I mentioned in a comment post earlier in the week that I was about as proud of that win over Syracuse as I have been of any in the Swinney era. Finding ways to win when it seems all the forces are against you requires unbelievable fortitude, and the team had that in spades. Syracuse put up a game effort and nearly was able to steal a win amid the chaos of the Bryant defection, pre-game suspensions, and in game injuries at all the wrong places. A closer look at the game saw Clemson dominate in a lot of ways even with the aforementioned issues, but the turnovers and a couple of poor efforts/play calls coupled with the insane punting from ‘Cuse led to things being much tighter on the scoreboard. The good news is one of those quarterbacks who can actually handle much of what the Tiger defense dishes out is in the rear view mirror, this time with a fat L.
The fans got the good news Monday that Trevor Lawrence had been cleared to return to practice after being put in the concussion protocol. As a coach myself, I have to take a concussion course online every season, and I knew right away that Lawrence was going to be pulled from the game. As tempting as it might have been to put him back out there when he was asking to play, it was easily the right decision to hold him until further evaluation could be done. So, the team was just about to see normalcy return after a crazy week until the tragic news of C.J. Fuller’s passing came down on Wednesday. It sometimes seems like long ago, but Fuller was Clemson’s starting running back during the early part of last season. Nearly every player on this team, especially the veterans, will have been touched by losing someone he played with and went through the grind with. Drew wrote a nice piece about Fuller, and I second what he said, but the team has yet another distraction to deal with before this divisional game.
Clemson defense vs. Wake Forest offense: In my opinion, any sliver of hope the Deacons have of making this a game and springing an upset rests on their offense. While I don’t find the Deacs as dangerous as the Orange, mostly because of what I know about Eric Dungey, they still present some challenges with their pace and system. Wake Forest caught a bad break by playing Clemson right after they prepped for Syracuse though. The offenses are not identical and Wake relies a lot more on its running backs and running game, but the quick recognition and alignment stress will be similar. We’ve heard a good bit about Wake’s very deliberate zone read/RPO actions, but having your OL shoved two yards back at the snap can make those actions very dicey. Wake will have to hope its OL can just hold up enough to allow for Hartman to mess with the safeties and linebackers. Greg Dortch is a challenge, similar to what former Wake slot man Michael Campanaro was, and will need to be accounted for on every snap.
Clemson’s run defense has been absolutely outstanding this year, giving up less than 2.3 yards a rush (even after playing two strong running attacks in Texas A&M and GT, not to mention two more triple option teams). That is very bad news for a team like Wake who relies on its run game to help its OL in the passing attack. The further emergence of Xavier Thomas makes getting into obvious passing situations as dicey as they have ever been facing a Tiger defense.
Wake Forest was able to put a few things together last year, but it was only after the Tigers had raced out to a 28-0 lead. Wake’s biggest weapon was the athletic Kendall Hinton at quarterback who put up a whopping 24 rushing attempts. Now Hinton is being tested at wideout and the smaller Sam Hartman is behind center. While Hartman has some running ability, he isn’t on the level of Hinton in that regard. Furthermore, the Tiger secondary looked much more disciplined against Syracuse than it did in the second half against A&M. That secondary should be back to full strength this weekend with Mark Fields and Trayvon Mullen returning. They will need to use a lot of inside leverage on those RPOs because I must have seen what felt like 100 slant route throws watching Wake’s games to this point. This is a Wake team putting up nearly 250 yards a game on the ground, so if this team is held to 2.2 yards per carry like the others have been, we could be looking at a truly historic run defense this season.
Clemson offense vs. Wake Forest defense: I will own wrongly predicting an offensive explosion on Syracuse’s defense last week. You just can never predict injuries or turnovers. What was truly scary for future opponents was seeing a previously solid Syracuse run defense get absolutely manhandled by the Tiger run game. It was almost as if Clemson could have run three plays on a shuffle mode with the counter, inside zone, and a little RPO to get a few passes thrown to win. Who will dare trying zero coverage to address the run game? Wake did that several times against Boston College, and I don’t blame them considering how run reliant BC has been, but in doing so they got torched by Anthony Brown for 304 yards and 5 touchdowns. That same QB went for 94 and 136 yards with 3 touchdowns and 4 interceptions since.
Some Clemson fans were getting a little nervous about Boston College after that Wake game, but the reality has emerged that Wake is just terrible on defense. Their secondary cannot hope to match up with Clemson on the perimeter, and the subsequent safety help they will require will invite another heavy dose of Travis Etienne, Tavien Feaster, and Adam Choice.
Wake will no doubt have to try to disguise rolling into zero coverage or even man free in hopes Clemson will not check to a throw over their heads. I wouldn’t change the approach on offense the team took with Chase Brice in the second half even with Trevor Lawrence in the game. This OL has shown it can handle a six man box in the run game and even a lot of seven man boxes, and Travis Etienne is every bit as elite as AJ Dillon and will consistently beat that safety or linebacker one on one at the second level.
The passing game still hasn’t had a true chance to open up fully due to game circumstances and injuries to this point, but does it really need to? Clemson hasn’t really looked to play action off gap runs yet this year, but it has to be coming. As long as Clemson doesn’t get in its own way with execution, there is no reason to think this offense won’t dominate with either Lawrence or Brice. I again call for Etienne to get a minimum of 20 touches and just let everything else work off of that.
Special Teams: I’ll insert the running Ray Guy joke here, but it really has been incredible watching the punting performances Clemson has brought out in opponents. Both close games this year probably would not have been if not for bomb after field flipping bomb launched by the Aggies and Orange. Amari Rodgers, who had been a major bright spot for the special teams early on, had a very rough day dealing with the rainmakers coming from Hofrichter. The Tigers kick return game was not good at all against Syracuse as three different Tiger returners chose not to fair catch only to see the offense not get close to the 25 yard line. With Cornell Powell out, I’m sure guys were just trying to make a statement play to get that job, but taking the 25 yard line should be the way to go right now in my opinion. Wake will certainly need the kind of help Syracuse got with special teams mistakes and definitely cannot afford having Clemson break a big play in this phase.
Overall: While I will admit it is very nice to have the margin of error where you can not play your best, turn the ball over multiple times, and incur injuries at key positions while still winning, I know I’m not alone in desiring a clean football game from the Tigers this week. October is here and the open date is approaching, so putting together a dominant performance would be just what the team needs to build momentum into that break. Dabo Swinney says the team hasn’t even scratched the surface of its potential this season, and I certainly would agree, but the team could benefit from getting some scratching done at a place where another playoff contender went and dominated just two weeks ago.
Clemson 55-Wake 21