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Game 5 Preview: Clemson Hosts NCSU

Top Ten Tilt in the Valley!

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

Wow, what a game last weekend in Winston-Salem. I said if Clemson’s backup secondary guys had to play that it could get dicey, and that is exactly what happened when Sheridan Jones, Malcolm Greene, and Andrew Mukuba missed the game. Wake played like a team that had the game circled and didn’t buckle when the Tigers roared out to a 14-0 lead. The best news for Clemson fans was the offense showed it can go win a game this year in ways it simply could not last season. DJU was amazing and continues his rise to what folks all thought they were going to see last season and didn’t.

Now the Tigers face what everyone felt would be its main competition in the ACC this season: NCSU. The Wolfpack were extremely fortunate to win against East Carolina, but they have since played better and enter this game ranked in the top 10. Now ESPN College Gameday is coming to town, and it will be one of the most electric home atmospheres in years no matter the weather.

This game isn’t quite going to decide the league. The early play of Florida State and Syracuse has shown those two could be factors, at least as spoilers, for the winner of this game going forward; however, it certainly puts the winner in a prime position to take what is clearly the stronger division in the ACC this season. Clemson has the nation’s longest home winning streak, but this is one of the toughest tests within that streak for sure. The Pack are veteran, confident, and pretty healthy heading into this one. This has a lot of the vibe of the 2016 Louisville game, which we all know was a classic battle to the wire.

Clemson offense vs. NCSU defense: Clemson’s offense last season was a total mess, but even moreso against odd front defenses like what UGA employed, GT surprised them with weeks later, and NCSU used and continues to use. The Tigers were able to score early off its scripted plays but did little else good before falling in overtime in Raleigh last year. The score was closer than the game really was as the Pack overwhelmingly controlled most of the action but failed to put the Tigers away until the very end.

This Clemson offense is way ahead of last year’s and really showed some excellent stuff last weekend at Wake. Wake made a concerted effort to force Clemson to throw, which I totally understood, but unfortunately for them, the Tigers were up to the challenge and made play after play, particularly on third down. The much maligned Clemson WR corps stepped up with several high level contested catches. Clemson’s tight ends showed they are a factor as well and the offensive line was brilliant in pass protection. These are all great signs heading into this bout.

NCSU has one of the best defenses in the ACC and a definite top 20 unit nationally. They have a lot of veterans and a scheme that has been in place for a while. They will blitz as much or more than any defense Clemson will face, so recognition by DJU and the running back will be very important. Typically Clemson’s main advantage vs. NCSU’s defenses in the Doeren era has been on the outside against their corners. Obviously, the Tigers did not enjoy that advantage nearly as much last season and it showed. I do believe this is a place the Tigers can get them this year, especially if the wide receivers can play at the level we saw last week.

This game is really going to come down to who can get their run game going, at least at a decent level. Both teams have defenses that can make you miserable if you are one-dimensional. I’m extremely hopeful that Clemson will have Sheridan Jones and Andrew Mukuba back for this game which should go a long way to cleaning up some of the problems we saw last week on the outside. Jones is not as talented as some of the younger guys physically, but his experience and know-how more than makes up for that given the CB technique displayed against Wake. The same can be said for Malcolm Greene. Mukuba, of course, is perhaps the best DB in the program and offers incredible position flexibility.

NCSU wants to create space for their linebackers and safeties to make plays. Clemson’s OL needs to do a good job of not getting bogged down with the three DL so they can get a hat on Drake Thomas, Peyton Wilson, and/or Isaiah Moore. It isn’t easy to fool this defense because of how experienced they are, so it will come down to the one on one matchups that emerge and winning those. It goes without saying that ball security will be at a premium in a game like this. No turnovers last week was a HUGE part of the Tigers getting the win.

Will Shipley has cemented himself as the clear RB1 on the team now and put together two outstanding games running the football. His touchdown run last week showed just how much he can turn nothing into something, which all great RBs can do. This will be another game where the Tiger running backs will need to grind out yards as best they can as explosive runs will likely be hard to find.

I’m interested to see how the offensive staff chooses to attack this defense. Coach Richardson compared the NCSU scheme to what Iowa State employed in last year’s bowl game. We saw there that the Tigers used several swing plays to the running backs to attack that defense.

Clemson defense vs. NCSU offense: We have rarely seen a Clemson defense struggle like we saw last week. When we have, it has usually been against an elite offensive unit like what LSU had or Ohio State had in those CFP matchups. Wake is a good offense but I wouldn’t say they are elite. NCSU is not elite on offense and quite frankly has not been as good as Wake’s this year. They do, however, have the preseason player of the year at QB and an emerging running back threat in Demie Sumo-Karnbaye. They pose a much bigger threat running the ball than the Demon Deacons did. Clemson has been very good against the run as we expected them to be and that will need to be the case again for this one.

Last year’s losses, save the Georgia game, were mostly a product of Clemson’s QB/WR being outclassed by NCSU’s and Pittsburgh’s. Leary far outplayed DJU last year in Raleigh and his skill guys made the money plays that Clemson’s didn’t. However, I am far more confident that DJ can win this matchup this time around if it comes down to whose quarterback is better (like we saw last week). As good as Hartman was, DJ was better. That is what a five star pedigree should amount to when the rubber hits the road. It is very likely this game will depend on whose quarterback plays the best just like last week.

Clemson’s DL really needs to flex its muscle in games like this the way we saw the “Power Rangers” unit do from 2016-2019. Tyler Davis was that dude last week but he needs some of the other guys to play at that level as well. I was texting a friend about Myles Murphy being MIA until he and Davis made a big sack late in the game last week. Murphy really needs to start making some more impact plays if he really is a top 10 NFL prospect like folks said going into this year. We keep waiting on Xavier Thomas’s return and perhaps the leaner and meaner #3 will finally get some snaps this week if his foot will cooperate. K.J. Henry hasn’t been bad but he hasn’t been as dominant as we saw in the GT game. Just one of these guys making a game changing play like a strip sack or causing an interception could be the catalyst.

Special Teams: We were writing our season preview articles and I noted that having a weapon like B.T. Potter was huge for the close games the team was bound to encounter against a schedule filled with quality quarterbacks. Well, Potter proved that point last week by being nails on a 52 yard field goal to get the Tigers level in the fourth quarter (and being perfect all game long). He could very well be called on again this week for a critical kick and there really isn’t anyone else out there in the country I’d rather have now.

Punting is another story as Aiden Swanson has struggled since his very good opening game performance. NCSU has a dangerous return man in Thayer Thomas so Swanson needs to get his act together so NCSU doesn’t own field position or break a return for a TD because the punt was too low and didn’t allow the coverage team to get down there well enough. NCSU blocked a punt for a TD that ended up being super critical for them in their week 1 win against ECU. Clemson needs to be buttoned up tight on punts this week for sure.

It was nice to see Clemson adjust its kick return to account for Wake’s strategy of finding Drew Swinney and kicking it to him. The last time it was Antonio Williams in that spot and he nearly broke it for a score and set the Tigers up for the final field goal to tie the game. Antonio Williams has been extremely impressive and warrants an increased role in special teams to go with his action as a wide receiver, particularly in games like this one.

Overall: Dave Doeren’s window to win this conference may be closing after this season, so he has to pay off having such a veteran team and quarterback against a Clemson team that is still patching some things together in places. NCSU has not been the same team on the road as they have been at home while Clemson has been the best home team in the land since 2016.

NCSU has also not played in a game of this magnitude since perhaps taking on Florida State in 2002 with Chuck Amato’s best team and Philip Rivers at the helm. This is a game I’ve circled from last year’s loss as the Pack are firmly entrenched as my most hated ACC team. There will be blood on Saturday night and I’m banking on Death Valley and this renewed DJU model being the difference in a battle.

Clemson 29 NCSU 24