The Tigers enter ACC play coming off a win over Georgia Southern which was dominant statistically but a tad underwhelming in terms of the scoring. One of the best things to come from the game was an increased commitment to work Travis Etienne. When Chad Morris came to Clemson back in 2011, he instituted a “touch chart” where they tracked how many touches a guy like Sammy Watkins or Andre Ellington was getting during the course of a game. Morris wanted to make sure his playmakers were getting ample opportunities to make plays. I’m not sure if that chart still exists, but they need to make one for #9 because he is now an elite running back. My goal for him would be 20 touches a game either running or receiving. He got 16 last week. The Tigers were also able to get Trevor Lawrence extended time when Kelly Bryant was knocked out of the game. I’m pleased that Kelly is back to 100% heading into this week, but the extra time for the future of the program can only help his growth going forward.
Now the Tigers head to a place that has largely been a house of horrors this millennium. Some of the most uninspiring efforts Clemson has produced have taken place in Bobby Dodd. The Tigers were finally able to turn that around two years ago with a dominant win behind Deshaun Watson and company. Many Clemson fans seem to be taking this game lightly, but I would advise against it. Clemson SHOULD handle the Jackets as they have these last three seasons, but there is enough inexperience in certain places which could open a slight door for GT to make a real game of it Saturday afternoon. The Jackets are even wearing throwback 1990 jerseys so the Tigers will wear white (which is rare for them in Atlanta).
Clemson defense vs. GT offense: It has been hard for me to get 2009 out of my mind when thinking about Paul Johnson and the GT attack. Those were two of the most gut wrenching games to watch in my time as a Clemson follower and fan. It seemed like the Jackets were either converting 3rd or 4th and short or busting a big play all night long. Brent Venables (and an increase in overall talent) has helped put the brakes on the triple option train. However, the one thing that gives me pause this time around is the departure of Dorian O’Daniel. Even before D’OD became a full time starter and major force on the defense, he was unleashed upon GT with great effect. All it takes is one weak link in the defense for Johnson to find and exploit, so it will be important for Isaiah Simmons, K’von Wallace, Tanner Muse, and the rest of the Clemson safeties and SAMs to be consistently disciplined. I have little doubt that Johnson will look to take the top off the defense early in this game with play action/fake crack and go with an A back. He knows that they can no longer grind away on offense the way they did with Josh Nesbitt and Jonathan Dwyer and will have to find explosive plays early to have a chance. The last few years, Venables has landed the first punch in the game with his attack before Johnson adjusted to find something that would work. The staff has talked about the potential disadvantage of facing two triple option teams ahead of this game in regards to providing clues to how the Tigers will attack GT on Saturday. I think some of that is valid, though I doubt Venables had to show all his cards in the mismatches that were Furman and Georgia Southern.
The Jackets are struggling with injuries along their OL and at B back. It seems Johnson can always find an adequate B back when he loses one (note how Benson emerged last year after the starter was dismissed), but every OL requires chemistry to be truly effective and the shuffling will affect that. It will be interesting to see the cat and mouse game between Johnson and Venables as Johnson searches for the right guy to option and Venables mixes up his responsibilities to who has the dive, QB, etc. You know those play action shots are coming at some point, and GT will desperately need to pop a big play and get ahead early. Johnson has run all kinds of trick plays over the years against the Tigers, so I’m sure we will see some chicanery at some point Saturday.
Clemson offense vs. GT defense: I’m pretty sure Georgia Tech is a better team than Pittsburgh, but the Panthers were able to strike early and get ahead of the Jackets and it was enough to pull out the win in the end. It is very important for the Tiger offense to not screw up early in the game the way it did last week. Empty drives will allow GT to dictate the tempo a lot more, chew clock, and be content to run the ball even when it isn’t really working that well. South Florida had a lot of success running the quarterback, so having Kelly Bryant back to attack in that fashion is a good thing. As I mentioned before, getting Travis Etienne up to 20 touches should be a goal for the offense. The more teams have to gear up to stop him, the more deadly the QB runs, RPOs, and pure play action passes will be moving forward. I was very pleased with the renewed effort to attack the seams and middle of the field against Georgia Southern. I’m still waiting on the fake WR screen and go I’ve been calling for. The Jackets are practically forced to employ a bend but don’t break style of defense since they lack true difference makers along the front. Clemson will need to be efficient on third down and short to medium which they will likely have several times during the game. Oh, and the more Justyn Ross gets acclimated and sees time, the more trouble the opposing defense will be in. The combination of Ross and Higgins could be as lethal as the Watkins and Hopkins combination in the near future.
Special Teams: Anytime I start feeling iffy about the Clemson special teams, I know I can just check out what Georgia Tech is doing and feel a little bit better. It seems most every year the Jackets are beset at some point by a special teams disaster. GT got embarrassed by South Florida true freshman Terrence Horne , who ripped off two kick return touchdowns. Last week they had a fake punt go horribly wrong and missed a field goal. Their punting hasn’t been great so far either. The Yellow Jackets are just not talented enough to have the third phase of the game be a problem, and it has been this year. Meanwhile, Clemson saw Greg Huegel only go 1-3 on field goals (albeit in windy conditions). I’m not overly worried about Greg “the leg” yet, but he will need to bounce back from that performance. Potter continues to get the job done on kickoffs and Rodgers has solidified the punt return position.
Overall: Unlike some people, I’m very optimistic about the progress of the Clemson OL. I thought they played well last week and the stubbed toes really weren’t on them (other than the Bockhorst penalty, perhaps). The backups are showing they can push the starters which should only help. I haven’t been that impressed with how Georgia Tech’s secondary tackles, so getting Etienne loose on that second and third level could result in some serious problems for GT. Clemson just has to avoid the critical mistake, such as the one when Galloway missed a blocking assignment and it led to an interception. As noted earlier, GT simply has to get off to a fast start in this game to have a chance. I expect they will throw the kitchen sink at Clemson in order to do that. Their backs are against the wall having lost two winnable games. I still respect Paul Johnson and have a feeling he will find something that works, it is just a matter of when it happens. I think they will hang around in the first half but eventually the Tigers will put them away.
Clemson 38-Georgia Tech 18