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Game 6 Preview: Clemson Travels to Syracuse

Friday Night Lights in New York

NCAA Football: Boston College at Clemson Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to a game week! I enjoyed the open date chance to casually watch other teams and laugh at the expense of USCjr and Alabama without the stress of an actual Clemson game (especially considering how this year has been for the Tigers). However, it is time to get back in the saddle and see if this program can ascend to its rightful place among the best in college football.

Not being ranked, frankly, is a travesty for this program given the talent on the roster and staff on payroll. Hopefully there is a healthy feeling of disrespect in the Clemson locker room that will only hone the focus and intensity going forward. The Tigers took a slight step forward on offense against Boston College, and I know Tiger fans are anxious to see if that was a sign of a leap to come or just a few good plays that can’t be consistently replicated. Syracuse is a better football team than they were last year and have typically given the Tigers issues since Dino Babers took over.

Clemson offense vs. Syracuse defense: Syracuse runs an odd structure, multi-DB system which has been the kryptonite for the 2021 Clemson offense so far. I do think their DC Tony White does a pretty good job considering the Orange lack top end talent in most spots and have limited depth. We should get a good sense of the improvement (hopefully) of the offense facing this type of defensive approach. It all starts with punishing a lighter box with the running game and forcing the defense to rotate a safety down or being overly aggressive with the LB vs. run action. Wake Forest and Florida State were able to establish their run games and create big play chances over the top in their play action/RPO calls.

Liberty had a harder time establishing the run and found themselves losing 24-21 despite having Malik Willis at QB and Hugh Freeze running the offense. One thing is pretty certain at this point of the season: Clemson hasn’t come close to showing it can beat people with the drop back passing game. Hopefully that will begin to change, but until then, the Tigers have to run the rock.

I decided to go with Phil Mafah for my cover photo this week. Kobe Pace is the lead dog for now and clearly played a good game vs. BC with career highs in carries and yards, but Mafah showed why many around the program have been anxious to see him unleashed. If this OL can get him on the second level, Syracuse is going to have a very long day at the office. Both Pace and Mafah are physical runners, as is the injured Will Shipley. The staff dialed up a very nice screen play to Pace vs. BC, and I think the Tigers need to lean on the running backs while the wide receivers get healthy and improve consistency.

It all starts with the offensive line. That unit was much, much better on assignments vs. BC than in the previous weeks. We will have to wait until Friday to see what starting five goes out there. I personally wonder if they put Bockhorst at LG and Putnam at RG with Rayburn at center even though that isn’t how the depth chart is listed. At least the staff should have some options if a certain player struggles that weren’t there for UGA through NCSU.

DJ Uiagalalei said this week that the offense is “very close.” I’m not sure about that, but it would be very nice for that to be true and we see a big breakthrough. It starts with #WRU playing like #WRU, which means if it is in their zip code, they are making plays. It certainly means throws that hit them in the numbers aren’t dropped. I sat back on Sunday watching DeAndre Hopkins and Mike Williams demonstrating how things used to be around here. DJU needs to be more accurate, but the guys around him can certainly make more plays than what we have seen so far.

Clemson didn’t turn it over against BC and that was HUGE. It is hard to find upset losses that don’t have turnovers involved (along with special teams gaffes). Hopefully Clemson has gotten through the fumble bug that had been a problem in the first four games of the year. Clemson just needs to not beat Clemson and the talent will be sufficient to handle this game.

Clemson defense vs. Syracuse offense: I have to give Dino Babers some credit. The ‘Cuse was going nowhere fast with Tommy DeVito at the helm and has since gone to a primarily running quarterback in Garrett Shrader to go with their top shelf running back Sean Tucker to create a pretty potent running attack which currently sits at the top of the ACC at 242.8 yards per game. Clemson hasn’t really had to face a team really willing to run its quarterback this season. GT decided to go with Yates over Simms or we would have seen it then. The Orange OL play was abysmal last season, but that unit is playing significantly better. Usually a dual threat QB can help mitigate OL issues as well. Clemson has been very good against the run this season and that will need to continue for this game not to be a serious threat.

Tucker is legit and gave the Tigers some problems last year before he got hurt and missed the latter part of the contest, which helped Clemson pull away. He has my vote as best RB in the league right now. You hope you can stuff both zone read option guys on every play, but I would advise to force Shrader to keep it and then look to punish him on his attempts. It is likely Brent Venables will need to leave his corners on islands outside to keep as many eyes as possible on the run game. Eye discipline is going to be very important in this game.

The Orange aren’t super scary on the outside so they will feature Tucker in the passing game as well. He is currently third on the team in receptions and first in yards. I’m sure most of you remember how Clemson worked to get C.J. Spiller touches in all kinds of ways in 2009, well, Tucker is their Spiller. I do feel better knowing Clemson has veterans at linebacker who are not as likely to fall prey to misdirection stunts and the varying tempo Syracuse traditionally employs. However, I also remember a very, very good 2017 defense going up to that Dome and playing horribly (except for Clelin Ferrell) in an upset loss. We’ve been able to count on this defense to keep teams under wraps. I wouldn’t want this to turn into the type of shootout Syracuse got into with Wake and Florida State.

Special Teams: Clemson had its first big mistake of the season on special teams vs. BC when a blocking missed assignment led to a blocked punt. B.T. Potter helped offset that with a stellar 4-4 performance kicking field goals. It was the first game the Tigers really called on Potter to deliver, and he certainly did that. Tiger fans hope Potter’s work comes from PAT and kickoffs, but until the offense really begins to break loose, getting Potter into field goal range is about as good a strategy as any. Syracuse’s punting hasn’t been very good and they are firmly last in the league in both average and net punting. Of course, I’m sure we will see some bombs this week because, you know, the Ray Guy morphing curse.

Overall: Clemson stayed alive with the win over BC. The Eagles can do Clemson a big favor and beat NCSU on Saturday, but that won’t mean anything if the Tigers stumble in this one. One upside to the bumpy start to the season is it should eliminate any potential focus issues like we have seen vs. Syracuse in the past. These Tigers are not just fighting to stay alive in the ACC race, but to regain much of the lost respect nationally. Clemson doesn’t have a really “bad” loss, especially since NCSU is currently ranked, but the lack of quality or even merely convincing wins has had as much to do with the ranking situation as anything else. We all know it isn’t enough to just win games in the modern era. The style points are huge when you have next to no chances for quality wins.

It is hard to feel overly confident about this team based on what we’ve seen. I do think the Tigers will find a way to win again, but I’m a long way from predicting blowouts until I see some shred of consistency emerge with the playmakers at QB and WR. Tucker concerns me, but hopefully Skalksi and Spector and company keep him relatively in check.

Clemson 27-Syracuse 20