The newly minted Atlantic Division Champion Clemson Tigers finally get a primetime home kickoff as the 7-3 Duke Blue Devils come to town for the first time in a long time. Clemson did what it had to do to “escape” Boston College with a 20 point win which wasn’t as close as the score indicated. For perspective, Clemson beat West Virginia in the 1989 Gator Bowl 27-7 in a game considered a total blowout back then. National perceptions aside, the Tigers did a nice job facing a much better organized team in the Eagles than the current dumpster fires at Florida State and Louisville. Now they face another well coached and largely overachieving outfit in Duke.
My mother is an Ole Miss graduate, so I have followed the Rebels a little over the years. I still believe their decision to fire David Cutcliffe was one of the dumbest in a long line of questionable decisions made by that University over the years. I’m thankful a program like Tennessee or USCjr didn’t have the brains to go after Cutcliffe back when he was younger and not settled in like he is now in Durham.
He was a major reason the Phil Fulmer Vols were a force in the 1990s and has brought a consistency to Duke football not seen since black and white television. He has as many ACC championship game appearances as Miami, Wake Forest, and North Carolina and more than Louisville, Syracuse, Virginia, Pittsburgh, and (ha ha ha) North Carolina State. Cutcliffe is best known for his work with Peyton and Eli Manning but has always been an outstanding quarterback coach.
Duke’s lowest rated offensive starter is redshirt junior quarterback Daniel Jones who will be an NFL draft pick when he comes out, so that says a great deal about what Cutcliffe can do with quarterbacks. Duke might not be able to match up with Clemson’s talent but will at least force execution, which is exactly what the Tigers need heading into the stretch run.
Clemson defense vs. Duke offense: The Clemson defense has simply shifted into a ridiculous gear since the first half of the Syracuse game. The first team defense hasn’t given up a touchdown since. Most of the national attention has been paid to Trevor Lawrence and the offense, but ultimately the Tiger defense is the true reason Clemson is a legitimate threat to Alabama and a threat to win the national championship. Can your offense score 25 or more points? That is the minimum of what a team is going to need to beat this version Clemson. The front four continues to wreck the opposing OL and terrorize the opposing quarterback.
Christian Wilkins has been playing perhaps his best football ever, which is impressive considering his resume. The healthyand rested Dexter Lawrence has been good for at least one completely jaw dropping play a game. Clelin Ferrell is rising up the career sack list in just his third season, and Austin Bryant is quietly keeping his side locked down. Kendall Joseph has been a force in recent weeks and Tanner Muse is giving the team All-ACC level play at safety. A.J. Terrell has actually started to outperform the more heralded veteran Trayvon Mullen, which is no easy feat. Simply put, this is a bad time to be playing Clemson’s defense.
The Blue Devils do have a quarterback who can stress the defense in a way we haven’t seen since Kellen Mond. Jones is able to run it like Mond and Dungey, but is bigger than both at 6’5” and 230 pounds. Duke will feature a lot of the spread/RPO/zone read schemes which are popular in today’s football with multiple formations. The Devils want to hit you in the middle with their run game with inside zone and some draws/traps in order to set up their perimeter runs and play action.
If Jones is playing his best, the Devils can hurt you and challenge all areas of the field. There is no doubt Brent Venables will look to make Jones’s life as miserable as possible and force him into the kinds of mistakes Virginia and Virginia Tech were able to induce. Duke also lost to Pittsburgh, but Jones absolutely torched the Panther’s cover 4 scheme for 396 yards and 4 touchdowns that day. Jones is coming off 547 yards of total offense against North Carolina last week.
Clemson will need to make Jones throw it every down to win and shut down his running as well as Deon Jackson’s. Only teams who create some balance have given Clemson’s defense trouble over the last three to four years, really. Texas A&M might be an exception but there were a lot of crazy plays in that game which skewed the data. Duke will certainly pack more punch than what we saw in Boston last week, but ultimately Jones will have to be even more of a superman than he was last week for the Devils to really have hope.
Clemson offense vs. Duke defense: Mismatch alert, mismatch alert! Poor Duke has dealt with several injuries over the season and their once solid defense has been worked over pretty badly in recent weeks. Other than holding what has proven to be a very poor Miami offense to 12, the Devils have been torched for 54 points by Pittsburgh and 35 by UNC.
To make matters worse, the Panthers and Tarheels did well over 300 yards of damage on the ground on the way to those points. We’ve all seen what this Clemson team has done to bad run defenses this year and there is no reason to think Travis Etienne and the stable behind him won’t put up serious numbers Saturday night.
The one thing I will say for Duke is they have done the second best job against Georgia Tech’s attack behind Clemson the last four years. That speaks to their ability to be sound on their assignments more than anything else. Their reliance on a lot of cover 1 concepts leaves them susceptible to explosive plays, however, and they have seen backs go for gaudy yards per carry numbers on them in recent weeks. Even Miami, who only managed 12 points, had two backs eclipse 100 yards and average at least 7.4 yards a carry. It is only fitting for Clemson running backs to eat in a night game wearing all purple, ala Thunder and Lightning in 2006.
Special Teams: Well, I talked about the hit and miss special teams for Clemson in last week’s preview and we saw it in full force against Boston College. Awful coverage of a badly timed rugby punt led to BC’s only score. Rodgers had the “muffed” punt which should have been a penalty but wasn’t, but even with the no flag the effort to deal with the situation wasn’t good. Spiers continues to underwhelm.
I certainly appreciate Dabo Swinney not killing his players publicly, and he has supported Spiers in that regard, but I certainly hope the message is a little different behind closed doors because there is very little evidence he can flip the field when we need him to and that “we punt on a short field” argument rings a little hollow when you look at Spiers’s efforts from punting from our 40 or deeper. On the flip side, Kendrick continues to look like he is on the verge of breaking a big kick return and Amari finally got a punt return to the house after coming close a few times this year. Helter Skelter.
Overall: I’m very happy this outstanding and record setting senior class filled with some of the greatest players to ever wear the paw are getting a night game for senior night. These young men are truly legends and have taken Clemson football to heights I never thought I would see. Even the epic Florida State run from the late 80s through the 90s hasn’t been as impressive as what the last four years have wrought thanks to the added layers of championship games and the playoffs. There are three very strong ring of honor candidates in this group with Christian Wilkins, Mitch Hyatt, and Hunter Renfrow which is incredible to think about from one class. As much as I respect and admire Coach Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils are going to be caught up in the storm this week.
Clemson 53-Duke 17