Clemson will travel to Wake Forest on Saturday for a matchup of ranked ACC unbeatens. A win would give the Tigers an early lead in the race for an Atlantic Division title.
What does Clemson need to do to ensure that happens? Here are three keys:
Disrupt the mesh
Wake Forest has shown early signs of again being one of the country’s more potent offenses at more than 41 points per game. The Demon Deacons incorporate spread principles in their offense, which isn’t unique to college football.
But one element of its attack is.
The Demon Deacons use a much slower mesh point than nearly every other offense when running zone reads, run-pass options or play-action passes, forcing defenses to wait longer to figure out who has the ball and ultimately putting them in more conflict than usual. Of course, the way to disrupt that timing is to affect the mesh, which will require a disruptive performance from the Tigers up front.
The linebackers and secondary will need to do their part, too, in order to maintain gap integrity and coverage on the back end against an offense throwing for the second-most yards of anybody in the ACC. But applying pressure in the backfield will force quarterback Sam Hartman to make quicker decisions on whether he wants to keep the ball or hand it off, which would allow the rest of the defense to know what’s coming sooner and reacting accordingly.
Look no further than the havoc Clemson wreaked in last year’s matchup as a prime example. The Tigers got to Wake’s quarterbacks for eight sacks as part of a 10 tackles-for-loss day. Clemson held the Demon Deacons to 27 points — 14 points less than their season average — in a four-touchdown rout.
How much of the same personnel Clemson’s banged-up defensive line will have on the field Saturday remains to be seen, but if the Tigers can come anywhere close to repeating that kind of performance, it would drastically help their chances.
Win early downs
After being one of the ACC’s worst defenses last season, Wake Forest has shown some improvement on that side of the ball three games in. One area the Demon Deacons have particularly excelled in is getting teams off the field.
Wake is allowing offenses to convert on third down just 20.8% of the time, good for seventh-lowest clip in the FBS. A large part of that has been an active front seven that’s helped the Demon Deacons rack up 7.7 tackles for loss on average, forcing offenses into plenty of third-and-long situations.
Meanwhile, Clemson is done a fairly good job of staying ahead of the chains with an average of 6 yards per play to this point in the season. As a result, the Tigers are converting nearly 47% of the time on third down, a top-45 clip nationally. It would be good for the Tigers’ sake to keep that trend going.
And while we’re largely talking Clemson’s offense against Wake Forest’s defense here, it would behoove the Tigers’ defense to win the majority of its early reps, too, to force a Wake Forest offense with plenty of big-play potential into more predictable third-down scenarios. Clemson improved on that last week, bouncing back from a 10-of-18 showing against Furman to hold Louisiana Tech to just 5 of 15 on the money down.
The stat bears repeating: Clemson has won right at 90% of its games in the Dabo Swinney era when it doesn’t lose the turnover margin (116-14). The Tigers have yet to lose it this season and are still unbeaten.
Clemson hasn’t been perfect. The Tigers have committed four turnovers through three games, which has contributed to them finishing even in that department in two of them. But Clemson ranks in the top 25 nationally with a plus-3 turnover margin on the season, a trend the Tigers need to continue against a Wake Forest defense that’s come up with its share of takeaways.
Four Liberty turnovers helped the Demon Deacons escape last week. Wake Forest is plus-5 in turnovers on the season, good for top 10 nationally.
The last time Clemson lost the turnover battle? Last November at Louisville, a game in which the Tigers needed a goal-line stand at the end to escape.
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