I’ve had that song “It’s Been Awhile” on repeat in my head since last week’s sluggish 14-8 victory over heavy underdog Georgia Tech. We’ve been spoiled here at Clemson as one elite quarterback has come after another and the offense has been near the top of the conference, if not the very top, in just about every meaningful category since 2011. I can only point to the stretch of games in 2014 when Deshaun Watson was out injured and Cole Stoudt was playing at less than 100% himself where I felt this way about the Tiger attack. After Deshaun had led the Tigers to 50 and 41 points in back-to-back wins over UNC and NCSU, he left the Louisville game early and would be out through the beginning of the GT game a few weeks later. During that time the offense scored 23 vs. Louisville (7 came from a punt return TD by Humphries that day), 17 against BC, and 16 against Syracuse. When Watson returned in Atlanta, he tore his ACL early in the game as the Tigers were moving the ball, then the Tigers offense gave up 14 on interception returns and only put up 6 points themselves. Thankfully the 2014 defense was elite and the Tigers only lost that GT game during that stretch. This season has felt a lot like that so far.
There are a lot of common denominators between 2014 and 2021. Both teams needed an ascension of a young quarterback, which was Watson when he was healthy and hopefully DJ Uiagalelei here very soon. Both teams were working in a new starting running back, which ended up being Wayne Gallman in 2014 and potentially Will Shipley now. Both teams were breaking in new top WRs, which were Mike Williams and Artavis Scott in 2014 and Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson or EJ Williams now. Both teams were yet unproven across the offensive line and had some issues in early games, no more egregious than what happened in Athens in the second half of the 2014 loss to UGA. Eventually that 2014 offense found itself and easily routed Oklahoma in the bowl game even without Watson at quarterback. Tiger fans are hoping that type of emergence is going to happen sooner rather than later for the 2021 group, but the time is now if any hope of the playoff is going to remain alive.
Make no mistake, this is a very dangerous game on the road in Raleigh. We can point and laugh at the Wolfpack falling flat in Starkville a couple of weeks ago, but pointing and laughing at GT’s loss against N. Illinois didn’t turn out quite like we planned. The margin of error is very small at the moment even when the Tigers aren’t facing a team like UGA because the offense isn’t assured of putting up 24+ points even on a bad day like so many years before. The defense has been tremendous, but all it takes in a tight game is one bad bust in the secondary or fluky turnover situation to create an L. We saw that in Atlanta in 2014 for sure. NCSU has enough trouble makers and experience to exploit Clemson’s problems if they persist.
Clemson offense vs. NCSU defense: It really boggled my mind to see how unprepared the Clemson staff was for GT’s switch to the 3 man line and double cloud/cover 2 zone looks last week. Some of that can certainly be chalked up to the inexperience on offense and how much game installation the staff feels they can realistically do in a week and expect execution. However, there has been very little done to scare teams away from repeating these defensive approaches and the staff has to adjust accordingly. I don’t understand not anticipating two high safeties after the success UGA and even SC State had in handcuffing the Tigers’ passing attack in the first two weeks no matter how little GT might do that normally. I don’t play much zone as a basketball coach, but you better believe I will play it when I see it really bother an opponent in the scouting process.
The good news is, this trick now has been used and you’d hope it is the only time it really will work. GT even tried to use the old Pittsburgh inside shovel to the tight end from 2016 infamy, but Brent Venables has had that play on lock every game since that one. THAT is what proper preparation and adjustment look like, although if we’re being fair, Brent’s “quarterback” is 6th year senior James Skalski who is surrounded by experienced talent.
NCSU’s standard defense uses 3 safeties and 3 down linemen, and from the outside looking in, you’d think they are tailor-made to give the Clemson offense fits on Saturday. They will no doubt invite Clemson to try to run the ball and dink/dunk down the field while awaiting an inevitable mistake to derail the drive. It is time for Tony Elliott and crew to earn those hefty paychecks and begin to do some manipulation of their own to exploit these approaches. If 3 and 4 WR on the field aren’t really giving us anything, how about some tighter formations with extra TE to force the defense to bring more hats into the box? If they want to play a safety over the top of our X receiver, take advantage of it. I’m not sure what WR is the best blocker in the group right now, but that guy would be playing slot for me with a mission to punish people on crack blocks. Will Shipley has ascended to the RB1 spot and has proven to be a load to tackle on top of having some home-run speed. Kobe Pace has had some physical runs of his own and DJ weighs 250. Clemson should be able to play to these pieces even if it isn’t what this offense has traditionally been in the past.
The most glaring issue on offense has been ball security. The turnovers last week came very close to costing Clemson the game. NCSU is more capable on offense than GT with better outside weapons. Clemson’s offense MUST protect the football this week.
NCSU has lost leading LB Peyton Wilson, which is a bonus considering what Clemson has to do to win right now. They still have a bevy of experience and a unit that has played pretty well so far, albeit against weak competition beyond an OK Mississippi State team. This is a more complete defense than the GT unit that held Clemson under 300 yards of offense last week. Now, that might lead to them being willing to take more chances on defense than GT did and possibly open themselves up for explosive plays, but we won’t know until we see the game unfold.
Clemson should still enjoy the big advantage on the perimeter that they have had over NCSU over the last few years. The key will be not allowing the Pack to protect their corners while they try to deal with Clemson’s running game. I saw the Detroit Lions attempt to defend Green Bay with an approach similar to what Clemson has been seeing. The Packers wrecked it with Aaron Jones as a runner and a receiver which allowed things to open back up for Davante Adams outside. Clemson needs to get the ball in Shipley’s hands in a similar fashion when the Pack have their safeties back.
Justyn Ross’s impact as a slot receiver has been mostly minimal. A lot of this is due to how the opponents have had safety help over the top on both sides of the field. This look was rarely seen when Travis Etienne was around, but if Will Shipley and the other Tiger runners can begin to demand that level of respect, Ross should find a lot more space to operate between the hashes and up the seams.
Clemson defense vs. NCSU offense: Stopping the run is always important and is almost always job #1 of any defense. This is especially true this week against NCSU. Mississippi State’s defense did an outstanding job of forcing Devin Leary and State to execute in their drop-back passing game without the benefits of exploiting play action. Clemson must do the same against a capable pair of running backs in Zonovan (Bam) Knight and Ricky Person, Jr. It is almost like you defend State with the opposite approach of what folks are using to defend Clemson right now. Clemson has done a great job against some potent running backs like Zeus White and Jahmyr Gibbs so far this season and will need to repeat that effort this week.
Unfortunately, Clemson has lost star DT Tyler Davis to injury once again. Clemson is thankfully more equipped to handle that loss this time around as opposed to last year, but it will put a little more pressure on Bryan Bresee to be on the field for a higher percentage of snaps. Clemson did not play as cleanly on defense last week despite not giving up a touchdown and only 6 points. GT couldn’t punish them enough for the mistakes that happened despite getting what I thought was a tremendous game from their quarterback. The Pack are better on the outside, especially with Emeka Emezie, and can create explosive plays if they are able to generate a run game to set up play-action shots.
Clemson has produced some very good quarterback pressure despite a relatively low number of sacks through three games. Opposing quarterbacks and their play-callers have done a good job to this point of avoiding the disastrous turnover, but this defense has been close to changing that. NCSU will have to hope Leary can perform at that same level and not put the ball in jeopardy or on the ground. The Pack gave up a kick return touchdown and finished -3 in the turnover margin in Starkville. The score made it look like Mississippi State had an easier time than what they actually had. NCSU is better than what they showed that night. However, I have faith that Clemson is markedly better than what we saw last week as well.
Special Teams: Clemson didn’t get the big play out of this unit last week, albeit there were limited opportunities. Defense and special teams are having to do the heavy lifting right now and might have to again on Saturday for Clemson to win. The Wolfpack already got burned in their only power 5 game this year in this phase. The closer the game, the more this phase can be a major factor, and this game Saturday is shaping up to be a close one based on what we have seen so far.
Overall: NCSU was a popular choice as the best hope of the ACC to knock Clemson from its perch and a lot of eyes are going to be on this one to see how vulnerable Clemson really is. We all know how Dabo likes creating a sense of disrespect and doubt to galvanize his team, so he should be thrilled to have as much of those two things as the program has seen since 2014. I expect a few media folks to pick the Pack to win this game. The Pack fans will be there hoping that this is the year they can finally stop Clemson’s control over the Atlantic. They had a great chance in 2017 and couldn’t get it done. This game will likely be determined by who can get a lead first as neither team has shown it is built to play comeback football to this point. I expect another low-scoring affair, though something tells me Clemson will figure enough out to get this one done.
Clemson 24-NCSU 16