After a week off to rest and recalibrate, No. 25 Clemson returns to action Friday with a trip to Syracuse. Kickoff from the Carrier Dome is set for 7 p.m. on ESPN.
The Tigers (3-2, 2-1 ACC) will look to start their second winning streak of the season. So what will they have to do to accomplish that against the Orange (3-3, 0-2)? Here are three keys:
Score six instead of three
In a way, Clemson had its best offensive showing against an FBS team its last time out against Boston College. The Tigers rolled up nearly 450 yards of total offense thanks in large part to a running game (231 yards) that finally got going and opened up everything else.
The Tigers only had four three-and-outs and reached Boston College territory on eight of their 13 possessions, but they played with fire in another white-knuckler because they kicked field goals instead of scoring touchdowns. B.T. Potter trotted out four times on drives that at least reached the Eagles’ 25-yard line, one of them getting inside the 5 in the second quarter.
Fortunately for Clemson, its veteran kicker connected on all four of those field goals. The only time the Tigers reached the end zone was on Kobe Pace’s 59-yard touchdown run. It’s led to one word more than any other from Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and many offensive players when discussing what the focus has been for the unit since then: Finish.
The Tigers, who are averaging less than 15 points against FBS competition, will need to if they’re going to win on the road for the first time this season. Syracuse is averaging more than 31 points per game and put up 37 at home last week to push unbeaten Wake Forest to the brink in overtime.
Force Garrett Shrader to throw
This is another way of saying Clemson needs to stop the run. And as cliche as that can sound over the course of a football season, there might not be a week that’s more true for the Tigers than this one.
There’s no guessing as to what Syracuse’s identity is on offense. The Orange want to run the ball. Then they want to run it some more. And then some more. Running back Sean Tucker (791 yards) leads the ACC in rushing, in part, because he’s got the second-most carries (133) of anyone in the league. In fact, among conference teams, only Duke (288 carries) has the run the ball more than the Orange (267) to this point.
Quarterback Garrett Shrader is a big part of Syracuse’s ground game, too. A former receiver at Mississippi State, Shrader has run the ball (75 carries) nearly as much as he’s thrown it (85 pass attempts). His eight rushing touchdowns trail only Tucker for the team lead.
But Clemson, which is allowing just 102 yards per game on the ground, will statistically be the second-best run defense Syracuse has seen all season. And if the Tigers can force Syracuse out of its element and make Shrader have to beat them with his arm, then it’s advantage Clemson. Shrader, who’s completing just 57% of his passes, has attempted more than 20 passes in just two games this season. Syracuse lost both of them (Florida State and Wake Forest).
Win the turnover margin
How important does this continue to be for the Tigers? Well, they may not have pulled it out against Boston College without finishing plus-3 in the turnover battle. Two of those led to six points, which was the winning margin.
Clemson hadn’t forced many turnovers until getting two interceptions and a last-minute fumble against Boston College. If the Tigers could finish plus-3 or better in the turnover margin Friday, it would be the first time they’ve done so in back-to-back games since 2007.
More importantly, it would give the offense more chances to score and increase Clemson’s chances of getting out of New York with another win, something the Tigers are used to doing a lot under Swinney, particularly when gaining more turnovers than they lose. They’re 79-6 under Swinney when doing that.
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