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Game 5 Preview: Clemson Hosts Boston College

What is the REAL identity of this team?

Syndication: The Greenville News Ken Ruinard / staff via Imagn Content Services, LLC

2-2 folks. The ACC schedule has quickly gone from glorified scrimmages to an all out street fight just to survive. How did this happen? Better yet, how can this be fixed? I’ve found myself dealing with some strange emotions, but I should recognize them all from my 1992-2011 days when most weeks came with some sense of uncertain anticipation. Was that fun? I’m not sure that was fun. I will admit to some malaise in recent years just waiting for the curb stompings to inevitably begin in each ACC contest. We should que the old Cinderella (the band, not the Disney character) tune “Don’t Know What You Got, ‘Till it’s Gone.” Hopefully this will quickly turn to “Back in the Saddle Again.”

Dabo was understandably salty in his press conference. Outside voices have quickly (and predictably) rained down doom and gloom towards the offense and its coaching direction. If I’m Dabo, I’m feeling like I have more than a little bit of street credibility built on the past decade of mostly dominant football that a few bad outings shouldn’t erase, but we all know this is a “what have you done for me lately” business. Ask Steve Spurrier about having a giant poster of himself plastered in front of Williams-Brice Stadium quickly turn into a veritable dart board for that fan base in less than a full season.

Winning can make a lot of it go away; but it won’t be just wins at this point, it will need to be wins with flare. The rest of the ACC is licking its chops to take a bite out of the Tigers the same way folks lined up to chop away at Florida State when that dynasty began to crumble. I really liked that spunky Dabo who was looking for a fight back in those early days, and maybe we will see that guy again.

Boston College is 4-0 and feeling great about things even without their star quarterback Phil Jurkovec. They just pulled out a gritty OT win over Missouri as Clemson was dropping an ugly OT game to NCSU. BC put a scare in the Tigers last season and hope to take it a step further, which would likely eliminate the Tigers from any hope of another ACC championship in 2021. Chris Berman loves to talk about “circling the wagons” with the Buffalo Bills franchise, and it is certainly time to circle the wagons in Tigertown. Hey Clemson fans, this year’s team actually NEEDS the boost for real. It should be a fun proposition to throw that energy towards lifting the team to better performance.

Clemson offense vs. Boston College defense: I’ve done some football coaching in my career, but I’m not going to pretend to know all the answers and act like you could throw Chad Morris back in the staff room and the world would right itself. I’m all for some innovation and cool as hell play concepts, but I know enough to tell you that nothing in the world that you draw up will look good if you can’t execute the basic foundational plays of your system. That is the problem with this offense right now and the main reason why a bunch of four and five star guys look like they couldn’t start for Coastal Carolina. Now, you can blame coaching for the lack of discipline and execution that we have seen and a decent amount of that would be warranted.

Did Paul Johnson cease to be an option mastermind when Brent Venables’ defenses began to wreck his teams? No, it was just that his foundational plays, namely the dive, were totally taken away and the rest of his offense crumbled around that. Kevin Steele’s defenses couldn’t stop the dive, and we all know what that led to.

Clemson’s foundational plays are the inside zone to attack the middle and the WR screen game designed to create width for everything else. Those things are not being executed and it has made the V-12 engine run like a 4-banger in an old Chevette. As a result, defenses are getting away with nickel and dime personnel and not having to spread numbers to the outside to take away the screens. I’ve seen Clemson have 3-on-2 on the outside, which used to be an easy 6-8 yards at the minimum, but end up with 2 yards or less thanks to somebody missing a block or flat out missing the signal for the play. The first clip of this highlight shows Clemson vs. Ohio State in 2013. Ohio State only has two guys outside vs. the 3 man look for Clemson. This is an automatic screen call in this offense (then and now), but in the Orange Bowl, the blocking is correct, Sammy doesn’t miss the signal, and you get what you are hoping for with the play.

Clemson’s offense has got to execute well enough to force defenses to compromise to take something away, which will in turn open up all the cool stuff everyone wants to see and allow Tony Elliott to be creative. I can tell you, at least from a basketball coaching perspective, nothing is more fun than having a group you can run all kinds of things with to attack defenses. That is only possible when you have a group that you can completely trust to execute the foundation of your system. Clemson hasn’t had that yet, and we can only hope that the light will come on before extending the streak against U of SC is only goal left to chase.

Clemson must vastly improve its first down production. The majority of the drives vs. UGA and NCSU had Clemson facing 2nd and 8 or worse 80% of the time or more. It was better than that vs. GT, and the team had a lot better success sustaining drives, but the mistakes still came at some point and robbed the team of untold points due to turnovers on downs or fumbles. Clemson isn’t really built to just drop back and throw the ball 50 times like an Air Raid system, particularly when the quarterback is struggling with his confidence and his mechanics. Clemson’s opponents are banking on the Tigers imploding if they can just prevent a 2 or 3 play scoring drive featuring an explosive. So far that has worked to perfection. The Eagles are definitely looking to follow the same blue print, and I can’t blame them.

Clemson’s #1 problem is left guard. Marcus Tate gave way to Paul Tchio last week, but it didn’t magically solve the problems. I’m pretty sure the staff didn’t prefer moving Bockhorst to center but that is what had to happen, and the ripple effects are evident. Zone blocking is like a choreographed performance where each member has to step the proper way at the proper time with the proper depth. It isn’t as simple as just saying “mash the guy in front of you.” If any of you were around for that 1998 debacle against Virginia Tech, you saw then what a badly choreographed zone scheme can lead to. The flip side is that it is a thing of absolute beauty when everyone “dances” like they should. The video below shows the inside zone (in the form of a zone read play) blocked correctly and read correctly. Boston College had three outside vs. the three receiver set, which tells the QB to run the ball vs. throw the screen.

Now, let’s look at a similar situation last week against NCSU. The Pack have three outside against the 3 WR set and just five in the box, so this should have been a run read all day long. DJ throws the screen instead, which is terribly blocked so the third guy didn’t even have to make the play for State to blow it up for a TFL. If you watch the OL who is blocking run, you can see how they do a poor job of getting to the second level and essentially waste five guys in blocking the three down linemen. Even if DJ hands the ball off here, it is likely going to be a minimal gain depending on how the back attacks. An initial double team might be warranted, but one of those two has to release to the crashing LB and that isn’t happening.

Passing game wise, DJ hasn’t been trusting things a lot of the time. Some of the throws were there against NCSU IF he had set and fired on time. Instead he’s held the ball as if he is waiting for a more wide open thing to appear. Devin Leary made a living of just trusting and throwing on time and it largely kept the Pack on schedule until they ultimately wore the Tigers down enough to run the ball effectively. Those quick decisions made it very difficult to disrupt him and force mistakes even though the Pack very rarely had guys running wide open. DJ looked great on the first drive last week mostly because he let a couple of throws rip even when the targets weren’t running scot free. I think a lot of this is some PTSD from the UGA game pick six, but he has to get over it and trust things better to help open this offense up. BC is very unlikely to just show single high press looks that make the decision to throw a fade or back shoulder pretty easy to make. DJ will need to be ready to let the ball go on time and on target, and his WR corps need to not screw up the routes to help him along with that process.

Will Shipley is out for this game, so Phil Mafah is set to debut. I was super impressed with what I saw from him in the spring and compared him to James Conner in my RB preview. Whichever backs get the carries, they will need to be decisive and able to move piles and run through trash. Clemson has to find a way to get into 2nd and 5 vs. 2nd and 9 and create manageable third down situations. Clemson is built to exploit teams in play action IF they can get defenses to commit more numbers against the run. Until that happens, I fear we will see more of the sluggish and disjointed play that has been the norm in 2021.

Clemson defense vs. Boston College offense: Clemson’s defense is no longer at full strength with the losses of defensive tackles Tyler Davis and Bryan Bresee. Thankfully, defensive leader James Skalski is cleared to return this week after leaving the NCSU game in the first half with a bad shoulder. This defense has been forced to play some bend but don’t break football, most likely to protect an offense which currently cannot hope to play come from behind football should the defense give up an explosive TD or two early on attempting to create more havoc. Opposing offensive coordinators have had the luxury of patiently dinking and dunking away without the pressure of knowing they must create points to stay in the game.

Clemson’s defense fought valiantly last week, but it didn’t fight smart. Multiple Pack drives, including both regulation scoring drives, were aided by defensive penalties. I can’t recall a game with that many offsides violations from a Tiger defense. It didn’t help that the refs made an atrocious personal foul call (originally deemed targeting before review) on Baylon Spector that extended the Wolfpack drive that led to their second TD. However, when you play as poorly as Clemson did overall, you leave yourself vulnerable to the refs having a big impact with questionable calls.

I chalked a lot of that up to the defense wanting to do too much, probably because of how badly the offense has been playing. They were eager to get off the ball and get NCSU behind the chains which would allow Venables to unleash his blitz packages. The few times Clemson was able to create these scenarios, big sacks occurred from Xavier Thomas and Nolan Turner. Unfortunately, NCSU seemed to be in third and 2 all game long and nearly got to 100 plays total in the game. Clemson’s defense just didn’t have the juice in overtime to hold that initial lead as State put together and EIGHT play overtime drive.

Boston College has more than enough offense to create worry for Clemson. I was impressed with their offensive line last week which allowed the Eagles to churn out 275 yards rushing (175 from Pat Garwo III) vs. Missouri. Clemson has to force BC to throw it to win and it certainly would help if the team could start playing some complimentary football where the offense can get a decent lead when the defense is getting stops. You want to make Grosel beat you with his arm and take your chances with Zay Flowers and CJ Lewis. If the Eagles can run the ball with any kind of success, they will be able to control the clock and the game the way we saw NCSU do last week. This is where the Death Valley crowd, in a night game, can really help bolster the efforts of the team. Hopefully, we will see some false starts vs. the offsides violations that plagued last week’s performance.

Special Teams: Will Spiers was about the only person really getting action last week. NCSU dominated field position as well as time of possession. Had their kicker been good, the game never would have made it to OT. BT Potter is one of the best placekickers in the ACC, but the Tigers haven’t been able to even get into reasonable field goal range to use him. Will Taylor might make a difference in punt return, but not when he’s set up inside the 10 because the opposing punter is close to midfield. The staff should really consider being more aggressive in this phase to try to get a punt block since the offense seems to have very little shot at scoring from 75-85 yards out.

Overall: As I said before, this is circle the wagons time. One more loss, especially in the division, will drastically change the already fading goals of this year’s team. Swinney’s teams have rebounded before, most notably in 2009 and in 2014 (though they didn’t win the division in ‘14). We know there is enough talent to get it done.

The staff talks a lot about Clemson not beating Clemson, but that is exactly what has been happening this season. Clemson is making double the mistakes of the opponent, at least, and it has been enough to lead to two losses. While the team is a few plays from 4-0, it is also a few plays from 1-3. That is what living on the edge looks like. I said I was going to wait to push the panic button on the offense last week, well I’ve pushed it. I don’t think we will see some big renaissance and 40+ points, but I do think the Tigers have enough grit with the home crowd behind them to pull this out. Baby steps.

Clemson 20-BC 17

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