After giving up 173 passing yards in the first half to Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey, including a 51-yard completion to Taj Harris to set up a second-quarter touchdown, Clemson’s secondary grew up a little bit in the second half last Saturday.
Though Dungey completed 10-of-18 passes in the second half, he threw for just 77 yards and no completions were longer than 20 yards, which came on the Orange’s first offensive play of the third quarter.
“I think after five games we’ve really come a long way,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said during Wednesday’s ACC Coaches’ Teleconference.
The first five games have been an unusual situation for the Tigers’ secondary. In three of the first four games, they faced triple-option teams in Furman, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech. So, they did not get many looks in those games, plus the looks they did get were very unconventional in the way the passing game has evolved in college football.
Plus, the looks they have seen against Syracuse and Texas A&M were different as well. Syracuse is a spread you out and get the ball in space to their playmakers, while A&M runs a pro-style scheme and attacks a defense differently in the passing game.
It will not get any different this week for fourth-ranked Clemson when it heads to Winston-Salem, N.C., on Saturday (3:30 p.m.) to take on Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons also run an unconventional style of offense and the passing game is a whole lot different than what Syracuse and Texas A&M do.
“They’re a challenge because of how their whole offense is built around the run game and the play action game, the RPOs,” Swinney said. “They do a really good job. As I said earlier, I think they’re second in the league in rushing, 240 something yards a game. But they’re a challenge because– they’re not Georgia Tech. But, they’re Georgia Techish, if you will, because of the discipline you have to play with your gaps.
“And the way they run their action game with the quarterback and the back are really – it’s a very slow developing run. They’re really trying to just be slow with the play action and force you to come up and then they try to create these passing windows with the RPOs. So, it’s a real challenge.”
Wake Forest (3-2, 0-1 ACC) ranks in the top six in every major offensive category, including second in total yards (487.6 ypg) behind the Tigers. The Deacons are averaging 244.4 yards per game on the ground and 243.2 through the air.
Quarterback Sam Hartman is third in the ACC in pass yards per game with 237.0. The freshman has thrown for 1,185 yards with 10 touchdowns and five interceptions thus far.
So far, Clemson’s secondary allowed A&M’s Kellen Mond and Dungey—the two true quarterbacks they have played—to complete 49-of-81 passes (60.4 percent) for 680 yards, 3 touchdowns and 1 interception.
However, after giving up 430 yards and three touchdowns to Mond, Dungey threw for just 250 yards and no touchdowns and one interception. Keep in mind the Tigers did that with true freshman Kyler McMichael playing in the game after starter Trayvon Mullen was hurt and his backup, senior Mark Fields, was suspended for the game.
“It’s been kind of an unusual process for us because three of our five games were triple-option teams and then we play Texas A&M, which threw the ball and … we played well for the most of the game, but then we had some really critical mistakes and busts on the back end,” Swinney said. “Then we came back, and we played so much better against Syracuse on the back end. We gave up a big play. But we were where we were supposed to be. Their guy just made a play, as opposed to just busts and not being there and so forth.
“So, I’m really proud of our guys because it’s been a little bit of a challenge with just the different styles of play week in and week out. We haven’t had a lot of consistency for the back-end guys. So, I know that they’re excited to be able to be a little more involved from a passing-game standpoint and the opportunity to defend the pass a little bit more.”