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Game 11 Preview: Clemson Hosts Wake Forest for Senior Day

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NCAA Football: Wofford at Clemson Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t take long for the football gods to start righting the wrongs of the playoff committee. The vastly overrated Penn State team put ahead of Clemson just a week ago was taken out by upstart Minnesota, and Alabama’s defense was exposed by the first team who could threaten them by run and pass alike. Meanwhile, Clemson continued its path of demolition by smoking NCSU 55-10. While it was nice to see the orange britches and yet another Atlantic Division clinching win, the Tigers were robbed of a so called “quality” win opportunity when Wake Forest fell to Virginia Tech, thus knocking them from the top 25. It’s funny hearing about that “quality” win UGA has over Notre Dame knowing VT was 15 seconds away from beating them in South Bend playing with their backup quarterback. We all know that despite the ACC lacking another elite team, there are plenty of teams good enough to beat most folks on any given day. These teams are getting run out of the stadium by Clemson as the Tigers continue to lap the world in player participation numbers. Clemson now just needs to finish the schedule out and await the playoffs to remind the nation what Pitt’s Pat Narduzzi knew last year, that there is “no comparison” between Clemson and the Notre Dame’s or Penn State’s of the world.

Clemson offense vs. Wake Forest defense: Wake has played better defense this year than last, no question, but that isn’t saying much considering how bad the Deacons were on that side of the ball in 2018 (especially prior to the firing of their former defensive coordinator). Wake is still giving up over 400 yards a game and over 4 yards a carry. I’m of the strong opinion that a team who can’t really stop the run has absolutely zero chance of beating Clemson. The revitalized Travis Etienne has been on a Barry Sanders-like tear since the close call in Chapel Hill. It is staggering to think what totals he would have if he was getting 20 carries a game. Etienne is the best natural runner in Clemson history, in my opinion, and this year’s offensive line is likely the best in Clemson history also. This is all very bad news for Wake Forest’s defense (and everyone else’s).

Trevor Lawrence has also gotten dialed in and is playing the kind of football most expected to see coming off last year’s amazing playoff run. He and the offense have eliminated the turnovers, and Lawrence was as on the money last week as he’s been all year. Had it not been for drops of absolute dimes (including 2 very uncharacteristic drops from Tee Higgins), his numbers would have been even better. Lawrence has also continued to rip off some impressive runs on zone reads and occasional scrambles.

One of the better kept secrets of the offense has been the development of the tight end position. While we haven’t seen a lot from the passing game aspect, the Tigers have been able to play more 12 personnel groupings thanks to the growth of Davis Allen and Luke Price. Allen has shown the flashes of why QT was so high on him, and the team is getting closer and closer to having Braden Galloway back from suspension.

I mentioned in my season preview for the running backs that the final stage of Travis Etienne’s growth would be as a receiver. I stated then, “If we see Travis get a wheel route call, we will know he has become fully armed and operational.” Well, we got to see Etienne on the wheel route in Raleigh and it should have been a TD, but Etienne was able to adjust to the underthrown ball and made a big play out of it anyway. Have fun matching up with that future opponents!

Wake Forest offense vs. Clemson defense: The Tiger defense continues to dominate and held yet another team under 300 yards and 20 points (though wasn’t able to secure the shutout I had called for). Wake Forest has the second best offense in the ACC, but unfortunately has lost All American candidate Sage Surratt for the season. I am really bummed about this because facing some top line QB/WR combinations is just what this defense needs before potential matchups with LSU or Alabama in the playoffs. Surratt was having a monster year and certainly would have presented a good challenge for A.J. Terrell and Derion Kendrick on the outside. Wake still has the second best QB in the league in Jamie Newman healthy and ready to go, plus converted QB Kendall Hinton in the slot. They have a good scheme heavy on the types of RPO’s that Ohio State, Alabama, and LSU have been making a living from this season. It won’t be the same without Surratt, but it certainly is a step up from what NCSU and Wofford were able to put out there the last two games.

Coming into 2019, most would have said that a big year from Xavier Thomas was essential to the defense having success. That was reasonable considering the turnover up front from 2018. However, Thomas has missed time with a concussion and was only eased back in last week, yet the defense has continued to play at an elite level. Guys like Justin Foster and Logan Rudolph may not be big names on the national stage, but those guys have played very well and are only getting better. The back seven is a known commodity, so the more the front group comes on, the more likely the Tigers are going to be ready to face elite offensive attacks in the postseason. Shutting down a very capable Wake offense would be another impressive feat even if it likely gets dismissed in the eyes of the national talking heads. I’m just hoping we see one total destruction of that slow play zone read that Wake loves to run where a Tiger defender just envelops Newman and Cade Carney in one violent rush.

Special Teams: Wake has had some real problems in this phase, most notably in its first loss to Louisville. We might finally get to see Amari Rodgers or Joseph Ngata take a return to the house. We once again got to see an opposing punter crushing the ball last week, as State punter Trenton Gill averaged 52.2 a kick. It really has gotten pretty laughable how well opposing punters do against Clemson. We didn’t get to see much of B.T. Potter last week other than extra points and kickoffs. Unfortunately James Skalski wasn’t able to connect on his extra point attempt at the end.

Overall: I’m fortunate to get the chance to come to the game on Saturday and salute yet another stellar senior class. Guys like Tanner Muse, Kvon Wallace, Tremayne Anchrum, Sean Pollard, Chad Smith, John Simpson, and Gage Cervenka have been fixtures of these incredible championship teams from the past four years. This particular group has a chance to win 3 national titles in four years with 2 undefeated seasons, surpassing anything the great Alabama teams or Southern California teams or Nebraska teams of the last 20 years were able to do. It is hard to put into words just how proud I am to be a fan of this program, a student of this University, and a witness to it all. Wake Forest is just another speed bump on the way to the greater goals, and there won’t be any denying these guys on senior day in Death Valley.

Clemson 52-Wake Forest 17