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Game Preview: #1 Clemson Travels to Syracuse

NCAA Football: College Football Playoff National Championship-Clemson vs Alabama
Bad Man Alert
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I just want to start out with my official apology to Brent Venables for suggesting his defense might give up 21 points last week. The defense made the 24 points that the offense put up feel like 44, with a dominant effort against what should prove to be a very prolific Aggie offense. As far as opposing talent, nothing will approach the test faced last weekend for the rest of the year. Now it will really take a monumental effort from the opponent mixed with uncharacteristic sloppy play from the Tigers, and/or some injury issues in the wrong places to derail another undefeated regular season. A loss could happen because football is football, but it isn’t very likely.

Now the Tigers face what many felt might be the biggest challenge of the year prior to the season. Syracuse has been a pest the last two years having stunned the 2017 team up at the dome and nearly killing the magical 2018 season in the wake of the Kelly Bryant saga and tragic death of CJ Fuller. Dino Babers would no doubt be able to write his own ticket out of town if he can pull off another win over Clemson. Dino has a lot of problems on his hands, however, as we look into the matchups.

Clemson defense vs. Syracuse offense: I’d love to be a fly on the wall of the Syracuse offensive staff meetings looking over that film of the Tigers throwing 3-3-5 nickel packages and 3-2-6 dimes at Texas A&M last week. It was amazing to see just 5 and 6 guys in the box a lot of the time from a Clemson defense, and even more amazing to see the Tigers hold the Aggies to just 2 yards per carry anyway. Venables is just on another level when it comes to maximizing how his talent is dispersed from year to year. These new looks should be well suited to attack the HUNH spread of Syracuse and shrink the space they have to work with offensively. This Clemson defense is fast, maybe the fastest I’ve ever seen, thanks to freak show Isaiah Simmons’ being able to play just about anywhere from end to deep safety. K’Von Wallace was a terror from a SAM deployment last week, and both Nolan Turner and Tanner Muse offer very good speed/physicality packages from their traditional safety alignments. Then you have two five-star athletes at corner able to blanket the sideline routes. The Orange are going to have a lot to think about trying to move the ball this week.

I’ve spent more time looking at the 2017 game than last year, mainly because Syracuse had so many things work in its favor from turnovers to injuries to catching the Tigers at a very good time in 2018. The 2017 upset was made possible largely by the success the Orange had running the football. Running backs Dontae Strickland and Moe Neal plus quarterback Eric Dungey combined for 43 carries and 162 yards, nearly 3.8 a clip. While those aren’t eye popping numbers, that was enough success to keep the Tigers off-balance defensively and set up several of their explosive plays. The hobbled, then concussed Kelly Bryant and backup Zerrick Cooper might have been the talk of a lot of fans after the loss, but it was the Orange offense that really won that game. The Orange were able to run the ball well enough, and that is what they have to do again this year to have a chance.

I haven’t been much of Tommy DeVito fan after seeing him stink up the field against Notre Dame last season. I watched a lot of their game with Maryland last weekend, and I’m still very lukewarm on DeVito compared to the respect I had for Dungey. He does have arm talent, but the measurables are not what should give you pause with opposing quarterbacks. I only fear the ones who have real moxie and a fearlessness about them that is evident. Dungey had that, but I’m not sure DeVito does. The defense should be geared to stop Moe Neal and Abdul Adams running the football, and make DeVito throw it 50+ times to have a hope of winning. While mobile enough to scramble, DeVito is not nearly the running threat that Dungey was, and it is very likely Babers doesn’t want to expose DeVito to more hits from running without a proven backup.

Can Syracuse run the ball between the tackles against the 3-3-5 or the Dime they are likely to see a lot of? Are they really willing to try to win that way? I’m sure Brent Venables is going to dare them to try that the same way he did last week, and that was against a much better array of overall skill than what the Orange bring to the table. Still, the Orange’s pace of play will limit the substitution packages for Clemson and the variety of calls. No matter how much talent you have on defense, a guy missing a call or busting will make you look ridiculous. The Tigers must make sure of alignment and assignment and force the Orange to make contested plays to move the ball. The veteran secondary should give Clemson fans a lot more confidence this will happen, and honestly the Tiger defense played really well last year in this game as the Orange were able to score 10 points off of turnovers in Tiger territory. Dungey had to throw 41 times as the Orange struggled to run the ball vs. just the 32 attempts he had in 2017’s game.

Clemson offense vs. Syracuse defense: The adversity Clemson faced last year in this game with Bryant leaving the team and Trevor Lawrence getting hurt had one big silver lining. The offensive staff was more or less forced to just pound Travis Etienne and the run game no matter what looks the Orange presented defensively. I say this not just because Etienne put up 200 yards and the Tigers won, but because it cements the idea that sometimes you can just lean on being better than the opponent. The versatility of the Clemson offense has been a strength these last few years, and everyone knows the Tigers can win throwing or running, but the quest for balance or adjusting to what the defense appears to be giving can sometimes bite you. I’ll never forget the egg the Tigers laid in Durham in 2004 against a Duke team that finished with 2 wins. That 2004 offense was not great, but it still was plenty good enough to line up and pound the Blue Devils that year. Instead, the quest of checking into the right stuff based on pre-snap reads of the box allowed Ted Roof and the Blue Devils to essentially trick the Tigers into throwing the ball a lot more than they should have. Despite having two running backs averaging over 4 yards a carry, the Tigers only rushed 35 times that day instead of the 45-50 times it should have. It was infuriating to watch the team line up in the I formation on first down, get 5-6 yards on a rush, then go shotgun and throw it the next two downs before punting or turning it over.

I bring this up because Tony Elliot and Jeff Scott should be able to just let this offensive line and the combination of Travis Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon dominate a Syracuse defense built more for rushing the passer. What Trevor Lawrence might be lacking so far this year in flash, he is making up with decision making at the line of scrimmage and getting plays run to the correct side of the defense. Loading the box is great IF you can fit it up right, but a great QB can catch you coming from the wrong direction and that is all it takes for a guy like Etienne to take it to the house. Once you make the defense go single high or zero coverage, THEN you can take the top off with the passing game. In 2017, the Tigers ran the ball just 25 times all game, with Etienne getting just 5 of those carries. That was as much a reason for the loss as anything else. Maryland figured this out last week and pounded the run game to the tune of 354 yards on 45 carries. The Orange defensive secondary, which is its strength, was then helpless against the play action.

I certainly expect a better effort from Syracuse this week than last, but they have definite holes in their defense, particularly up the middle at NG and inside linebacker, and Clemson should flex its muscle in the ground game early and often.

Special Teams: This phase has been a serious issue for Clemson the last two times these teams have played. 2017 featured Alex Spence going just 1-3 on field goals and one horribly executed and timed fake punt that failed. Last year saw the usually reliable and dangerous Amari Rodgers have his worst day ever as a punt returner, a missed field goal from Greg Huegel, and a nearly 50 yard per punt average by the Syracuse punter on 7 punts! The Orange have won this phase two straight years and that has contributed to the close games. Clemson needs to at least break even here and not hand out gifts like muffed punts inside the 12 yard line or missed chip shot field goals. I’d say the Tigers are due.

Overall: Syracuse looked horrible last week at Maryland. I certainly don’t think they will play that poorly this time at home. However, they are not going to catch the Tigers napping after the last two meetings. The Tigers looked half asleep on defense in 2017 outside of Clelin Ferrell, and the Orange pinned their ears back against the passing game to knock Bryant out and terrorize Zerrick Cooper. The staff won’t make the same mistakes this time and will dare the Orange to run it while conversely running the football with a purpose until the Orange prove they can stop it. Etienne and Dixon should combine for 25-30 carries minimum and bludgeon the Orange into submission in their own building.

Clemson 40-Syracuse 14