Two years ago, Clemson scored 41 points in a shutout of N.C. State in Death Valley. Last season, Clemson allowed 41 points to N.C. State in a shootout victory in Raleigh.
What was the difference in the two games defensively? Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said it’s quite simple.
“Just don’t think we got into a great rhythm, and the year before that, we were,” Venables said on Tuesday. “It’s really pretty simple.”
In 2014 against N.C. State, Clemson gave up just 154 total yards of offense, including 35 passing yards, and 12 first downs.
Last October, the Tigers yielded 389 yards of offense and five offensive touchdowns.
But it was the seven plays of 20-plus yards and the 213 kickoff return yards allowed that really prevented Clemson from developing the rhythm Venables pointed to.
The big plays made it easier for the Wolfpack to put up a big number on the scoreboard. Meanwhile, a kickoff return of 47 yards set them up with a short field on one occasion, and another kickoff return of 100 yards went for a touchdown.
“We didn’t get into a great rhythm defensively last year. Played well in parts and were feast or famine,” Venables said. “In the kicking game, we didn’t help ourselves. … Then we gave up some big plays, and you have a ball game.”
Venables believes the N.C. State offense Clemson will face at 12 p.m. on Saturday in Death Valley is more productive than the one Clemson saw last year.
The Wolfpack’s attack is led by former Boise State quarterback Ryan Finley, who transferred to N.C. State over the offseason. The redshirt sophomore reunited with former Boise State offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz, who joined N.C. State’s staff in January.
Finley is fourth in the nation in completion percentage and has thrown for nine touchdowns this season without an interception.
“He’s a veteran guy that’s in a system that he’s very familiar with, so it’s not his first time going out there playing and competing and leading,” Venables said. “So, they’re fortunate to get a good pickup like that, along with his coach. Between the two of them, I think they understand the system inside and out, and it shows in how they’re playing, how effective they’ve been in installing a new system and really being even more productive than they were a year ago.”
At running back, senior Matt Dayes leads the charge. Dayes ranks second among running backs in the ACC with 563 yards rushing and seventh with a 5.7 yards-per-carry average.
“Terrific player,” Venables said. “They lost him, I believe, after our game a year ago, and that was a big loss for them. He’s got great vision, very explosive, patient runner, plays strong, plays behind his pads well. Great complement for their system. Very good player.”
But the biggest playmaker on N.C. State’s offense is junior Jaylen Samuels, who leads the team with four touchdowns and 21 receptions.
Samuels is listed as a tight end slash fullback on N.C. State’s roster, but Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said he does it all for N.C. State offensively.
“They use him in a lot of ways. It’s hard to really classify him,” Swinney said. “He’s kind of a tweener, but he can run it, he can catch it, he blocks. … He’s a dynamic player that has hurt us. He is a very good player.”
Venables said the biggest difference he’s noticed in N.C. State on offense this year as opposed to last year is the way the Wolfpack utilize their receivers.
“I think they’re using their receivers more,” Venables said. “I think they were blockers systematically a year ago, and I think with their receivers there’s more depth there. There’s more playmakers, they’re utilizing them more, they’re attacking you more vertically, they’re making those plays. They’re long, big, have some speed and they’re deeper there. You can see there’s been an emphasis.”
Through five games, N.C. State has averaged 444 yards and 34 points per game.
The Wolfpack present another challenge for Clemson, which is looking for a result more akin to the 2014 contest against N.C. State than the 2015 one.
“They have a little bit more of a spread concept that they’re using, combined with some of the other things that they have always done,” Venables said. “But I think they’re older, wiser, more mature and more confident in their skill players.”