Hello folks! It feels good to write a game preview coming off a win. The Syracuse game, thankfully, unfolded as I had projected. The Tigers did a lot of good things to win fairly comfortably, particularly when you consider the several close calls against the Orange in the past. I remain extremely encouraged by what I am seeing on both sides of the ball, and if the special teams (particularly placekicking) can get straightened out, this team is poised to do some damage in the second half of the season. Before that happens, the Tigers need to take care of business against a program they have owned over Dabo’s tenure (and beyond): Wake Forest.
Last year was perhaps the best shot the Deacons have had to take down the Tigers. Wake had a loaded offense with a veteran, proven quarterback and homefield advantage. In many ways, they probably should have won that game. Thankfully for the Tigers, B.T. Potter hit the most clutch field goal of his career and DJU played, by far, his best game as a Clemson Tiger to stave off the upset. While this is not to say that Wake can’t come in and shock the world on Saturday because modern college football is crazier than ever, they just don’t possess some of the inherit advantages they enjoyed going into last year’s game. They are still a well-coached team, but this Clemson team is better than last year’s despite having a worse record at this stage of the season. The Tigers are starting to take better care of the ball and Cade Klubnik is looking more and more like the five star he was billed to be coming out of Austin, Texas.
Clemson Defense vs. Wake Forest Offense: Last year’s Wake game was a dumpster fire on this side of the ball. The Clemson secondary got roasted over and over again by Sam Hartman and the excellent WR corps of the Deacons. Wes Goodwin had some rookie moments with his slow adjustments that thankfully occurred at the end of the game and OT to help the Tigers win. This Clemson defense is playing some very good football and is tracking towards being a top 10 unit as the season progresses. The defensive front has faced two strong rushing attacks in a row and held up very well. The pass rush is starting to ramp up also, as freshman phenom T.J. Parker continues to grow into a dominant pass rusher. If Jeremiah Trotter can get back to consistently doing what he did last year and in flashes this year, this defense can be elite.
Of course, getting star cornerback Nate Wiggins back is a major component in making a dominant defense a reality. The Tigers were able to hold up last week with Jaedyn Lukus taking Wiggins’ spot and performing relatively well. Wake is better than Syracuse at WR, so having Wiggins back would ease some potential concerns about putting the corners on islands which, in theory, is ideal against what Wake does on offense.
The next best approach, and one the Tigers FINALLY went to late in last year’s game, is to give Wake run looks with the front and expect the front six to hold up and handle the run without needing to load the box. This can be problematic if Wake is able to control the ball with a steady run game, but the Tigers were good enough up front to limit that and it afforded safety help to the beleaguered corners last year.
The typical strategy Clemson has used to largely dominate Wake is to put them in long yardage situations and then overwhelming their pass protections. Wake’s elite 2021 offense had a terrible time as Hartman was sacked and forced into mistakes while the Tigers built a big lead. Wake eventually got going and scored some points but the game was essentially over. Clemson tried to employ a similar aggressive approach last year but Wake was able to identify a lot of the blitzes pre-snap, get that protected, and then exposed Clemson’s young secondary with a myriad of deep shots.
This Wake team is not as good at quarterback, which is understandable after Sam Hartman left as a graduate to Notre Dame. Mitch Griffis has the physical tools, perhaps even moreso, than Hartman but lacks the experience and consistent accuracy Hartman brought to the table. GT exposed a lot of this in their upset win over the Deacons two weeks ago as they intercepted Griffis 3 times and recovered 2 fumbles. The Jackets were willing to surrender some run game to eliminate getting burned deep and then preyed on Wake’s mistakes (doesn’t this formula sound familiar? See Clemson vs. Tennessee and Clemson vs. Duke...)
Wake suffered a huge blow when top returning WR Donavon Greene suffered a knee injury in the preseason. His loss, plus the graduation of A.T. Perry, knocks the overall quality of the Wake WR down a notch from last year. They still have a good and well coached mix of size and quickness, so getting consistent pressure on Griffis and not letting him throw on schedule will be a big factor. I feel good about the progress the Clemson front has made in this regard. Tyler Davis, Parker, and Xavier Thomas have had several dominant moments and Ruke and Mascoll have begun to flash some as well.
Clemson Offense vs. Wake Forest Defense: Clemson’s 2022 offense was a mixed bag. However, they played their best game in a long time (particularly throwing the ball) vs. Wake last year. Not only did DJU play an amazing game, his often underwhelming receiving corps stepped up to make plays in a way they really struggled to do in most of the other games. Clemson’s OL last year was on point with pass protection, often giving DJU an inordinate amount of time to find someone. That will hopefully get repeated this time out.
There has been some negative stuff about Clemson’s offensive line coming out of last week’s game. However, they actually graded well as a group and earned PFF’s award for the week. Mitchell Mayes had a poor game and that made some of the entire thing look bad, but the grading suggests that some of the unsuccessful runs and pressures Cade faced were more about a poor read by a running back or protection mistake by a back or tight end vs. blitzes. Wake typically doesn’t throw as much at you as Syracuse does but is less likely to get cooked on a double move the way we saw Beaux Collins serve it up last week. That play was a textbook example of max protecting a blitz and exposing an aggressive corner.
Thank all the powers that be that Clemson offered and signed Tyler Brown. To me, this just shows that signing legit speed is always a good move even if you think a guy needs to be polished. Tennessee did this with Jalin Hyatt and Brown has proven to be far more advanced as a player than the staff initially thought. Brown is bringing legitimate WR1 play to the unit in a way not seen since Amari Rodgers. It hasn’t taken long for Garrett Riley to start dialing up new ways to get Brown the ball, such as that sweet reverse they ran last week.
Cade Klubnik took another step last week as a whole. He still has a moment or two where you shake your head, but plays like that first TD where he avoided a corner blitz and made a beautiful throw on the run to Stellato shows you he can enter the realm of a Watson or Lawrence. The WR will typically respond to this by running routes harder and never giving up because they know they might see the ball. It is one thing to coach that, and there is no doubt Clemson does coach it, but when guys actually believe it the way Watson’s WR and Lawrence’s WR believed it, you will notice a difference.
Syracuse worked hard to stop Will Shipley and Phil Mafah. Shipley had one of his worst games in terms of reading where things were coming from which contributed to his tough day. I would expect him to bounce back and be better this week. Still, if teams are going to load up on the run, Clemson has to make some plays over the top, and we saw that finally happen last week. As long as Clemson continues to take care of the ball and can cut down on a few of those pre-snap penalties, this offense should be cracking 500 yards in the near future.
It will be interesting to see how the staff re-incorporates Antonio Williams into the offense when he is ready to play again. That might be this week or after the bye week. Tyler Brown is clearly too good to be a backup at this point and Williams is also one of the best 3 WR on the team. They should be cross-trained enough to use both Brown and Williams together in most, if not all, packages.
Special Teams: Another week, another missed FG from Clemson placekicking. Robert Gunn wasn’t even on the travel roster to Syracuse and Aidan Swanson handled the kickoffs (and did well). Swinney seems all in on Weitz despite his shaky start so at this point we just have to hope he can find some consistency. There are bound to be some more tight battles on this schedule where that aspect could very well make or break the game (like with Florida State). We all saw how important B.T. Potter was in this game last year. And while I haven’t been as hard on the OL as our man Quacking Tiger, I am definitely in full agreement on his assessment of the punt block/return team effort. That should be a lot better than it has been. I can understand not selling out for blocks but if you aren’t doing that, get your return game buttoned up so this phase could actually be a plus.
Overall: Clemson is a three TD favorite in this game and should win going away. Obviously we have seen the Tigers find some very creative ways to set up the opponent for success and that could change anything quickly (as we even saw in the Charleston Southern game). It is Homecoming, and the team is rounding into shape before the pivotal post bye stretch of challenging games. There is still an awful lot to play for and I think this team is ready to take another step in the right direction.