One of the nation’s most explosive offenses will take the field inside Memorial Stadium on Saturday, but it won’t be coming from the home sideline.
It’s a harsh reality that’s still taking some getting used to 10 games into this season for Clemson’s players, coaches and fans, who’ve watched the Tigers go from a juggernaut on that side of the ball to a unit that’s still trying to find its footing and, at times, looks like it’s stuck in place. The Tigers have had their moments, particularly in the back half of the season, but Clemson enters its home finale against No. 10 Wake Forest on Saturday still looking for a complete performance.
“We’re chasing that,” said offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, whose unit still ranks no better than 95th out of 130 FBS teams in yards or points.
Meanwhile, Wake Forest’s offense is humming behind big plays reminiscent of what the Tigers produced consistently during their six-year run in the College Football Playoff that will come to an end this season. With a unique approach that utilizes a slower mesh point than most spread teams, the Demon Deacons (44.7 points per game) trail only Ohio State nationally in scoring, having dropped at least 35 points against everyone they’ve played to this point. They’ve been even better down the stretch, averaging 51 points over their last five games.
With a fourth-year sophomore at quarterback in Sam Hartman and two of the ACC’s top six receivers in A.T. Perry and Jaquarii Roberson, Wake Forest is averaging 318 passing yards with 28 of its pass plays covering at least 30 yards. That’s tied for the most in the country.
“They put a lot of stress on you coverage-wise because of how they force you to play with their scheme,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve got to do a great job outside. We’ve got to win matchups. It’s not real complicated. You’ve got to win on the ball. Simple as that.”
The defense will get a boost with the expected return of top cornerback Andrew Booth (stinger), who was held out of last week’s game against Connecticut as a precaution. Clemson, which is yielding the third-fewest points in the country, will easily be the best defense Wake Forest has seen all season, but the Demon Deacons will counter with perhaps the most complete offense the Tigers have faced. They have a formidable ground game to complement what they do through the air, ranking 50th nationally in rushing (180.4 yards per game).
Wake Forest’s potency could force Clemson’s offense to have to keep up in a game that still has some meaning for the Tigers. The Demon Deacons, which are still unbeaten in ACC play, still have two conference games left while this is it for Clemson, so the Tigers have to win in order to keep hope alive of forcing a tiebreaker scenario atop the Atlantic Division standings that puts them in the conference title game for a seventh straight year. There’s also a 33-game home winning streak on the line — the nation’s longest active streak — on Senior Day.
The offense may need its most efficient showing of the season to pull all of that off considering the opponent, but it’s no different than the unit’s usual mindset, even if it hasn’t always gone according to plan.
“We want to score every time we get on the field or at least reserve the right to kick. That’s our offensive theory,” Elliott said. “We say let’s put an emphasis on kicking extra points after scoring touchdowns but at least get ourselves in position to get a field goal.
“Not going to put the pressure on myself or the players. We understand that this is the biggest game of the season because it’s the one we have right now. There are going to be a lot of factors around the game from an emotional standpoint that we can’t let drain us or get to us, and then we’ve just got to focus on clean execution and then make sure that we not only match but we exceed the level of effort and want-to of our opponent.”
The offense took some baby steps in wins over Florida State and Louisville, pulling off late fourth-quarter comebacks to crack the 20-point mark in regulation in back-to-back games for the first time all season. The running game had also found a bit of a groove, averaging 165 yards in its five games before a vastly inferior UConn team showed up at Memorial Stadium last weekend.
Which made the step back Clemson took against the Huskies all the more head-scratching. The Tigers finished with more than 450 yards of offense in a runaway win, but things were choppy even before they began clearing their bench.
Swinney said he didn’t think D.J. Uiagalelei’s sprained right knee affected his accuracy all that much, but Clemson’s quarterback completed just 21 of 44 passes with a touchdown and an interception while playing the better part of three quarters. And Clemson’s offensive line was bullied at times by the interior of UConn’s defensive front, which played a part in the Tigers rushing for just 129 yards on 43 carries (3.1 yards per carry).
Clemson on Saturday is expected to get back its top two running backs, Will Shipley (knee) and Kobe Pace (concussion), and starting guard Will Putnam (ankle), who, like Booth, were all held out to give them an extra week to get back closer to full strength. But like it has almost on a weekly basis, the unit is dealing with more attrition.
Backup quarterback Taisun Phommachanh, who led a touchdown drive in the second quarter last week before injuring his shoulder, didn’t practice Monday, and whether he’ll be available as a changeup for an ailing Uiagalelei on Saturday is still unknown. Swinney said he’ll have a better idea later in the week as to how much Phommachanh will be able to do if he’s able to give it a go.
Clemson will also be without star receiver Justyn Ross, who aggravated a stress fracture in his foot against UConn and could be done for the rest of the season. With Joseph Ngata (foot) and Frank Ladson Jr. (groin) also out, that leaves E.J. Williams and true freshmen Beaux Collins and Dacari Collins as the Tigers’ top three wideouts this week.
“There are so many nuances this year that nobody saw coming,” reserve running back Darien Rencher said.
Clemson has won five of its last six games despite the offense’s general lack of fluidity and cohesion, but if there was ever a week the group needed to put it all together with what it’s got, this is it.
“It’s always something, but these guys continue to find a way to persevere and push through,” Elliott said. “So we’re going to build on that and put together the best plan.”
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