After a one-year hiatus, Clemson-Carolina is back. And the Tigers will be looking for their seventh straight win over the Gamecocks on Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium.
What do the Tigers need to do to give themselves the best chance of pulling that off on the road? Here are three keys:
Stop the run
Clemson’s run defense has been even better than usual the last two weeks. The Tigers suffocated Connecticut and Wake Forest to the tune of 15 net yards on the ground. The Demon Deacons had just 36 on the ground last week.
Not since the ’50s has Clemson held back-to-back opponents to that low of a rushing total. That kind of performance for a third straight week is asking a lot, but if the Tigers can be anywhere in the same ballpark, it would help their chances given South Carolina’s quarterback situation.
The Gamecocks aren’t exactly a juggernaut on the ground (129.7 rushing yards per game), but it’s how they’d prefer to move the ball now that Jason Brown, who started the season as their third-string quarterback, is behind center. Running back ZaQuandre White (6.9 yards per carry) has been the spark.
Brown took over as the starter three games ago against Florida. In wins over the Gators and, most recently, Auburn, Carolina ran the ball 44 more times than it threw it. In their only loss during that span — a 31-28 setback to Missouri — the Gamecocks’ run-pass split (30-35) was much more even.
Bottom line for Clemson’s defense: Get Carolina’s offense out of its comfort zone and make Brown have to beat you with his arm.
When the Tigers are on offense…
Run the ball
This is becoming a need as much as it is a want for Clemson given where the offense stands from an attrition standpoint.
Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei is still dealing with that sprained right knee and a bum index finger on his throwing hand, though neither seemed to affect him as much against Wake Forest last week. Meanwhile, the Tigers’ receiving corps, which is already without Justyn Ross, Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson Jr. and might be without E.J. Williams (leg) for the second straight week, continues to take hits.
The Tigers still managed to make some plays through the air last week, but it was their running game that carried them. Behind a healthier offensive line, Clemson broke out for a season-high 333 rushing yards in that 21-point bludgeoning of Wake Forest, racking up more than 6 yards per tote.
Kobe Pace and Will Shipley are healthy again, too. And it showed against the Demon Deacons with each going for more than 100 yards on the ground.
Can the Tigers go for three bills again? That’s asking a lot, too. But Carolina’s defense has been susceptible against the run all season, allowing the fourth-most rushing yards in the SEC on average (171.1 per game). Auburn’s Tank Bigsby just got done averaging 7.5 yards on 22 carries against the Gamecocks.
The running game once again needs to take the pressure off a passing game missing a lot of key contributors. If it does, that should help Clemson complete enough passes to keep Carolina’s defense honest.
Win the turnover margin
To know Clemson’s record under Dabo Swinney when it wins the turnover battle (80-6) is to understand just how key this part of the game is for the Tigers every week. But being on the road against a team that thrives off takeaways takes the importance to another level.
Carolina had made a living off taking the ball away from its opponents this season. Only seven teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision have done it more often than the Gamecocks, who have forced 22 turnovers. Their 14 interceptions — another reason why it would behoove Clemson to stay out of obvious passing situations as often as possible — are tops in the SEC.
The Tigers are coming off one of their worst games in terms of ball security. Their three turnovers (two fumbles and an interception) against Wake Forest matched a season-high. Clemson forced three of its own, including two deep in the Demon Deacons’ own territory, to offset that.
Clemson hasn’t been all that good at winning the turnover margin this season. Only three times have the Tigers actually forced more turnovers than they’ve lost. If that happens Saturday, things could get weird inside Willams-Brice at night.
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