ORLANDO, Fla. – The final day of the 2021 season is here for Clemson and Iowa State, which will square off in the Cheez-It Bowl at 5:45 p.m. inside Camping World Stadium.
Clemson (9-3) is vying for its 11th straight double-digit win season while Iowa State (7-5) will try for its second straight bowl win in the teams’ first-ever meeting. Both teams head into this one having undergone some alterations since the last time they played a game.
Here are five things to watch for once it’s kicked off:
Technically, Brandon Streeter has called plays before. He did so at the FCS level with Liberty and Richmond and also on an interim basis during the Tigers’ College Football Playoff semifinal against Ohio State last season.
But this will be the first time for Streeter and Wesley Goodwin to coordinate their respective groups since their promotions to their new titles following the departures of Brent Venables and Tony Elliott. What that might look like?
Streeter, Clemson’s quarterbacks coach for the last seven seasons, said he generally likes to be aggressive with his offensive play calling. Part of that, at least according to running back Will Shipley, is pushing the tempo.
As for Goodwin — Venables’ lesser-known right-hand man as Clemson’s senior defensive assistant — he also isn’t the type to sit back and let the opponent dictate things. As Goodwin put it, “I want to take the fight to the offense.”
Don’t expect Clemson to make any drastic changes to what it’s been doing on both sides of the ball under a couple of coaches who are well-versed with the systems already in place, but it’ll take more than one game for Streeter and Goodwin to add all of their flavor to it.
Still, today should provide a taste as to what that might be.
Clemson’s defense vs. Iowa State’s other RBs
Though Clemson has been one of the ACC’s top run defenses all season, it looked as if the Tigers might get tested this week by arguably the best running back they’ve seen all year.
But that won’t happen.
Iowa State’s star running back, Breece Hall, led the Big 12 in rushing during the regular season (1,464 yards). His 122 rushing yards per game rank sixth nationally while his 20 rushing touchdowns are tied for third. Only Syracuse’s Sean Tucker averaged more yards per game among the running backs Clemson has faced this season.
But Hall has opted out of the bowl game, leaving the Cyclones not only without one of the nation’s top rushers but also much more green in the backfield. Sophomore Jirehl Brock, the projected starter in Hall’s absence, has rushed for just 132 yards and one score. He’s combined with freshman Deon Silas for just 34 carries this season.
Iowa State’s leading available rusher? Quarterback Brock Purdy, who’s rushed for 224 yards.
Purdy is capable of being dangerous with his arm as the Big 12’s leading passer, but if he can’t get help from an effective running game sans Hall, will it matter?
Clemson’s offense vs. a stout Iowa State defense
Clemson isn’t the only team bringing a quality defense into this one.
Iowa State ranks in the top 21 nationally in points and yards allowed, which figures to be a stiff test for the Tigers’ up-and-down offense that’s still missing some key personnel. Clemson was better on that side of the ball over the last six games of the regular season behind a much-improved rushing attack, which included a 265-yard effort the last time out against South Carolina.
Of course, Clemson would increase its chance of being effective against the Cyclones if it can keep them honest through the air. Can D.J. Uiagalelei do that consistently?
It hasn’t happened often this season for the Tigers’ quarterback, who’s had his good moments but went just 9 of 19 for 99 yards with a pick in the regular-season finale against Carolina. And he’s still dealing with that sprained right knee.
If nothing else, Uiagalelei could use a high-note ending to take some confidence into the offseason.
Which receivers are available?
Speaking of offensive personnel, breaks continue to be hard to come by for Clemson out wide.
Swinney said a couple of weeks ago that star wideout Justyn Ross (foot surgery) was officially out for the bowl. Clemson got some good news when E.J. Williams (leg) returned to practice earlier this month after missing the last two games of the regular season, but Williams will miss the bowl because of COVID-19 protocols. Frank Ladson, whose season ended prematurely with a groin injury, has entered the transfer portal.
But Clemson may be getting its second-leading receiver, Joseph Ngata, back for today’s game. A foot injury sidelined Ngata late in the regular season, but he’s been practicing this week with no visible limitations. Freshmen Beaux Collins and Dacari Collins figure to keep getting plenty of reps regardless whether Ngata plays or not given the lack of depth at receiver. If Ngata doesn’t end up giving it a go, expect to see more of Will Swinney, too.
Next up at linebacker?
The Tigers were always going to have a couple of new opportunities at the second level of the defense next season with their veteran linebackers on the way out, but one of those opportunities is coming earlier than expected.
James Skalski will play his final game in a Clemson uniform along fellow linebacker Trenton Simpson, but Baylon Spector’s collegiate career is over after recently undergoing hand surgery that will keep him out of the bowl game. That leaves a vacancy at the weak-side ‘backer spot, which is likely to be filled by LaVonta Bentley.
Bentley has already stepped into the starting lineup once for Spector this season when the latter was dealing with an early season knee injury, recording a team-high 13 tackles in Clemson’s September win over Georgia Tech. For Bentley, the bowl game could be another audition for the permanent job.
Keith McGuire and freshmen Barrett Carter and Jeremiah Trotter are younger players who could also get some reps today.
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