The Final Breakdown

Clemson heads to Duke Saturday for the first ever nighttime gridiron showdown between the Tigers and Blue Devils.

WHAT: No. 9 Clemson at Duke
WHERE: Wallace Wade Stadium (33,941) - Durham, N.C.
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012 (7 p.m.)
SPREAD: Clemson -14

When your top three tacklers are defensive backs, that's usually are pretty good indication that stopping the run is an issue.

Duke has that issue.

Safety Walt Canty, who leads the team with 80 tackles, is fifth among defenders in the ACC with 8.9 tackles per game.

Behind Canty, safety Jordon Byas is second with 59 while cornerback Ross Cockrell has 50.

Look for Andre Ellington to eclipse the 100-yard mark for the first time since the Boston College game. (Getty Images)
Rovers Dwayne Norman and Brandon Braxton will line up in the box a hybrid defensive back/linebacker, but they're fourth and fifth on the team with 38 and 35 tackles, respectively.

The first linebacker to pop up on Duke's tackles list is weak-side backer David Helton who has 33.

That's not getting it done against the run.

Since the Wake Forest game [Sept. 29], every opponent has netted at least 167 yards rushing against the Blue Devils.

Duke is among the nation's worst teams in red zone defense. The Blue Devils have allowed opponents to score on 90 percent of their trips inside the 20. Of the 18 touchdowns allowed, 14 are rushing.

Opponents have picked up first-downs at a high rate against Duke. Of the 174 first-downs the defense has allowed, 83 have come via the run. That's third-worst among ACC teams.

Despite Clemson's struggles running the football against Virginia Tech and Wake Forest, the Tigers should bounce back with a solid outing. Look for Andre Ellington to eclipse the 100-yard mark for the first time since the Boston College game.

Clemson's season average of 180.4 rushing yards per game is likely to increase after facing a Duke defensive front that hasn't had a weekend off all season.

That's right, this will be the 10th game of Duke's season and the Blue Devils don't have a bye week until November.

Given the grind of the last three weeks [Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Florida State], Clemson's healthy offensive line should be able to push around a worn Duke front.


Unfortunately for Duke, Clemson heads to town with Tajh Boyd, the school's all-time leader in touchdown passes [57] and single-game record holder for passing yards [420].

Boyd is second on the school's all-time passing yards list with 6,493 yards. He has a little over 3,000 yards to go before breaking another record set by Charlie Whitehurst.

Tajh Boyd set a school record with 428 passing yards last Thursday night against Wake Forest. (Roy Philpott)
As long as Boyd gets to throw to DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, that record will be broken early next season, assuming he's back for his senior season.

But there's still plenty of football left to be played this season. Believe it or not, this matchup with Duke could present some challenges for Boyd and the Clemson passing attack.

It starts up front with Duke's pass rush.

The Blue Devils are averaging just over two sacks per contest, though they may have padded that number with separate four sack games against North Carolina Central and lowly Memphis.

Duke has gotten to the quarterback just once in each of the last two games.

Defensive end Kenny Anunike would have been a threat. He's tied for sixth in the ACC with five sacks, but he's gone two weeks without taking down an opposing quarterback.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound senior was among the ACC's top pass rushers a season ago before he went down with a knee injury. He had four sacks in five games in 2011.

Anunike will be inactive on Saturday after suffering an injury in the Florida State game.

Clemson has been inconsistent in the effort to keep Boyd free of opposing pass rushers. The Tigers have given 2.25 sacks per game, which is tied for 81st in the country. To the offensive line's credit, a number of the sacks haven't been their fault.

At the end of the night on Saturday, the Duke pass rush probably won't make that big of an impact on the game.

If the Blue Devils are willing to stack the box and leave wide receivers in man coverage on the outside -- as they've done most of the season -- Boyd will have plenty of opportunities to throw downfield to Hopkins, Watkins, Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant.

The Clemson passing game should have another gaudy night.


Cutcliffe has made a name for himself as one of the top quarterback coaches in all of college football. His track record speaks for itself.

Sean Renfree is expected to play Saturday night, despite suffering from concussion-like symptoms last weekend at Florida State. (Getty Images)
Over the years, he's coached Peyton and Eli Manning, and a number of successful college passers like Heath Schuler, Erik Ainge and Thaddeus Lewis.

Go ahead and add this year's quarterback Sean Renfree to that list of notable quarterbacks.

A former four-star recruit by, Renfree will have a chance to play in the NFL. He's spent most of his career completing passes to another future pro, wide receiver Conner Vernon.

Vernon is already the all-time receptions leader in ACC history. He needs just 81 yards to break Peter Warrick's all-time receiving yards record of 3,517.

So, yeah, that Vernon guy is pretty good. He leads Duke with 54 catches for 761 yards and is tied for first with five touchdowns.

The Blue Devils' second-best receiver, Jamison Crowder, has 53 receptions for 645 yards and five scores. Fellow wide receiver Desmond Scott has caught 45 passes for 453 yards and a touchdown.

All three rank among the top 20 pass catchers in the ACC. By comparison, Hopkins is the only Clemson receiver found inside the league's top 20 receivers.

These guys are good at what they do and tackling them in space is no easy task. Clemson fans will see some familiar routes and concepts.

That could work to the Tigers' advantage, but that's easier said than done for the orange and white.

Clemson's secondary has had issues for most of the season. The Tigers are 57th in pass efficiency defense with a rating of 129.15 and are 68th in pass defense with an average of 237.88 yards allowed.

The pass rush has been pedestrian for most of the year, but it is starting to show signs of life. Clemson recorded two sacks against Virginia Tech and five versus Wake Forest.

Duke does a good job of keeping Renfree and the other quarterbacks standing. The Blue Devils are 20th in the country with an average of 1.11 sacks allowed.

By the way, Duke ranks 36th in the country in passing offense.

Renfree is cleared to play after suffering a head injury while dealing with the flu against Florida State. If he's not available, Cutcliffe will turn to look to back-up Anthony Boone, who has logged time in every game this season. Boone has completed 49 of 91 throws for 531 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions.

Assuming Renfree plays the entire game, Duke gets the edge. And we'll go ahead and make that assumption.


While Duke has made things happen through the air, the ground game hasn't had quite as much success. And it's not because they haven't tried.

Clemson's front-seven has gotten consistently better the last month of the season, but will be tested against the Blue Devils. (Roy Philpott)
The Blue Devils have rushed 313 times for 1,115 yards with 14 touchdowns this season.

Freshman Jela Duncan has a team-high 385 yards and is second with four touchdowns. Josh Snead has 291 yards and a pair of scores.

Duke does like to do a number of different things in the run game with the quarterback. There are formations where Boone or third-team quarterback Brandon Connette will be on the field with Renfree.

Boone has rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns while Connette has 61 yards and five touchdowns. On goal line and short-yardage situations Connette has been used in a wildcat-type of role.

One has to imagine there will be some wrinkles prepared for the Clemson defense, which has improved against the run.

After early season struggles against Auburn, Ball State and Florida State, Clemson has shown signs of life versus against the ground game.

Some of the improvement can be attributed to moving Spencer Shuey into the starting lineup at middle linebacker. He's third among Clemson linebackers with 30 tackles.

Weak-side starter Jonathan Willard leads the team with 54 while middle linebacker Stephone Anthony is second with 49.

Given the way Duke uses its skill players in space, Anthony might be better suited for a majority of the middle linebacker snaps than Shuey. Anthony runs better sideline to sideline than Shuey, who's better in the box, going downhill.

Regardless of who's manning the middle of the Clemson defense, the improved play from the young defensive tackles will help make his life easier.

This should be another matchup that favors the Tigers.


Duke has the ACC's top punter, third-best punt returner and No. 9 kick returner.

Clemson's Chandler Catanzaro missed his first field goal of the season against Wake Forest. (Roy Philpott)
Will Monday averages 44.5 yards per punt. Lee Butler has returned 11 punts for 187 yards and a score. Tim Butler has returned 13 kickoffs for 260 yards, but he hasn't returned a kick in two games.

Duncan is also an option in the kick return game while Vernon is listed as the No. 1 punt returner.

As surprising as it sounds, Duke has quality depth in the return game.

However, the Blue Devils are the second-worst team in the country in punt return defense and 75th in kickoff return defense.

Florida State hit up Duke for 122 punt return yards, which nearly doubled the season total given up by the Blue Devils. So that figure may be a bit skewed.

Regardless, we could be in store for some special teams fireworks from Ellington and Watkins.

Clemson ranks ahead of Duke in punt return defense [27th] and kickoff return defense [61st].

Chandler Catanzaro has been money for the Tigers, despite last week's miss. Before the missed kick, he'd made 20 straight field goals, including 12 in a row to start the season.

Duke kicker Ross Martin is solid, too. He's converted on 14 of 16 attempts this season.

Given Duke's struggles in defending kickoffs and punts, we'll give Clemson the nod.


PREDICTION: Clemson 49 Duke 24 Top Stories