Well, I’m sure every Tiger fan reading this suffered from some of the same heartburn I did last week while the team decided to have “one of those days” against the Syracuse Orange. The Tigers fell way short of the projected spread, and my prediction, finally pulling away at the end for a 26-point win.
Now the heartburn comes from the news that star quarterback Trevor Lawrence will be out with a positive COVID result. I had to jump back in and edit this article after the news broke late yesterday. It certainly changes the dynamics of this game and very likely the Notre Dame matchup.
I can’t blame Dabo bristling a little in the press conference because he will never, and should never, diminish the joy of winning no matter how it comes. I try to keep that in mind myself as a fan, and having grown up in the 80s and then living through the 1992-2008 stretch with no championships, I won’t take it for granted. I also know that the staff isn’t blind to what went on and what needs to improve. These guys have won a ton of games for a reason. Now they have to rally around (most likely) a true freshman quarterback to keep hopes for the playoffs and another ACC title alive.
Boston College comes to town with an entirely new look. They actually remind me a good bit of the Jeff Jagodzinski-era Eagles on offense now. Those teams, built around Matt Ryan, were largely pass-first like this squad. The startling turn from plodding to wide open is remarkable considering how poor a passing team they were during Steve Addazio’s regime. They were on the doorstep of upsetting North Carolina, and really only just have a beating at the hands of Virginia Tech as a black eye so far. They are a much more confident team than the Orange, who even still mustered their best effort since week 1 to stay in the game last week until the fourth quarter.
Clemson will need to play a lot better this week and has some injury issues to work around to boot. Guys are going to have to elevate their play to help account for not having the best QB in the country to lean on. Thankfully, Travis Etienne is still around and already showed in 2019 that he can carry a big load with no Lawrence on the field. The Tigers are a much more talented and complete team than the Eagles, but it still comes down to focus and execution for that to really show up. We all know that the showdown with Notre Dame looms on the horizon.
Clemson offense vs. Boston College defense: I think it is safe to say Clemson is seeing more man coverage than it has in a while. Boston College has played a majority of man during the season from what I’ve seen. They were willing to take their chances with North Carolina’s skill on the outside and were adequate at preventing huge plays. The Heels were able to get enough of a running game, especially with Michael Carter, to win the game. The Tigers are having some issues running the ball inside. There is no denying it. Teams are sending guys after the snap on any inside run action Clemson presents, but even with that, you’d expect to see more than what we’ve gotten to this point. By my viewpoint, Cade Stewart is the key player to how much this can get better. He had his worst game of the year last week, and that was a major factor in the sputtering we saw during the game.
DJ Uiagalelei will likely get the nod at quarterback this week. It will be interesting to see how much of the offense he is able to operate beyond the special packages he has had on his plate so far. The five-star talent certainly has all the tools, as we know, to get the job done. The quarterback run game figures to be featured a little more this week than it has been in an effort to take advantage of what will no doubt be an all out effort to stop Travis Etienne. Uiagalelei hasn’t had an opportunity to work with the first team WRs in a game situation, and I can’t know how much work he’s been able to get with them in practice to this point. Hopefully his wide receivers, outside of Amari Rodgers, will step up because a young player needs confidence. They need to be ready in two weeks for certain, and putting up a confidence building performance here would be huge. Clemson needs Joseph Ngata to round into form. We’ve heard he’s close, and had his “best game” last week, but until we see some impact plays on a Saturday, the jury is going to remain out on him.
LB Max Richardson gives BC one of the best defenders in the league. He is currently third in the ACC in tackles per game and is considered an All-ACC guy. BC doesn’t have the same level of impact DE they have had in the last few years on this roster, so they are using more varied pressures and less zone as a result. They will no doubt employ a version of what Ohio State tried to do against Clemson last year in hopes of taking away Travis Etienne and making DJ or Taisun Phommanchanh hold the ball so they can get hits on him. You have to wonder when teams might dedicate more attention to Amari Rodgers, who was my choice for MVP of the Syracuse game. Clemson continues to make hay with the tight ends, especially Davis Allen, against defenses overreacting to Etienne. All in all, the time has come for Clemson to really establish the run game in a way we haven’t seen this season. I don’t know what the percentage of third-and-longs has been that the Tigers have faced, but I’d bet it is way more than what the last few years have been. That will eventually come back to bite this team if it isn’t corrected.
Clemson defense vs. Boston College offense: If this is really going to be a game for the Eagles, this is the side of the ball that matters the most. Can you score over 20? That has to happen to even begin to entertain victory against Clemson in this era. The Eagles have one of the best QBs in the league in Phil Jurkovec, and he is definitely the best pure passer the Tigers have seen this season. The Eagles have leaned heavily on his arm for the majority of the season, as evidenced by his 224 pass attempts through 6 games. Only Chase Brice has more attempts this season in the ACC, and that is with an extra game included for Duke. Clemson’s secondary depth has been tested this season, as projected starters Derion Kendrick and Mario Goodrich have missed a lot of time, including last week’s game. The back seven figures to be tested this week for sure.
The two guys Clemson must account for on every play are WR Zay Flowers and TE Hunter Long, who have combined for 67 catches, 928 yards, and 7 TDs so far this season. Long is easily Jurkovec’s security blanket, and Flowers is BC’s home run threat. You can bet they will try to find a way to get Flowers loose after seeing both GT and Syracuse burn the Tigers over the top for long TDs.
BC still has big, bruising David Bailey to run the ball. Bailey had his best game of the year last week against GT. Clemson was better than anyone at stuffing the BC power run game during Addazio’s reign, and it will be very important to not allow the Eagles to have any semblance of balance. They are willing to throw it 50 times, and that is what Clemson is going to need to make them do. Clemson’s defense has been very good at creating turnovers this season, and those chances go up if BC is one-dimensional.
We will see if Tyler Davis is able to play this week after missing the Syracuse game. He is such a huge factor in creating a new line of scrimmage and freeing up teammates for TFLs. I’d rather have him next week if we must hold him again, but hopefully he will be able to play at least some role this week. James Skalski is now out for this week and probably next, which is another blow to the middle of the defense. Jake Venables is having to grow up quickly, and we will see what other adjustments Brent Venables makes to account for Skalski not being on the field. Starting SAM Mike Jones, Jr. is also nursing an injury after a big performance last week. The linebacker depth is definitely something to watch this week and next.
Ultimately, this is a different kind of test for Clemson’s defense. Most of the offenses, other than Citadel’s, have operated with tempo/spread approaches reliant on play action to really work like they should. This system is much more built to work without the running game humming or catching you out of alignment with tempo. I’m looking forward to seeing how Brent Venables chooses to attack it.
Special Teams: Hopefully Clemson has gotten the “giving up a blocked kick” bug out of its system after having a punt blocked by Syracuse. Again, its nice to have this happen in a game with a wide margin of error, but that margin is going to shrink in South Bend and might be smaller this weekend as well. It hasn’t been all bad, as the once-maligned Will Spiers has been actually really, really good this season. He even pulled off a fake punt successfully after moonlighting as a QB the week before. I think I’ve gone from hoping he didn’t exercise that extra year next year to being cool if he does. Good for him to step it up and resemble the guy we’ve heard about from practices the last two years. Lyn-J Dixon had another big kick return and is now averaging 30 yards a return, which would be second in the ACC if he had enough returns to qualify. There is definitely hope that the Tigers can bust a big return on punts or kickoffs, and history has shown us how major that can be on the ultimate stage (both for and against).
Overall: This has changed a great deal with the Lawrence news. I could count on Clemson getting to 30 points even on a bad day with 16 at the helm, but now there are all kinds of unknowns to consider. Clemson still has the talent to make things work and figures to ride Etienne to 30 touches or more to take pressure off of DJ or Taisun. The defense will need to be on point as the margin of error just got a lot smaller. One thing is certain, the Tigers will be laser focused under these circumstances. They know what is at stake and the doubts that might be out there. They find a way.
Clemson 30-BC 18.