As Clemson begins a stretch it hopes ends with another Atlantic Coast Conference Championship, it will have to do it this time with a freshman quarterback.
On Saturday, Trevor Lawrence will start his third game for the third-ranked Tigers and this one might be his toughest one to date. Clemson will host No. 15 NC State for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff at Memorial Stadium.
The Wolfpack, like the Tigers, are undefeated and are hungry to win a championship of their own. The winner will gain control of the Atlantic Division and will have a clear path to the ACC Championship Game on Dec. 1 in Charlotte, N.C.
For Clemson (6-0, 3-0 ACC) to get there, it might have to rely on Lawrence’s arm, especially in Saturday’s matchup with NC State. The Tigers rank second in the ACC in rushing offense (280.8 /game) and fourth nationally.
“Teams are going to try and figure us out one way or the other,” Lawrence said. “We have so many good receivers, put also we are running the ball really well right now. So, (defenses) are trying to figure out how to have a balanced attack on us.”
It is doubtful NC State, third in the ACC in rushing defense, is going to allow Clemson to win the game on Travis Etienne and company’s powerful legs.
“You have to stop the run,” NC State head coach Dave Doeren said. “What makes them challenging is their tailback is the fastest guy on the field. When (Etienne) is in the game, he is super explosive.
“Each week you’ve got a different challenge in this conference. When you play Clemson, it’s always the explosive plays you’re concerned about from a defensive standpoint. He just adds a different dimension to their run game.”
If the Pack (5-0, 2-0 ACC) is concentrating on Etienne and the running game, then that will leave things open for Lawrence and his talented receivers—Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers and Justyn Ross—to have one-one-one opportunities on the outside.
“That is a big thing we look for all the time, really,” Lawrence said. “It is definitely exciting seeing one of our receivers with a good matchup on one of those guys.”
It can be even more interesting considering NC State ranks 11th in the ACC in passing yards allowed, giving up 234.0 per game.
“They have a receiving corps that, as always, has playmakers in it and guys that can run after the catch and big long guys that can run by you on the outside,” Doeren said. “I think Lawrence has been very impressive in what he has done. He’s got a great arm. He’s got a quick release. He can make every throw. He has made good decisions. He has not turned the ball over much.”
That’s why Doeren says his defense must get Clemson in obvious passing situations and come after the freshman, make him uncomfortable and hope to force him into mistakes.
However, getting to the quarterback has not been as easy for the Wolfpack this year. They have just 13 sacks in five games for a 2.6 per game average, which ranks 8th in the conference.
However, even if NC State can get to Lawrence, Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney feels good about how his freshman quarterback will handle the pressures. Swinney says Lawrence’s demeanor and confidence in his abilities remind him a lot of Deshaun Watson.
“He is a lot like Deshaun in that he is not a loud leader. He is just loud by how he plays, practices and prepares,” Swinney said. “The old saying, ‘Your actions speak so loud I cannot hear what you are saying,’ right? That is who he is. He leads by his actions, his preparation, just the little things.
“Deshaun was that way. So, very similar in that he has just a very poised demeanor and a very humbled spirit to him. He is one of the lowest maintenance superstar type of player that you will ever be around. He has had an enormous amount of success for a long time, but he has an unbelievable amount of humility to him.”
The Tigers are hopeful that leads them to another ACC Championship.