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Clemson vs. Charleston Southern: Can Clemson Get Their First Win of the Season?

Licking Wounds and Searching for Respect

NCAA Football: Clemson at Duke Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

I will admit I’ve had a very hard time getting myself motivated to write this game preview. Last week, after an entire offseason of anticipation, was about as deflating a game as I can remember. I would probably say 2008 was the last time an opener had me feeling this way. Losses to UGA in 2014 and 2021 were disappointing but I knew those were going to be very tough games and those UGA teams were loaded. Even Bama in 2008 was coming off a mediocre 2007 and it was hard to imagine they would get as good as they were that fast, especially when the Tigers came in ranked in the top 10 with very high expectations.

But Bama is a name brand regardless of whatever mulls their program may have gone through. This was Duke. Mike Elko has been a miracle worker since arriving and they were more than ready to take advantage of the truckload of mistakes the Tigers made throughout the game.

The narrative now has shifted from Clemson’s push for the playoffs to Clemson’s attempt to hold on to relevancy. The buzzards have been forming ready to attack Dabo’s program since the end of the 2020 season. While other conference contenders like Florida State and North Carolina were making emphatic statements in their favor, Clemson has been a punchline for the naysayers and even winning 80-0 this weekend won’t change it. The Tigers have two weeks to figure something out before an extremely confident Seminoles team comes to town looking to bury the Tigers before Halloween even arrives.

Clemson offense vs. CSU defense: New year, same story. Clemson’s QB and WR play just wasn’t close to good enough despite an offense that churned out over 200 yards rushing and 29 first downs. You have to execute in the passing game to be elite in this current age and the Tigers still appear to be a long way from being able to do that. Duke came out with a lot of 2 and 3 deep looks challenging Cade and the WR to make reads and make guys miss in space. Clemson’s OL suffered from a career-worst performance from RT Blake Miller, who continues to struggle as a pass protector. Somehow Miller played every snap at RT despite this. The WR’s yards after catch numbers were really poor considering how many underneath throws Clemson had to go to. This is when they weren’t dropping passes at critical times. Cade’s best throw of the night was dropped by Cole Turner.

CSU shouldn’t come close to being able to match up on defense and though they likely will try to mimic some of what Duke and Tennessee employed against Cade, they won’t have the veteran athletes that Duke had to match up. Even still, Clemson’s focus has got to be getting Cade in a rhythm and building his confidence in game-time situations. Clemson’s WR corps also needs to step it up and show they can create some explosive plays even if a typical deep post or go route is taken away by the coverage alignments. Any sputtering drives, particularly early in this game, will have the inaugural home crowd extremely restless without a doubt.

Clemson defense vs. CSU offense: Last week’s defensive performance had me flashing back to the days of Vic Koenning. They were good for stretches of the game, but they weren’t good enough and broke at some bad times. Riley Leonard put on a clinic of how to play smart quarterback despite having mostly pedestrian passing numbers. His running ability forced the Tigers into more zone coverages and he simply got rid of the ball when sacks were imminent like a smart QB should do. His pivotal TD run was a major turning point in the game because Clemson had dominated the third quarter up to that point.

Thankfully CSU won’t have a guy with Leonard’s skills behind center and you would think Clemson’s front should have him running for his life. I definitely need to see better tackling across the board. The comments from Barrett Carter about conditioning were troubling, to say the least. It makes zero sense to me when he has to know he’s going to play every meaningful snap because Clemson’s backup LBs are all super inexperienced.

On a positive note, I loved what I saw out of Andrew Mukuba and T.J. Parker. XT was also pretty good and should have drawn at least two holding penalties that somehow didn’t get called. Mukuba looked like his old self and was very fast and decisive. Hopefully, Wade Woodaz’s nearly 90 grade will equate to more snaps even if it means Carter or Trotter have a few less. How you play has to matter even if you are a preseason All-American.

Special Teams: I said last week that turnovers and special teams plays are always at the root of an upset. Well, lo and behold last week’s upset featured plenty of both as Clemson’s two FG attempts were blocked due to poor protection, slow to the kick time, AND low and poorly struck kicks by Robert Gunn. Clemson also got out-punted (again) and couldn’t generate anything substantial in the return game. Duke’s lone gaffe on a botched return of a rugby punt kept this unit from getting a very hard F grade.

Ideally, Gunn will overcome what was a disastrous first outing. Real games under real lights are different and you just never know how players are going to react. Kicking is so mental that you really worry about how Gunn will be, but either he or one of the other kickers he competed with needs to figure it out quickly.

Overall: I’m not even going to predict a score for a game like this. Clemson should win handily and anything other than having this game put to bed at halftime will have the fire alarms going off in every Clemson fan’s house. This game is about Clemson figuring out how to not beat itself.