Clemson will host NC State on Saturday in the first-ever top-10 matchup between the teams. A win would allow the Tigers to keep pace atop the ACC’s Atlantic Division standings.
What does Clemson need to do to ensure that happens? Here are three keys:
Limit NC State’s explosive plays
Clemson found itself in a shootout last week in large part because the Tigers’ defense struggled to keep the ball in front. And if we’re being honest, it’s been an issue for Clemson for a majority of the season.
Furman screened the Tigers to death, and once Clemson adjusted to that, Louisiana Tech and Wake Forest went over the top. It was particularly bad for the Tigers a week ago with Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman targeting Clemson’s cornerbacks early and often to the tune of 337 yards passing on just 20 completions. He also set a single-game school record with six touchdown passes.
NC State’s offense hasn’t been all that explosive to this point (just four plays at least 30 yards), but Clemson’s pass defense, at least statistically, is the worst the Wolfpack has gone up against so far. With a veteran quarterback of its own in Devin Leary, NC State is plenty capable if it gets the matchups it wants.
Clemson is still waiting for a trio of defensive backs – Sheridan Jones, Malcolm Greene and Andrew Mukuba – to return from injury. Whether the Tigers will have one or all of them back this week remains to be seen. Regardless, defensive coordinator Wesley Goodwin has said he has to do a better job of mixing up coverages in order to help his defensive backs out.
Something else to remember: Clemson’s offense is facing a top-10 defense nationally, so it’s going to be more difficult for the Tigers to put up gobs of points like they did last week. So the Tigers need more stops, and forcing NC State to drive the length of the field would help with that.
Be solid on special teams
If this matchup ends up being as even on the field as it appears to be on paper come Saturday night, it’s not out of the question that special teams could be a deciding factor.
Specifically, when it comes to the return game, it would behoove Clemson to not let Thayer Thomas break free. Because when he’s had opportunities to return punts, the Wolfpack’s veteran receiver has been electric.
He’s only returned four punts so far, but one of them has gone for 38 yards. His 18.5 yards per punt return are tops in the ACC. As a team, NC State’s 17.2 yards per return rank 10th nationally.
Kicking away from Thomas is always an option, but teams risk shanks when trying to be too fine with their punts, which can result in giving up valuable field position. Clemson needs a better performance from its punter, Aidan Swanson, who’s had an up-and-down start to his season. Last week wasn’t a particularly good one for Swanson, who averaged just 33 yards per boot.
Better hang time gives the coverage unit more time to get downfield. It also increases the likelihood of a fair catch. On the flipside, Clemson has already blocked three punts this season. More of that could help set the offense up with short fields.
Clemson placekicker B.T. Potter is off to a 7-for-7 start on field goals. But with potentially wet conditions Saturday, executing snaps and holds will also be critical before any kicks are made.
Hold on to the ball
The forecasts look more promising than they did earlier in the week, so perhaps Hurricane Ian’s impact won’t be felt as heavily as originally thought in the Upstate come Saturday night.
But both teams have anticipated all week having to deal with a wet football, which is still a distinct possibility. It goes without saying that slippery conditions are more conducive to turnovers, so the team that’s able to hold on to the ball more often could very well emerge victorious.
Need some proof? Go back to the last time Clemson played in rain brought on by a hurricane. That was 2015 against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish coughed it up four times in a game Clemson won by two.
Of course, limiting turnovers is always a key ingredient to the recipe for success regardless of the weather. Clemson had its first turnover-free game of the season against Wake Forest, improving to 117-14 in the Dabo Swinney era when it doesn’t lose the turnover margin.
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