Clemson’s final ACC test will undoubtedly be its stiffest thanks in large part to an offense that’s unlike anything the Tigers have seen to this point.
Wake Forest has emerged as one of college football’s biggest surprises this season. The 13th-ranked Demon Deacons (9-1, 6-0 ACC) control their own destiny in the ACC’s Atlantic Division with one of the country’s most dynamic attacks. This week, it’s Clemson’s turn to try to slow down an offense that ranks in the top 10 nationally in yards and points. Only Ohio State is scoring more frequently than the Demon Deacons, who are putting up 44.7 points on average.
Clemson (7-3, 5-2) has faced some high-scoring offenses this season. Georgia, Pittsburgh, North Carolina State and Louisville are all averaging at least 30 points — each good for top 55 nationally — but it’s how Wake Forest goes about it that makes the Demon Deacons particularly potent.
“They try to put you in conflict probably better than anybody we’ll see all year,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
Zone read running plays and run-pass options aren’t exactly new to offenses with spread principles. Clemson uses both. But Wake Forest is different in how it executes some of those with a slower mesh point than usual.
The mesh point happens when the quarterback puts the ball in the stomach of the running back and reads how the defense plays it before deciding to either let the back take the ball or keep it for a run or pass. For most quarterbacks, that decision, based usually on whether or not the defensive end or edge rusher crashes down, is made in a split second.
That’s rarely the case for Wake Forest’s Sam Hartman, who will ride out the mesh longer. That more deliberate approach leaves defensive players in limbo longer as to who’s actually getting the ball.
“It’s very challenging on a lot of levels,” Venables said. “The execution, the precision, the timeliness of it, the explosiveness of it, it’s like playing a triple option team in a lot of ways. They force you to defend every patch of grass that’s out there. And then they go at warp speed. Nobody probably goes as fast as these guys, and they can execute at a very high level despite that. So that’s abnormal, too.”
Not many defenses have had success slowing down the Demon Deacons, particularly through the air. Hartman is the eighth-leading passer in the Football Bowl Subdivision (316.3 yards per game).
He has a dangerous pair of receivers to throw to in A.T. Perry and Jaquarii Roberson, the fifth- and sixth-leading receivers in the ACC, respectively. Perry, a matchup problem for most defenses at 6-foot-5, is tied for the conference lead with 11 touchdown receptions while Roberson has hauled in eight touchdowns.
“It’s the best group of receivers we’ve seen all year. Period,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “They’re outstanding.”
Venables said Clemson has to defend Wake Forest like it would an option team, which comes with an emphasis on eye discipline and gap integrity. The Tigers are allowing the third-fewest points in the country and also rank in the top 3 in the ACC in rushing yards allowed, sacks and tackles for loss, so Clemson may have the best defense Wake Forest has seen so far.
But it’s not just the defensive line that needs to be disciplined if the Tigers hope to fare better against an offense averaging 51 points over its last five games.
“Everybody’s got to play well,” Venables said. “You have to play well in every patch of grass whether it’s the A gap and you’re the nose guard or you’re the strong safety playing outside leverage. Everybody needs to do their job, play with great precision and play well consistently.”
Clemson had success doing that last season when the Tigers held Hartman and the rest of Wake Forest’s offense to 4.6 yards per play. Hartman went just 11 of 21 passing for 182 yards and was sacked four times before being replaced in the fourth quarter of a 37-13 road win for Clemson, which had nine first-time defensive starters in that season opener.
This year’s test will come against a much more confident and connected Wake Forest offense, Venables said.
“They’ve got a veteran group that’s playing really well,” Venables said. “They’ve got a veteran quarterback. The timing, the precision, the cohesion up front, all of it is just that. It’s cohesive.”
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