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Game 8 Preview: Clemson Heads to NCSU Looking to Turn Things Around

“Where do we go, where do we go now, where do we go...”

NCAA Football: Clemson at Miami Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports

Alas, Tiger fans, we find ourselves licking wounds and surveying the damage of a season quickly slipping into places not seen since 2010. This Tiger team is beating itself. At some point you have to hope that ends and that the team can create some positivity in hopes that 2024 will be a return to prominence. Of course, we could very well be in the midst of an inevitable decline from the lofty heights of 2015-2020. These things rarely happen is some sudden change, but instead involve a general drift into mediocrity. We have seen this most recently with Florida State, who has only just now found itself back in the national picture after sharply declining post 2015. There is no way for us to really know despite many fans and talking heads alike casting their takes on the situation. I’ll just keep hoping for the best while trying to be realistic about the present.

NCSU is having a disappointing season of their own, though their program standards are not what Clemson’s are. The Robert Anae-Brennan Armstrong reunion that was supposed to take the middling Wolfpack offense to a new level has crashed and burned. However, the Wolfpack still boast a strong defense and Clemson fans know all to well the issues the Tigers have had on offense that make this team particularly vulnerable. Perhaps the cruelest cut of all is seeing a matchup that warranted a primetime slot just a season ago relegated to the CW Network. All I need now is Mike Hogewood’s spirit on the sideline to really give me the 1994 vibes all over again.

Clemson offense vs. NCSU defense: Where do I begin? I will start with the absolute fiction that this Clemson offensive line is deep. I surely hope Thomas Austin can get this group straightened out, but I for one am beginning to think Robbie Caldwell was a bigger loss than many thought when he retired out of his offensive line coaching position. Caldwell might not have been the dynamic recruiter many were looking for, but even the beleaguered 2021 offensive line only had UGA’s elite defensive front own it the way Miami’s front owned Clemson’s OL last weekend. This offensive line has nearly everyone back from last year yet plus two “ready to play” freshmen yet it’s PFF numbers lag behind last year’s unit particularly in pass protection. Watching Mario Cristobal signing up for overtime versus trying to win at the end of regulation was perhaps one of the most damning critiques of Clemson’s front I can remember. He knew they had the line of scrimmage won and he was right.

NCSU has a good defense that has been largely left out to dry by a very poor offense (sounds familiar!). They are more than capable of pouncing on the mistakes this Clemson offense has been so willing to make game after game. The Pack have been stronger versus the run than the pass, but we can definitely see how most teams are looking to make Clemson pass the ball to win. As I expected, Miami was very, very aggressive in its coverages which did allow for more deep shots and yards per attempt/completion from the Tigers, but Clemson still struggled to create scores off of those plays outside of Jake Briningstool’s highlight reel catch. Getting Clemson having to execute inside your 20 or even 10 yard line has become the best recipe for success against the 2023 Tigers.

Not being able to get cheap touchdowns has killed Clemson’s offense for three years running. All that amplifies problems with the OL who have to execute more because the offense has to run more plays to move the ball. Even when they fit the run up right, neither Shipley nor Mafah can break a TD run more often than not. When they protect well, which they actually did a few times in the Miami game, especially in the first half, the Clemson WR are unable to cash in with a TD play. Adam Randall was a step away, but he got tackled. Collins couldn’t make two plays on perfect deep balls in the first half. Overall the offense has taken a major step backwards the last two weeks after showing some good signs against Syracuse. Of course, Syracuse has been blown out in every game since Clemson played them and surrendered a ton of points in doing so...

Clemson’s 2022 undefeated start featured some of the best third down and red zone numbers since Trevor Lawrence was taking the snaps. Will Shipley has been great in previous seasons at generating TD’s even when the blocking hasn’t been optimal, but this year has been a different story. Davis Allen, in my opinion, has been an underrated loss from last year’s team because he brought a good red zone target AND he could block well. Jake Briningstool is the receiving threat but has not yet arrived as a blocker, whereas Sage Ennis is the better blocker but not the same level of receiving threat. As our man Drew Schneider has pointed out very well, Cade is not the power runner as a QB that DJU was either. As a result, we’ve seen more complicated attempts at creating TDs inside the 10 and those have mostly led to poor results.

While I am totally off the boat on what Dabo has stated about some of the WR and the OL on this team, I still believe his assessment that this team is better than the 2021 team. However, that team avoided killing itself and made the necessary plays in a lot of tight games to find ways to win after the Pitt loss. This team desperately needs to figure that out and NCSU’s defense will present a challenge in doing so.

Clemson defense vs. NCSU offense: One thing this year’s defense has in common with 2010 is eventually breaking after some mostly strong to dominant play. We saw this at Duke, and it showed up again vs. FSU late and last week in the fourth quarter and the overtimes. As poor as the offense was most of the night at Miami, the defense had a two score lead to protect in the fourth and proceeded to get the ball smashed down its throat for the majority of the fourth quarter. Miami executed its plan to protect its young QB to perfection, and he then made just enough plays with his arm to put them over the top. Clemson simply could not force him to have to beat them with drop back passes because Miami churned out 4-6 yards a clip with the run and got into favorable down and distance over and over again. Unlike Clemson, Miami was able to pay off a terrible run fit for an 80 yard TD (despite Wiggins causing a fumble that, of course, Clemson couldn’t recover). That cheap TD was a huge, huge factor in how the game went and just shows the importance of having a guy, at least one, who can generate that type of explosive play.

NCSU’s offense is poor. They have turned to MJ Morris in place of Brennan Armstrong, but the results have not been all that different. They are ranked just above Pitt at the bottom of the ACC in offense. Morris is a little more slippery as a runner, and the Tigers will need to make him win the game with his arm. That was the same case last week but, as we saw, the offense couldn’t generate a lead big enough to force Miami to speed up and take more chances with their QB. The Wolfpack will look to play to their defense and wait for Clemson’s generosity to show itself. Hopefully Clemson won’t have any more issues like having to leave Xavier Thomas at home because of a rules violation.

That fourth quarter last week should have been enough humble pie to have this defensive front foaming at the mouth to play again. We haven’t seen a team run it on Clemson like that since Notre Dame did it last season with their elite OL. Clemson has too many guys looking to play at the next level to want that type of game tape building up. This is a game where the front seven needs to absolutely dominate.

Special Teams: Jonathan Weitz offered a small sliver of positivity when he managed to make all his kicks for the first time all year (for any Tiger placekicker). Maybe that dyed blonde hairdo is the mojo he needed to get locked in? The Tigers certainly need kicker reliability because of how inept the team has been at punching in touchdowns. Beyond that, there wasn’t anything to speak of other than the usual mundane punt return game. Swanson was good until, of course, we needed a big punt in the fourth and he had his worst kick of the night. This team could desperately use a boost in this phase the way the 2009 team often helped its hit and miss offense with some explosive special teams work. However, Jacoby Ford isn’t suiting up and CJ Spiller can’t put on the pads from the sideline either.

Overall: I certainly am not going to predict some explosive offensive performance after what I have seen the last two games. This game, like most of the others, is going to come down to how much or how little Clemson hurts itself with turnovers and ill timed penalties. NCSU is likewise looking to find some kind of positive momentum behind Morris at QB and a defense that still has Peyton Wilson roaming the middle. I see this game being a slog right down to the end but Clemson has more tools on offense than the Pack and that should be just enough.

Clemson 20-NCSU 16