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Game 11 Preview: Clemson Hosts #10 Wake Forest

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Senior Day has arrived with a lot on the line!

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff / USA TODAY NETWORK

Welcome back STS! What a long strange trip it has been. The Tigers have put some wins together but still find themselves outside the top 25. All three losses are to currently ranked teams, including the #1 team in the nation. The big issue is the lack of any big win, but that opportunity has arrived in the unlikely form of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.

The Deacs have been lighting up the scoreboard all season long and pose the biggest threat (on paper) to end the Tigers’ current home winning streak. Clemson still has an outside shot to win the Atlantic once again, but that requires beating the current leader Wake and hoping for some help next week. It would be one of the craziest “backing in” to the championship game situations we have seen, but who knows considering how crazy 2021 has been?

I usually take time to talk about the previous week in my previews. There isn’t that much to say about the UConn game. I wanted DJU to play a lot less than he did considering his knee situation, but that plan went up in smoke when Taisun Phommanchanh got hurt after a very nice TD drive. I don’t feel great about DJ’s knee and how much it is limiting his mobility (and in some cases accuracy), but it is looking more and more like he will have to do all the QB work this week.

It certainly doesn’t help that Justyn Ross added his name to the injured and out battalion, however, Clemson got through the game being able to rest Will Shipley, Kobe Pace, Andrew Booth, and Will Putnam while also being able to be cautious with James Skalski and Xavier Thomas when they had minor injuries.

Clemson offense vs. Wake Forest defense: This game is a classic strength vs. strength and weakness vs weakness matchup. Clemson’s offense has been as bad as we’ve seen since the 2010 season. Wake’s defense has had the ultimate luxury of an offense that has bailed it out in several games. The one blemish against UNC featured the Deacon defense being completely unable to protect a three score lead. It must be nice when you know you just need to produce two or three stops to allow your offense to overwhelm the opponent.

It will be very important for Clemson to be efficient on offense and run the ball. NCSU struggled to run it but UNC and Army had field days on the ground vs. Wake’s defense. Clemson’s running game has not been great the last two weeks. The Putnam injury has loomed large, but he will be back for this game after having two weeks to let that foot heal. I worry about Clemson’s ability to feature its zone read and RPO packages with DJU not able to run well. I don’t take a ton from last week considering the opponent. It made sense to work on throwing it in that matchup and putting Dacari Collins on an expedited development plan. Beaux Collins has come on in the nick of time to hopefully help offset the loss of Ross, but he will need somebody else to help out on the outside.

The Clemson offense is not going to be explosive this season. You hope that the occasional big play pops, but the Tigers can still win if they can move the chains and convert third downs. This offense has been very poor overall, but third down has been where the Tigers have felt the absence of a Trevor Lawrence or a Deshaun Watson the most. They were third down magicians and that is what truly took the Tigers to another level in tougher games.

It is rare to think that Clemson should play ball control in this modern era, but that would certainly help considering Wake’s prowess on offense. Essentially, what beat Clemson in 2011 is what needs to be employed to beat Wake in 2021. I hate to say it, but South Carolina’s blueprint in 2011 would work nicely here. They controlled the clock, ran the ball, hit enough passes, and the Tigers were rendered mostly listless with those limited possessions despite having a loaded offensive arsenal.

Above all else, Clemson cannot, under any circumstances, help Wake out with turnovers. Clemson’s defense is the best Wake will have seen by a pretty decent margin, but it is foolish to think an offense scoring 35+ points in every game is going to be shut down completely. Clemson has to make Wake earn every yard and put double digit play drives together in order to score. Wake doesn’t want to play that way any more than the 2011 Clemson offense wanted to. The offense has to do its job and not provide Wake extra at bats or favorable field position.

Clemson defense vs. Wake offense: I’m making the trip to Clemson this week to see this one in person. This matchup will be extremely intriguing to watch. Despite losing Heisman candidate (and in my opinion, the best RB in college football) Kenneth Walker III to Michigan State via transfer, Wake has put up video game numbers on offense all season long. Sam Hartman is not Kenny Pickett, but he is an excellent, savvy guy for this system and he has high level skill targets on the outside to work with.

A.T. Perry and Jaquarri Roberson in particular have been devastating in much the same way Clemson fans enjoyed watching Sammy Watkins and Deandre Hopkins routinely embarrass defenses. This is a big time “money game” for Tiger corners Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich matching up with those two guys.

Most Clemson fans are well aware of the “slow mesh” RPO system that Dave Clawson has patented while at Wake. Job #1 is making sure Wake cannot run the ball inside, as nearly all their explosive plays have come via play action which creates one-on-one situations for their wide receivers and/or exploits safeties put into conflict. I would think Brent Venables will see if he can handle the Wake running game with a basic six man box. I certainly expect the Tigers to feature the DIME packages a lot of the time as well. The plan against the ridiculously good 2018 Alabama offense was to invite them to run the ball, limit explosive passing plays, and then put the clamps on in the red zone. I like that plan for this game as well. If Clemson loses because Wake kicked 6 or 7 field goals, so be it. Clemson still has the size, power, and talent advantage on the line of scrimmage to win when the field shrinks and there is less grass to cover.

If Wake can pop a few cheap scores the way we’ve seen them do to just about everyone this season, this is not going to end well for Clemson. If Wake can gash the Tigers in the run game and force extra hats into the box, this will be a very long afternoon. Conversely, if Clemson forces Wake into using their drop back packages or renders the play action useless, as they have done the last few seasons against Wake, Hartman has and will turn the ball over and the Tigers will have the inside track to victory.

I hoped that Myles Murphy and Xavier Thomas would be the difference facing Pittsburgh’s offense back in October. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Tyler Davis, Ruke Orhorhoro, and James Skalksi form a strong triangle in the middle, so if Murphy and Thomas can dominate outside, particularly in longer yardage situations, that can go a long way in neutralizing a potent Deacon attack. Both of those guys have been very good most of the season. They were pivotal in the win over FSU.

The best news is that Clemson’s defense has been at its best playing at home. They were absolutely dominant against UConn. Florida State has been potent when Jordan Travis is under center and they shut them down completely in the second half and really just gave up one miracle TD on a bust and a crazy missed tackle situation. This is Death Valley, and I know I will be in full throat when the defense is out there and expect the crowd will be raucous. It’s one thing to operate in Keenan Stadium or the Carrier Dome, it is another to operate in Death Valley.

Special Teams: Hopefully Clemson got all the clown show coverage moments out of its system last weekend. I guess if you have to have them, a game like the UConn game is the time. Obviously that cannot happen in a game where the Tigers just don’t have the same firepower to match a high flying offense that we are used to seeing. The fake field goal was a nice moment. I love pulling that out even though “it was just UConn” because you want to have some things on film to give the opponent’s defense and special teams something to think about.

Now the Tigers have shown a fake punt and a fake FG, and those things have been needed considering how the offense has sputtered much of the season. I expect Will Shipley to be back there returning kicks this week, and I have to say there has been improved blocking by that unit lately. Darien Rencher had a solid return last week as a result. B.T. Potter has regained his good form after the struggles against FSU. This game may very well come down to him.

Overall: I’m still trying to get my head around a top ten Wake team playing an unranked Clemson. Wake has had a magical season and I tip my cap to them. I certainly wish Clemson could bottle up some of that offensive production. If Clemson is going to see its home winning streak end, I’d rather it be to a team on a magical run than some out of nowhere garbage upset like a 1989 GT game.

Clemson’s last home loss was against a good Pitt team with a future NFL quarterback and running back who played out of their skulls, got favorable PI calls, and benefitted from multiple Tiger turnovers. Clemson still only last by a point and won the national title a couple months later. I certainly can see several roads to defeat here, but football games are truly won in the trenches, and Clemson still should give Wake issues like they haven’t seen on their offensive front.

The trick is, can Clemson’s offense cooperate and play some complimentary football? The Tigers could have been up 17 or 21 to 0 against Pittsburgh but the offense blew it when the defense has set them up on a silver platter. This time they have to jump on Wake when they have the chance.

What do we say to the God of Death? NOT TODAY!

Clemson 31-Wake 27