After a double-overtime loss at North Carolina State last week, No. 19 Clemson will return home Saturday to take on Boston College at Memorial Stadium. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. on ESPN.
The Tigers (2-2, 1-1 ACC) will look to avoid their first losing streak of the season. So what do they need to do to prevent that from happening against the Eagles? Here are three keys:
Keep the offense on the field (and the defense off it)
Dabo Swinney called the fact that Clemson even had a chance to win at the end against N.C. State a miracle — and not because the Tigers don’t have talent.
It was because of the Wolfpack’s utter dominance in time of possession and play differential. Clemson’s offensive ineptitude after its first scoring drive early in the first quarter kept quickly putting N.C. State’s offense back on the field. By the time regulation was over, the Wolfpack had held the ball for nearly 42 minutes and run 87 plays to Clemson’s 40. The final play tally? N.C. State 96(!), Clemson 49.
Simply put, Clemson can’t be this lethargic on offense and expect its defense to hold up all season. N.C. State’s offense found the going much easier against Clemson late in regulation and in overtime in large part because the Tigers’ defense was gassed, so keeping the unit fresh would go a long way toward helping the group continue to perform at a high level. Not to mention the offense could use as many snaps as possible in order to maximize its scoring opportunities with the way it’s performing right now.
Also, the Tigers’ defense is going to have more inexperience at some key spots with injuries starting to pile up on that side of the ball. Bryan Bresee (torn ACL) and Tyler Davis (bicep surgery) are both out, and whether or not linebacker James Skalski (shoulder) plays Saturday remains to be seen. Having to play more snaps is not only a concern in terms of fatigue, but it also increases the chances of younger players making mistakes, which Clemson can’t afford too much of right now.
Get better push up front (and on the perimeter)
After seeing the success Georgia Tech had defending Clemson by dropping more defenders than not into coverage, N.C. State largely copied that blueprint. The Wolfpack mixed things up at times on the back end of their defense, but for the most part, N.C. State rotated between three- and four-man fronts and dared the Tigers to once again run the ball. Clemson again couldn’t do it consistently, which is becoming a major issue.
Whether it be getting beat on blocks or missing them all together, the offensive line, particularly on the interior, isn’t holding up in the run game even when defenses aren’t stacking the box. Until quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (Clemson’s leading rusher last week, by the way) scrambled for 37 yards late in the fourth quarter, Clemson was averaging less than 2 yards a carry against N.C. State. The Tigers’ 103 yards on the ground dropped them to 99th out of 130 FBS teams in rushing (126 yards per game).
Running backs are occasionally missing holes and cutback lanes, too, but there haven’t been many of those. The offensive line simply has to get more push at the point of attack, particularly when the numbers are even or in Clemson’s favor up front, and help the Tigers become far more consistent running the ball before defenses will think about playing them much differently.
The blocking issues haven’t been confined to the line, though. Even when the Tigers try to take advantage of the few occasions that they have numbers on the outside with quick screens and run-pass options, missed blocks by the receivers haven’t allowed those plays to go anywhere. It won’t get any easier against a Boston College defense that ranks 21st nationally in yards allowed, but that needs to change in a hurry.
Clean up the penalties (and force a turnover)
While most of the defense’s time spent on the field last week was a result of the offense’s lack of production (seven three-and-outs in an eight-possession span will do that), the unit also kept itself on the field longer than it needed to at times with penalties. Clemson was flagged for six offside penalties, including a pair on N.C. State’s first scoring drive.
In all, the Tigers committed a whopping 13 penalties for 94 yards last week. Clemson’s margin for error isn’t nearly big enough to overcome that degree of self-harm right now.
And if wouldn’t hurt if the defense could giving the offense an extra possession here and there by taking the ball way from the opposition. As well as Clemson’s defense has performed for the most part this season, that’s been one area that’s lacked. The Tigers have forced just four turnovers through the first four games and sit at minus-1 in turnover margin for the season.