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Game 5 Preview: #1 Clemson travels to face UNC

NCAA Football: Clemson at Syracuse
Tarheels said “We want Clemson”?
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

There is good, then there is what we are seeing out of the Clemson program currently. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a team substitute as quickly and heavily in a game as I did last week. Charlotte isn’t going to wow the nation, but it is a FBS, not FCS, program with a competent offense and very good running back. Clemson blew them completely out with barely using Trevor Lawrence, Tee Higgins, and Travis Etienne, and not using Justyn Ross at all. 111 guys played in the game, more than even Danny Ford put in against Wake Forest in 1981’s 82-24 win when rosters were even bigger than now. Now the 72-man travel roster will head to Chapel Hill to face North Carolina, who made us all smile in week one with that torpedo it launched into the S.S. Muschamp.

Clemson offense vs. UNC defense: Mack Brown was an interesting hire for the Heels, electing to try to rekindle what Brown had going in the mid 1990s. Brown is nothing if not a high level salesman who has a way with people much like Dabo Swinney does. Brown went and hired two highly respected coordinators to run the show on each side of the ball.

The first of those would be DC Jay Bateman. Bateman was a key part of the rise of Army’s football program from the absolute worst service academy team to a top 25 team last season. His defense managed to hold the explosive Oklahoma Sooners to 28 points with an overtime added in. While the possessions were fewer thanks to Army’s ball control option attack, that is still an extremely impressive feat from a team that was clearly outmanned talent wise. That good coaching has already shown up this season as the Tar Heels had been playing some of the worst defense in college football over the last few seasons. Clemson will not be able to afford goofing around and being loose with assignments in this one. Bateman will present some of the same challenges Mike Elko did, just with lesser front line talent.

Teams have continued to try to get numbers in the box to combat Travis Etienne since his huge game against Georgia Tech. Lawrence showed early last week what can happen if you do that and don’t have corners who can adequately jam the Tigers’ wide receivers when he hit Tee Higgins for an easy TD on the first drive. The group that hasn’t been talked about enough, in my opinion, is the Clemson offense line. That unit has been about as good as you can hope for in pass protection, even against quality ends like Syracuse had or #5 from Charlotte last week. The Tigers have really only shown a portion of the passing attack, rarely attacking the middle with crossers or seam shots to this point, but we all know those are in the toolbox to be used at some point. The Tar Heels have challenged folks with some press man coverage, so we will see how much they try to do that Saturday.

The Tigers did break out some 2 back sets last week that I hadn’t seen before. Chase Brice came out with both Etienne and Lyn-J Dixon for a couple of snaps. That certainly piqued my interest and I’m looking forward to seeing what Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott have in store with that personnel package. UNC can be had on the ground, as every team so far has had some success running it against them. UNC has been able to be fairly tough in the red zone, though, and has limited scoring as a result. Appalachian State got to 34 last week, but that included a defensive touchdown. Scoring defense is always the most important stat and UNC has made tremendous strides in that department with Bateman. Clemson will need to be efficient in the red zone like they have been during the Trevor Lawrence era. That will determine how long this game stays interesting.

Clemson defense vs. UNC offense: Most of you have probably seen the Greg McElroy statement that as a QB, he’d rather face last year’s Clemson defense than this one. This statement is very likely due to the higher multiplicity this defense has featured out of nickel and dime personnel. Usually a quarterback is trained to key the middle linebacker in most defenses, but now the trick is trying to figure out where Isaiah Simmons is lining up and what he might be doing. Charlotte’s run game was effective enough to get Clemson back into its traditional 4-3 Over front, and I maintain that coming right at the Tigers with downhill run schemes is the best hope of dealing with this year’s group. Teams that have to rely on dropping back and throwing it are going to be in for a very long night.

North Carolina is under the direction of Phil Longo, who came from Ole Miss and is another of the 11 personnel spread/tempo offensive guys who have become the vogue. They definitely have a quarterback to build around with former Clemson target Sam Howell. They want to run the football and are very dedicated to it. They continued to pound away at the U of SC’s defense even being down a couple of scores, and eventually it opened things up for them. This formula is part of what has made them a very good fourth quarter team. The Gamecocks did not respect UNC on the outside much at all, choosing to play single high press coverage to get numbers in the box the majority of the game. Howell eventually was able to make them pay over the top with Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown.

UNC simply must find a way to run the ball and control the tempo so that Howell can operate out of play action and RPOs. Otherwise, their youthful OL will suffer the same siege that Syracuse’s did. I expect a lot of quick hitting throws and screens in an effort to get the ball out of Howell’s hands. The Tiger defense was very good against Charlotte last week when they tried to attack with RPO slants, nabbing one pick six and dropping another pick that could have gone for big yardage as well. The increased athleticism with Skalski inside has helped tighten the windows even more. UNC will have to hope that Newsome or Brown can win downfield against Terrell, Kendrick, and/or Goodrich a time or two, which is an iffy proposition.

If I’m UNC, I’m going to try desperately to get Clemson to go 4-3 and hope I can then have some success throwing the ball. They do have quality backs and are committed to what they do running game wise. This year’s Clemson defense is going to make you earn it and has been very, very stingy with giving up explosive plays. UNC will have to hope that they can find a way to break that trend.

Special Teams: Clemson had its first poor moment of the year on special teams last week when Will Swinney muffed a punt, setting up the only TD of the night for Charlotte. The good news is Swinney is third on the depth chart for punt return and won’t be out there in a crunch situation most likely. Spiers was his usual self, though he had that one punt that got an incredible bounce and roll to go another 20+ yards and end up on the one. Amari Rodgers looks like he’s back to being the primary punt returner and had a nice 20-yard effort on the one good punt they had. It is hard to foresee a game where this phase could factor in, considering how superior Clemson appears to be to its upcoming competition, but you never know. North Carolina had a chance last week to tie the game with a long field goal but it got blocked.

Overall: Usually coaching reboots don’t usually go as planned. Guys like Bill Walsh and John Robinson were not able to attain nearly the success of their prior runs at Stanford and USC respectively. Mack Brown was not brought in as a long term answer, but the Tar Heel brass is hoping he can rebuild the foundation of the program, especially with in state recruiting where Brown was stellar in his first run, so that his heir can hit the ground running. Unfortunately for Brown, whose first run at UNC was helped by Clemson’s self sabotage of the football program in 1990, is now dealing with Clemson in peak condition. It won’t be so easy to keep the Dexter Lawrence type guys at home against Dabo like it was with Hatfield or Tommy West. I do feel Brown has the staff at the moment that can make some headway and put UNC in contention for the Coastal in the near future. They will play very hard on Saturday and will probably have a good moment here and there, but Clemson is a rolling ball of butcher knives at the present.

Clemson 42, UNC 12