After last week’s close call against Georgia Tech, No. 7 Clemson will take its show on the road for the first time this season (not counting the neutral-site opener against Georgia) Saturday to North Carolina State. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. at Carter Finley Stadium.
The Tigers (2-1, 1-0 ACC) have won eight straight in the series dating back to 2012. So what does Clemson have to do to keep that streak alive against the Wolfpack? Here are three keys:
It might be cliche, but given everything at play here, this may be more important than any game the Tigers have played to this point. Clemson has only trailed in one game so far, but even that 10-3 deficit to Georgia felt like a lot more than one possession throughout the second half with the way Clemson’s offense was performing.
A lot of offenses are going to struggle against the Bulldogs, but Clemson hasn’t been much better since. At least not against FBS competition. Now Clemson is taking an offense averaging just 22 points a game into what can be one of the ACC’s more hostile environments when it’s at full capacity, which Carter Finley Stadium will be come Saturday afternoon.
Based on what the offense has shown to this point, Clemson, which has scored just two touchdowns against FBS foes this season, isn’t built to play from behind. If you’re the Tigers, you also don’t want your young quarterback and young(ish) offensive line pressing and trying to do too much, which can be human nature when you fall behind the eight-ball.
Landing the first punch would go a long way toward helping the Tigers’ younger players settle in and quieting what figures to a rowdy home crowd for N.C. State to begin the game.
Adjust and execute offensively
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney likened Georgia Tech’s defensive game plan — routinely dropping seven or eight into coverage to try to keep everything in front — to an ambush the Tigers’ offense wasn’t prepared for since they hadn’t seen much of it on film from the Yellow Jackets leading up to last week’s game.
Clemson eventually tweaked its plan of attack and did just enough on the ground to muster enough points in a 14-8 win. Swinney and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said they’re expecting the Tigers to see more of that from opposing defenses.
So whether it’s running the ball more like Clemson did last week (season-high 41 attempts), getting quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei more involved with his legs (season-high eight rushes last week) or attacking the middle of the field (what’s supposed to be the defense’s vulnerability when taking that approach) with shorter elements of the passing game, there’s no excuse for Clemson to not have an answer for whatever N.C. State throws at the Tigers schematically.
But implementing a more favorable offensive game plan and executing it are two different things. Uiagalelei has yet to connect on some of the deeper throws when given the chance, and the retooled offensive line hasn’t always been on the same page in terms of technique and communication. The Tigers are averaging just 4 yards per rush so far this season partly because defenders that should be blocked are instead roaming around the line of scrimmage and in the backfield at times, something Clemson has got to clean up.
Elliott and Swinney have vowed to have the offense better prepared for whatever it might see from the Wolfpack this weekend. The Tigers can further help themselves immensely by cutting down on some of the inaccuracies in the passing game and the missed assignments and mental errors up front.
Speaking of execution…
Stop putting the ball on the ground
“Got to stop turning that ball over though. I can tell you that.”
That’s the way Swinney finished his answer to a question earlier this week about his offense’s lack of big-play production. So, yes, let’s broaden this to include all turnovers, but what Swinney was primarily referring to was the alarming rate at which his team is fumbling the ball through three games.
Somehow, the Tigers have put the ball on the ground 11 times already. Even more wild? Clemson has only lost two of them, matching the number of interceptions Uiagalelei has thrown. To say the Tigers have been fortunate in that regard is an understatement, but that luck figures to run out if they continue to have issues holding onto the ball.
Clemson has been dominant under Swinney when winning the turnover battle (78-6), but both of the Tigers’ wins this season have come when finishing even or in the red in that department. South Carolina State and Georgia Tech were far inferior opponents than Georgia, though. That’s not the case this week.
With N.C. State’s offense having to deal with Clemson’s defense and the Tigers’ struggling offense going up against a Wolfpack defense that’s been pretty salt itself, Saturday’s game could play out like the Georgia game where one critical mistake ultimately decides the outcome.
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!