CHARLOTTE – Clemson will go for its seventh ACC championship in eight seasons tonight when the Tigers face North Carolina at Bank of America Stadium. There’s no College Football Playoff berth on the line, but a victory would send the Tigers to the Orange Bowl for the first time since 2015.
What does Clemson need to do to ensure all of that happens? Here are three keys:
Clemson has faced three top-50 passing offenses so far this season (Wake Forest, Florida State, South Carolina). The Tigers have allowed 317 passing yards on average against them. Those teams have also averaged more than 34 points against them.
Now comes the most daunting challenge of all for the Tigers, who have the task of trying to slow down the nation’s No. 8 passing attack a week after giving up 360 passing yards to South Carolina. UNC, with one of the nation’s best quarterbacks in Drake Maye, is averaging 321 yards per game through the air.
That makes the objective pretty simple for Clemson’s defense: Make Maye uncomfortable. The Tar Heels’ sophomore signal caller is just one of two FBS quarterbacks with at least 30 touchdown passes and five or fewer interceptions on the season. He’s also completing nearly 68% of his throws.
In other words, Clemson can’t afford to let Maye get in a rhythm. Defensive coordinator Wesley Goodwin acknowledged earlier in the week he’ll have to pick his spots to dial up pressure with a new-look secondary that’s had its issues holding up in man coverage this season. But it’s a risk the Tigers likely need to take more often than not to try to take Maye out of his comfort zone.
Clemson has been better at getting to the quarterback of late, notching at least four sacks in each of the last three games. If the front four can generate pressure on its own, that would be the ideal scenario for the Tigers so that they can play more coverage on the back end and try to make someone other than Josh Downs (third nationally with 8.3 receptions per game) beat them.
Clemson’s passing game continues to scuffle, and last week was worse than it’s been all season (99 yards passing on eight completions).
The formula for offensive success is pretty simple at this point: Get the running game going and hope to get just enough help from the passing game to keep the defense honest. But the way the passing game is going – or not – Clemson should pound at UNC’s defense with the running game until the Tar Heels prove they can stop it.
Clemson has a 1,000-yard rusher in all-ACC running back Will Shipley, who’s coming off a 132-yard effort last week. And despite his inconsistency as a passer, D.J. Uiagalelei has proven to be a dangerous part of the running game when his number is called. He had a season-high in rushing yards against South Carolina as the Tigers went for 200-plus on the ground for the fourth time in five games.
The offensive line also continues to get push up front despite not having injured guard Marcus Tate. But none of it is likely to matter if Clemson doesn’t…
Win the turnover margin
Clemson lost for just the second time in the Dabo Swinney era when rushing for at least 200 yards last week because it lost the turnover margin yet again. It’s become the norm for the Tigers, who’ve finished in the turnover red in five straight games. It’s the longest such streak of the Swinney era.
If left Swinney with an obvious answer this week when he was asked what he wants to see most from his team in tonight’s game.
“That’s where I’d start,” Swinney said. “I’d like to see us win the margin.”
Clemson has turned it over 15 times in the last five games. The Tigers have coughed it up three times in each of the last three games. Fumbles have been the biggest issue, and it’s not just the offense. The Tigers lost two fumbles on special teams a week ago, including one on a punt return in the waning minutes that cost Clemson a chance at a potential game-winning drive.
Clemson has lost just six times under Swinney when it wins the turnover battle, but that’s something the Tigers haven’t done since mid-October. Losses to Notre Dame and South Carolina have shown just how small the Tigers’ margin for error is, so winning the turnover margin away from home is a must for Clemson tonight.
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