he recognizes defenses and gets the ball out. This is the type game where getting hands up in the DL is important to try to get some deflections. Christian Wilkins has been great at this over his career and hopefully the Tigers can get a nice bounce on one of these which can be intercepted. The Pack will protect Finley at all costs, and I expect them to leave the back in for extra protection more often than not. The Tigers need to not get frustrated if they can’t sack Finley before the ball gets out and need to make good, hard tackles to limit any YAC.
The Pack have faced a lot of third and long situations against weaker defenses than Clemson’s. Finley has been good enough to convert a lot of those, so it goes without saying that the Tigers need to not let them off the hook in those situations. This is where the Indy package and Dime of Doom, which have seen very limited appearances so far this season, can make their mark.
Clemson offense vs. NC State defense: If you are an elite team, as the Tigers would like to be, then you should find a mismatch against any non-elite team in some aspect of the game. The Pack may very well have enough offensive skill at WR and QB to match up with the Clemson defense, but Clemson’s offense should enjoy a pretty significant advantage on this side of the ball. The Pack’s “success” on defense the last two seasons against the Tigers doesn’t really hold up under closer inspection. The Tigers have eclipsed 400 yards the last two seasons, but turnovers nearly cost the team the game in 2016 and Kelly Bryant’s very inefficient passing effort slowed the attack last season. Last year’s NC State defense was weak in the back four and Bryant’s bad day allowed them to get away with it a little bit. The Tigers still ran for over 200 yards in Raleigh.
The big question for NC State this year is how to deal with the dynamic Clemson running attack. It is unlikely they can contain it with just their front six. There is no doubt they will look to entice Trevor Lawrence into throwing the screen on the RPOs and will likely invite him to run the ball on the zone read. I would like to see Clemson be stubborn and attack with the power run game no matter what the Pack choose to show pre-snap. If the Pack are somehow able to stop the counter and power with whatever extra numbers they commit to do it, the Tigers should then be able to attack with the play action game.
I will say I have very little doubt NC State will risk any penalty they may incur to try to knock Lawrence, Etienne, and other key players out of the game and/or create turnovers. We all know how Doeren operates, and he hasn’t really been shy about his approach when talking to the media. Unlike 2016 when there was a major drop off at running back when Wayne Gallman went out of the game (Fuller only averaged 3.5 per carry in relief), Clemson has the depth at nearly every skill position to absorb somebody going out of the game. We certainly don’t want to see that happen on either side, but the depth the team has been working hard to build should pay off down the stretch. Clemson just needs to be sharp and not bail the Pack out with drops, missed signals, or unforced turnovers which we have seen early in some games.
The Pack cannot physically match up in every area, so they will have to make some compromises in order to stop what they feel is most dangerous. The Tigers just need to make the Pack pay for those compromises. An example of this would be Venables sending a blitz on third and long early in the game last year. His compromise was to have Amir Trapp play man coverage behind it, and we know Finley made us pay for that compromise. The result of that was Venables backing off his pressure for the remainder of the half.
Special Teams: This phase has been absolutely huge in the last two matchups. The Tigers blocked a kick and NC State missed the potential game winning field goal in 2016. Ray Ray McCloud’s punt return touchdown was huge in last year’s game, helping the Tigers stay in it as the Pack threw its best punch. Most close games will tilt one way or the other with special teams. Clemson has been the better team here the last two years and that needs to continue. The word came down that the staff is now looking to redshirt Cornell Powell, so the kick return job is one to watch as the Pack have not been very good at getting touchbacks on kickoffs this season.
Overall: I don’t buy the “we get along fine” message from Coach Swinney in his presser earlier this week. I think there is a real dislike for Doeren and his program, and this makes me smile because I believe the staff won’t hesitate to pour it on and hit the Pack with everything they have. Part of being the “big brother” in any situation is sending those reminders to “little brother” that he isn’t really close to posing a true challenge. This was necessary with USCjr after a lackluster win in 2015 gave them some hope of being close in 2016. The result? 56-7.
The last two years have given the Pack plenty of hope that they are close, a play away, whatever. It is important to send a clear message how false that really is. In addition, this is probably the best chance to send a message to the nation and the upcoming playoff rankings against a ranked opponent who should finish the year with 9 or even 10 wins if Finley stays healthy. The win over A&M is looking better by the week, but that was a close game as we all know. An emphatic victory here should provide all the street credibility the team needs as it finishes things out. The problems on the Coastal side of the league as well as the season getting away from USCjr are watering down future statement opportunities. A part of me feels the team is really going to unleash some wrath and dominate this game, but my respect for Finley and the youth of Trevor Lawrence leads me to think the game won’t be a runaway. Clemson does enough to finish it off late:
Clemson 38 NC State 24