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Game 8 Preview: Clemson Hosts Unbeaten Syracuse

High Noon Showdown in Death Valley!

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

Welcome back to the STS game preview! I ended up being pretty close to correct on last week’s game (predicted 29-24 and final was 34-28). It was a game in the fourth quarter but not in the way I thought it would be, with the Tigers letting up and FSU closing the margin late. However, wins are precious and road wins particularly so, so it was a job well done in the end and on to the next...

Syracuse and Dino Babers looked to be a program circling the drain after a very promising 2018 season. However, they have put together a surprisingly strong team and enter this game a perfect 6-0 and ranked 14th. This is great for Clemson and the conference because it adds another quality game and opponent beyond what was originally predicted. These games are more fun when you know the team you face has a reasonable chance to win. This schedule is right up there with that 2016 one in my opinion. Clemson will need to clean up some of the issues from last week on defense for sure, but Death Valley is the greatest home field advantage in college football this century, so Syracuse will need to play its best game by a mile.

Clemson offense vs. Syracuse defense: I’ve been a fan of Syracuse Defensive Coordinator Tony White for a while. I think he is as good as there is at maximizing his personnel on that side of the ball. His units have often been hung out to dry by some poor offenses over the last few years or he’d likely have been poached by a higher profile program or given a head coaching job by now. This year the Orange offense has complemented them much better and Syracuse sits atop of most of the defensive rankings in the ACC coming into this game.

That said, every game of note for Syracuse so far has been at home. Purdue is the only team they have faced that could reasonably compare to what Clemson can do on offense. NCSU, without Leary, was a one dimensional shell of what was already a pretty average offense before. Still, the Orange are a well coached group with a good scheme that offsets much of their disadvantages up front. Clemson will need to dominate this game at the line of scrimmage and continue to protect the football like it has so far this season.

Clemson featured Will Shipley a lot more last week in Tallahassee and the super sophomore produced. I expect a lot more of that this week as Syracuse is similar to FSU in the way they can match up with Clemson on the outside at corner. DJ continues to play at a championship level and delivers when the team really needs it, especially when it comes to answering an opponent’s score. This Clemson team is light years better than last year at avoiding negative plays and converting third downs. While there still aren’t as many super explosive TD plays as some of the previous championship Tiger offenses produced, this unit is actually one of the most efficient in my memory (and protects the football). Those things win you games, and this week is another game where those things are very important to staving off an upset.

Clemson’s backs and tight ends should be where the staff likes the matchups best against what Syracuse likes to do. DJ will need to do a good job recognizing where Syracuse will bring its pressure because the Orange are certainly going to throw numbers at the line of scrimmage to try to get the Tigers off schedule and/or produce turnovers. They will likely feel their corners can hold up on the perimeter deep shots, so it will come down to attacking with screens and seem shots to the tight ends.

NCSU had some success running the ball but lacked the explosiveness needed to really punish the Orange last week. The result was a lot of long drives that bogged down inside the 30 yard line for the Pack. Shipley, Mafah, DJ and the other skill guys Clemson possesses are far superior to NCSU’s injury depleted unit.

Purdue got over 400 yards passing against the Orange but were unable to run the ball effectively. Boilermaker tight end Payne Durham finished with 9 catches for 83 yards and 2 TDs. Davis Allen and Jake Briningstool are probably salivating from watching some of that tape of Durham going to work on the Orange defense. Clemson needs to establish the run game to set up those shots to the tight ends that often benefit from play action. The Tigers had a sweet one designed last week that just missed over the middle.

One area this team can definitely improve is yards after contact. Shipley has been the best in this department but the WRs outside of Williams have not been as good. That is another area where the Tigers should hopefully exploit the lack of size on the Orange defense.

Clemson defense vs. Syracuse offense: As QT pointed out early this week in his article, Dino Babers made a home run hire when he got Robert Anae in the wake of Bronco Mendenhall’s stepping away from football at UVA. Anae has made the Orange offense much more consistent and highlights their three star players as well as you could probably do it. Sean Tucker and Garrett Shrader are the running attack. Tucker runs the outside zone runs and stretch plays we saw from FSU, while Shrader will run zone read keepers and the built in QB draw Anae puts into every pass play in his system. Last year the Tiger defense did a great job limiting Shrader’s runs but struggled with Tucker, particularly early in the game.

Clemson is going to want to force Syracuse to throw the ball to win. Shrader is having a great year, but he rarely will go beyond an initial read on their passing plays. When he has gotten off script, he has turned the ball over a few times. Anae typically wants Shrader to make his first read, which is usually super TE/WR hybrid Oronde Gasdsen, and then convert to a QB draw if it isn’t there. They also love to swing the ball out to Tucker or attack with wheel routes. They remind me a bit of the 2009 Clemson offense that had to milk C.J. Spiller, Jacoby Ford, and Michael Palmer to the last drop to be effective. The quality drops pretty far after that, but the Orange haven’t had to worry about that very much this season with their schedule.

Clemson’s defense wasn’t great last week in the beginning stages or the end of the FSU game. I do think they will rebound in a similar fashion to how they followed up the Wake Forest game. Syracuse’s three headed monster is good and they will make some plays, but the defense needs to limit at least one of those guys to well below their normal output, preferably Tucker. The defense needs to punish Shrader when he runs. First and second down defense is going to be critical this week. I’ve watched a decent amount of the Orange this year and they can look very pedestrian when the down and distance isn’t in their favor.

Syracuse’s OL has gone from one of the worst units in the league in 2020 to one of the best this season. However, they haven’t seen a front like Clemson’s to this point. NCSU’s defense is good but its line are space eaters and gap fillers. The Tigers really need to dominate that matchup as they are capable of doing. Bryan Bresee will hopefully rebound after a rusty performance last week. Hopefully Myles Murphy can follow his dominant performance at FSU with another one Saturday. Xavier Thomas will no doubt be hunting a sequel to his iconic sack of Eric Dungey to close out the 2018 win against the Orange.

Special Teams: This game features two of the very best placekickers in the land. Clemson fans know B.T. Potter can deliver pretty much from the 40 yard line. The Orange have a record setting kicker of their own in Andre Szmyt. These two along with NCSU’s kicker are the best in the league and essentially make that aspect an even matchup.

Will Shipley showed why several teams have chosen to avoid kicking him the ball when he nearly housed the opening kickoff of the second half last week. His disrespectful trucking of the FSU kicker was a real highlight moment of that play. We will see if he gets another shot in this game if Szmyt can’t get the ball deep in the endzone.

Clemson fans certainly would welcome another blocked kick from the Tigers this week as well. As predicted, we saw Antonio Williams returning punts last week and I expect that will be the case again this week (unless the Tigers show their double returner look they have done at times this year).

Overall: It’s October and the weather is getting cool, but the football action is heating up. The Orange are coming in red hot and super confident. However, not really playing on the road (and going to UConn doesn’t count for much), then having to walk into this venue as your first real road trip is daunting to say the least. The Orange will be desperate to get off to a strong start to hopefully get the crowd simmered down and make the Tigers play catch up.

As long as Clemson’s defense delivers like it can, and should, then the Tigers can dictate terms and be deliberate on offense looking to flex its superior depth to wear the Orange out. I really respect this Orange team and the job Babers and his staff have done, but they likely would have been better served coming into this game at 4-2 or 3-3 in my opinion. Big games and bright lights favor Clemson , especially in Tigertown.

Clemson 34-Syracuse 17