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Game 8 Preview: Clemson Hosts Surging FSU

Can the Tigers Rebound and Keep the Home Streak Alive?

NCAA Football: Florida State at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes I hate being right. Everything I feared came to fruition in Pittsburgh. The offense, incapable of taking advantage of great early defense and field position, couldn’t mount more than a one score lead. Kenny Pickett then did what very, very good QB’s do and started making plays with his arm and his legs.

The Pitt offense still only managed 20 points of their own, but it was more than enough to overcome what is a pathetic Clemson offense. You used to not be able to dream of a win over Clemson without breaking 30 points, but this season has been very, very different.

This was insult to further injuries, namely senior guard Matt Bockhorst and his right ACL. While Bock’s turn at center was not very good, he was playing good football at his natural guard position, and it doesn’t help the team to lose his services on the weakest side of the ball. You can only hope the terrible injury luck will run its course on what is quickly becoming a totally lost season.

However, there are still a couple of things out there for this team to achieve and protect. The home winning streak is one and the streak against U of SC is the other. Going into this season, I like many others worried about the UGA game and maybe one other on the schedule as a potential slip. Now almost every game left is a dangerous one, particularly if the opponent has an offense worth noting.

Florida State is a dangerous opponent despite being the September laughing stock nationally, blowing a game to Jacksonville State among other duds in an 0-4 start. It is a lesson you don’t have to stay in the muck or accept being bad and hopefully the Tigers will find a new spark in this one that can get this season going in the right direction.

Clemson offense vs. FSU defense: Oh boy. I will start with some positives. I felt the OL played plenty well enough to win last week against a capable Pitt front seven with an attacking scheme. To be honest, there were two or three Shipley runs that really should have popped for monster gains, if not touchdowns, had he been able to maintain balance as he was accelerating. Those were well blocked and all the backs ran for 5+ yards per carry. I’ll take that every week. The running backs are playing well as a position group, with Shipley’s big dropped pass being the only real black eye from the Pitt game.

Now to the not so positive. WR play continues to be very poor. Clemson only had Ross, Ajou, and the Collins towers as scholarship guys ready to go. Ross had a few more forgettable moments and still looks like a shell of his former self. I can’t begin to imagine what he’s been through with his surgery and recovery, so it is hard for me to not give him some kind of a break, but at the same time, this team just can’t win games like last week if he isn’t performing like he’s shown in the past he can. It is probably unfair to expect 2018 Ross and expectations should be tempered accordingly.

Ajou Ajou drew my ire a good bit when he continued to whiff blocking assignments that doomed screen plays. He did manage one big play but hasn’t come close to producing what that type of size and athleticism can potentially produce. Clemson simply can’t afford the learning curve due to the injuries at the position. Will Brown is small but he’s tough and had one of the best run after catch plays from the WR group this season. I’ll take toughness over measurables at this point. It would be nice if both of those things could be put together in the same package.

It is a good thing Marcus Tate has gotten a good bit of experience because he’s the guy that needs to step up with Bockhorst going down. Clemson should have Rayburn and Trotter to handle center and hopefully we will see some continuity from this point forward. Florida State has been a boom or bust type defense much of the season, but at this point I just want to see Clemson execute to where Jimmy vs. Joe becomes the deciding factor and let the chips fall where they may. The drops, penalties, and “missed layups” have got to stop before worrying about 3 man or 4 man fronts and coverage styles.

I thought it was good for DJ to sit for a couple of series last week. He played better when he got back in. Sometimes a guy needs that to happen to turn a corner. I have no idea if that is what will happen here, but Clemson needs DJU to be the guy and I agree with giving him every opportunity to do that. He just needs to be less robotic, such as throwing that shovel pass without really reading it. I actually liked one of his throws to Ross even though it was fairly ill advised just because he showed a willingness to give his guy a chance vs. eating a sack. Those are calculated risks, but think of all the great plays in Clemson’s great run that were calculated risks.

Kobe Pace is the next guy in the long line of guys having to miss time this season. Thankfully Will Shipley is back and Mafah has had some time to get seasoned. We will probably see Darien Rencher for a few snaps here and there as well. Shipley has been close to making some big time explosive plays and hopefully this will be the week he really breaks loose.

Clemson should have been up 17 or 21 against Pitt in the first half. The pick in the red zone when DJ didn’t throw it to the back shoulder and Ross didn’t compete for the ball and the Shipley drop were at least 10 missed points there alone. The Tigers have to make those plays or these struggles are not going away. Clemson’s defense is good enough to keep the team in the game but not good enough to win if the offense can’t break 20 points. Florida State is such a run-based team that getting ahead of them and making them have to throw to catch up is the best course to victory. But, as a line in Young Guns goes, “There is many a slip between the cup and the lip.”

Clemson defense vs. FSU offense: Clemson’s defense did everything you could hope for in the first quarter and a half of the game last week. They forced punts, got a turnover, and kept Pitt out of scoring range. The offense was only able to stake a 7-0 lead after all of that, and then Kenny Pickett started making plays.

Their first TD was one of those “tip your cap” plays. Some folks will bemoan Nolan Turner getting matched up on Addison, but it took a perfect throw in a miniscule window to complete that play. Addison was basically concussed after a previous catch where Phillips flipped him, but it hadn’t been diagnosed yet and he made that play anyway. The bigger problem on that play was the inability of Clemson’s defensive front to get to Pickett or keep him from escaping to his right hand.

That last point led to future issues, such as a blitz on 4th and 5 that left Barrett Carter isolated on a slot WR where he got hopelessly burned for a TD. Clemson had to blitz to get pressure more and more as the game progressed because the Clemson front, especially the defensive ends, couldn’t create adequate pressure on their own. Was there some holding Yes, but ultimately if you beat guys badly enough those holds will be so egregious that most will get called. I said in my preview that if Clemson won that game, we’d likely be talking about huge impacts from either Xavier Thomas or Myles Murphy or both. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.

Clemson’s corners were sound but Pitt was able to find and attack Clemson’s safeties and linebackers in coverage situations. The pass rush wasn’t able to offset those situations. It didn’t help that Clemson couldn’t stake a lead big enough to get Pitt in all pass mode. They were close even at 0-7 because they chose to use a lot of empty sets and just let Pickett try to move them. By the end, Clemson couldn’t even stop Pitt’s running game as the Panthers converted 10 third downs and that one pivotal fourth down. You just aren’t going to beat a good team giving up that many conversions.

Tyler Davis shocked me and I’m sure many others by returning last week. He was a factor when he was in there but they limited his snaps and he wasn’t in when Pitt really started to hurt Clemson with their run game. He is supposed to be full go this week and that is very good news. Davis is a difference maker and Clemson has to have someone up front wreck some plays to get FSU off schedule. I’d love to see a chart of Pitt’s production on the plays Davis was in vs. the ones when he wasn’t.

Jordan Travis isn’t Kenny Pickett as a passer, but he is a very dangerous runner. Florida State also has one of the best backs in the ACC in Jashaun Corbin. They present similar issues as Syracuse did. Clemson did a great job stopping Shrader running the ball in that game but got gashed a few times by Tucker. It is absolutely essential that Clemson stop the FSU running attack and make Travis (or if they sub in Milton) throw to win. If FSU gets to 150 yards rushing or more, this is probably going to be another long day at the office. Anything under that should mean Clemson is in pretty good shape, at least on this side of the ball.

I think this week we should see more of Lavonta Bentley. I didn’t think he would be used much vs. Pitt’s attack and I was right, but Florida State’s run heavy approach suits his style of play. I want to see Clemson punish the FSU backs and especially Travis when he looks to run and Bentley brings the lumber as well as, if not better than, Spector and Skalski. We shall see how this shakes out.

Special Teams: It is kind of shocking to think how this unit has been perhaps the most consistent on the team. The defense has had a letdown here and there, but this unit, save one blocked punt given up, has been strong. B.T. Potter continues to nail his kicks, albeit with limited opportunities, and Spiers has punted the ball well in addition to his fake punt success vs. Syracuse. The return game has been fairly quiet since Will Taylor got hurt. I still wonder why we seem to never make any real effort to block a punt, especially if the majority of our returners are walk-ons fair catching. Clemson has too many great athletes to not be more disruptive in this phase, and this year’s offense really could use the help.

Overall: I’d really, really be concerned about this game if it was in Tallahassee. We certainly should see that there are very few easy wins on this schedule. I was as mad at Norvell for last year’s dodging of this game as anyone, but I have to give him and his coaching staff credit for getting this FSU team playing a lot better football after a disastrous start. It halfway gives me hope that Clemson might find its way. The ‘Noles got their spark when they pulled out a narrow win over Syracuse. I think this week we see Shipley bust a couple of big plays to help the limping offense do just enough.

Clemson 23-FSU 17