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Battle of Unbeatens as Clemson hosts the Syracuse Orange

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Let the Trevor Lawrence era begin!

NCAA Football: Georgia Southern at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

What a week! The coaching staff made the move to name Trevor Lawrence the starting QB for this game and it was before the fifth game of the year, so Kelly Bryant decided to leave the team and transfer. This is certainly not how I wanted to see things unfold for Bryant, but I finally came around to calling for the QB change after the GT game and felt I was one of the last to do it.

The upside: Clemson now has full clarity at quarterback and Lawrence will only benefit from the increased reps and playing time with the first team. The downside: the spectacular QB depth from the spring is now down to two guys who were truly recruited to play QB at Clemson. It will be the Lawrence and Brice show for the foreseeable future and we need to pray for health even more than normal. Best of luck to Bryant and a heartfelt thanks for making a rebuilding year into a championship year with a playoff appearance. I’m hoping the wounds will heal a bit over time and Bryant will feel good about his place in Clemson history.

Now for the game! Syracuse somehow managed to embarrass the Tigers last year on a strange Friday night appearance in the Carrier Dome. It was easily the worst defensive performance of the season for Clemson, and terrible timing because the injury to Bryant made the offense much less capable of picking up the slack. Clemson played terribly, worse than it did vs. Pitt in a loss the year before, and Syracuse was more than ready to take advantage of the opportunity. Ironically, Syracuse fell apart after that big win while the Tigers rebounded to win the ACC.

Now the Orange come to town at 4-0 having feasted on the cupcakes on their schedule and the discombobulated mess that is Florida State in 2018. They are certainly walking into a challenge unlike anything they have seen to this point, but they will bring the confidence you would expect from a 4-0 squad.

Coach Swinney dismissed the idea of “revenge” for the Tigers, and I agree with his view, but it doesn’t mean the Clemson fans can’t unleash a fury of hatred down upon Syracuse and attempt to push the team to deliver a beatdown of Biblical proportions.

Clemson defense vs. Syracuse offense: I mentioned back when we reflected on the Texas A&M game that it usually takes an “above the rim” performance from a QB to beat Clemson these days. Kellen Mond nearly pulled the feat off, as we know, and Eric Dungey presents the type of fearless competitor with enough athleticism to make you worry. Clemson’s destruction of the Orange in 2016 was aided greatly by Dungey being knocked out of that game early on. Dungey is a gamer, and it will take an inspired effort from the Tiger defense to really shut him down.

I feel very confident in saying the Tigers will deliver an inspired effort. They have no doubt been bludgeoned with the embarrassing film from last year’s game by Coach Venables all week. I wouldn’t be surprised if Coach V has been using the old coaching trick of saying things like, “I don’t know if you guys can stop them. I just don’t know if you can handle what they do.” I’m much less concerned about this defense hearing it might have trouble than I am when they hear how awesome they are. I fully expect the lessons learned from College Station to be evident Saturday.

It all comes down to not allowing Syracuse to run the ball. Dungey might get a scramble here or there, but allowing the designed QB runs and the running backs to do what they were able to do last year is a recipe for disaster. Just like the Aggies, we want Syracuse feeling they have to throw the ball on every single down to have a prayer.

The one guy who really did show up in the game last year for Clemson was Clelin Ferrell. The rest of the Power Rangers will hopefully match that intensity this time, and I feel confident they will. It will be up to the Clemson back seven to cash in on the opportunities that were missed in the last two road games with dropped interceptions. I’m not quite as worried about the Orange WR corps this time as last year when they had Phillips and Ishmael, but they do have an extremely veteran offensive line.

I will be very interested to see how Coach V chooses to attack the Orange this time around. The Tigers will need to be able to handle the run game with the nickel and dime packages they will probably employ the vast majority of the game. The last two years, Venables has split his Defensive Ends out wide against the stacked WR formations the Cuse likes to use in its screens. If the Tiger defense can take care of the middle of the field vs. the run and the pass, Syracuse will have a hard time getting anything consistent going offensively.

Clemson offense vs. Syracuse defense: This is where we find the glaring mismatch. The Orange won’t be able to just come after the Tigers with their front four the way they did against Florida State. They aggressively blitzed an obviously hobbled Bryant last season and will have to do so again to force the action. They have to get their offense as many possessions as possible so their tempo and pace can eventually wear down the Tigers.

Clemson will no doubt look to fully unleash Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster in this game, so when the Orange are forced to commit a safety down to help, Lawrence will be able to show off that golden arm in the play action game against what will be an overmatched Orange secondary.

Opponents had been more than happy to take their chances with Bryant beating them over the top, but that is a far more risky proposition against Lawrence who doesn’t even need to wind up much to fire a ball fifty yards in the air. I’m most interested in how Clemson decides to handle first downs in this game. With Bryant, the Tigers leaned heavily on the inside zone, zone read, and quarterback run game with the outside screen game attached. Will the Tigers look to play action and attack on first down early in this game? I have a feeling they will want to send a message early and try to go over Syracuse’s head for a big play before pounding away with the running backs.

Syracuse’s only real hope on defense, in my opinion, is to try to confuse Lawrence with a lot of changing looks and varied pressures. They will hope their two big DT’s can disrupt the inside running game enough to keep Etienne and company from getting loose. This was a much easier feat to pull off with their home crowd boosted by the Dome last year than it will be in Death Valley. Meanwhile, the Elliot and Scott have only just begun to fully unleash Travis Etienne (which means he gets to 20 touches or more), and this is likely the game where that happens. They know they will need to pour it on to really feel comfortable against an offense like Syracuse who can put up a lot of points if they get into a rhythm.

The move to Lawrence was performance-based, as we know, but it also means the offense can truly attack every part of the field in a way we haven’t seen since Deshaun Watson rode off to the NFL. I think the stuff we’ve seen Alabama’s offense do under Tua is about to happen in Clemson as October arrives.

Special Teams: Part of the dud of a loss the Tigers suffered last year at Syracuse was due to some poor special teams play. Alex Spence missed two field goals and was part of a very ugly fake field goal attempt which failed miserably. So far this season, Clemson’s punt return unit has been very good with Amari Rodgers showing signs of being very special in that regard.

The Tigers put together some good kick returns last week with Cornell Powell, and B.T. Potter is consistently crushing the ball deep into the endzone or beyond. When he isn’t, guys like Xavier Thomas are screaming downhill to splatter the return man. (Seriously, as a side note, the fact that we have a 260 pound defensive end who is a 4.5 40 guy covering kicks is pretty unfair, LOL). I’m still not thrilled with Spiers punting the ball, but I’m thinking that won’t be much of an issue Saturday.

Overall: I vividly remember sitting in Death Valley when Deshaun Watson had his first start against North Carolina. Watson unleashed a flurry of bombs on his way to six touchdown passes that day. Watson didn’t even have a fully functional running game to help out at that stage of the 2014 season. Now the Orange are going to get a taste of unadulterated Trevor Lawrence and the stud stable of Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, Hunter Renfrow, and Justyn Ross in addition to two running backs who average well over 6 yards a carry for their careers. Eric Dungey is a very good player and will make some plays if he stays upright in this game, but it won’t be enough to overcome the avalanche of offense I expect to see Saturday.

Clemson-62, Syracuse-23