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CUTigers Previews Saturday's Matchup Between ACC Rivals Clemson and Georgia Tech

Clemson is 4-0 and coming off one of the biggest wins in program history. The Yellow Jackets are in danger of losing 4 straight for the first time since 1996.

Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing! I’d like to begin by asking for prayers and resources for those in our state who were hit hard by the hurricane over the weekend. Please visit this website to see how you can contribute to the recovery effort:  RELIEF. You can also text RedCross to 90999 to make a $10 donation. Thanks for your prayers and support!

 

On to some happier thoughts. What a night in Death Valley! The entire college football world seemed to sit up and take notice of what Clemson and the Clemson fan base did on Saturday night. Very few expected Death Valley to be rocking and packed to the gills the way it was in a non-stop torrential down pour. I was in the stands for both the 2002 GT and the 2009 TCU games, which were comparable conditions, but they didn’t compare to the electricity that was present on Saturday night. Dabo summed it up after the game when he told Heather Cox, “Rain, sleet or snow…Tiger Nation, they show!” Apparently, the combination of water and the electric environment had a shock effect on Notre Dame because the Tigers knocked them on their heels right out of the gate. I thought it was interesting that Brian Kelly elected to defer after winning the coin toss. Perhaps he thought that the Clemson defense was playing better than the offense and that with the conditions, Clemson’s offense might stall and give the Irish good field position. Boy, did that logic back fire, though. The Tigers marched right down the field and scored on a diving Jordan Leggett touchdown that completely ignited the 80,000 wet Clemson fans. Incidentally, that was the first time that the Notre Dame defense gave up points on an opening possession. I also thought it was intriguing that Kelly went for that 2-point conversion with 14 minutes left in the game. I told Gary that I thought it was way too early to be going for 2 points, and I think I also stated so on the game thread. My reaction turned out to be correct. If Kelly had taken the PAT with 14 minutes left, they kick another PAT at the end of regulation, and the game goes to overtime. That's a scary thought! How important those little in-game decisions turn out to be. Of course, hind sight is 20/20. At the time Kelly made that decision, Notre Dame was having trouble moving the ball at all on our defense, so you can understand why he thought he might need every point he could get at that point. Also, there's no way to know for sure if we would have allowed that last touchdown knowing that a PAT would tie the game. Still, it's interesting to go back and consider how it played out.

Not to be outdone by the offense's start to the game, the defense picked up right where it left off in the previous three showings—with a three-and-out on Notre Dame’s opening possession. After a shanked Notre Dame punt, Clemson hit the Irish with a second punch on an Artavis Scott touchdown in which he bounced off two would-be tacklers. It seemed as if the rout was on at that point, but the offensive fireworks would slow down. I’ll elaborate on that in a bit.

It was also a red-letter day for Clemson’s recruiting staff, as a parade of high-profile prospects and commits lined the rain-soaked field in Death Valley. Last week, Gary McDaniel put together a star-studded list of recruits who would be in attendance, and he followed up with several of them to get their reaction to the experience. Here is what some of them had to say:

2016 Commit Cornell Powell, Rose HS (Greenville, NC) WR

"Man, the game was unbelievable! 82 thousand fans in the rain shows Clemson is special. Not many have fan bases like that, and I can't wait to play and put on a show for them! My commitment is still strong, strong 100%."

2016 Commit Tre Lamar, Roswell HS (Roswell, GA) LB

“The game was great, the atmosphere was insane and the defense played well!”

What he is hearing from the staff: “Coaches just talked to me about how my season was going and how I would fit into the system they are using right now.”

2016 Prospect Diondre Overton, Page HS (Greensboro, NC) WR

"The game was a great experience for me and gave me a chance to actually see the up-tempo offense of Clemson live. I really got to see where I would be at on the field and the types of routes I would be running."

2016 Prospect Cade Stewart, Daniel HS (Central, SC) OL

“The Atmosphere was great! The crowd was really into the game.”  

What he is hearing from the coaching staff: “Told me to keep my head and keep playing well.” 

2016 Prospect Jayson Hopper, Lexington HS (Lexington, SC) WR 

"It was the craziest game I've ever been to. I loved the fans and the entire atmosphere--not only during the game but throughout the whole game. The fans there are so committed to the game!

What he has heard from the staff:  "I didn't hear much; they were focused on the game."

2018 Prospect Stephon Wynn, Jr., TL Hanna (Anderson, SC) DE

“Clemson’s atmosphere is like no other! I have been to a lot of Clemson games, but it’s nothing like going as a recruit. They really do make you feel special and it's amazing.” 

“When we first walked on the field during warm-ups and all those fans were out there screaming and cheering in the rain, that really stuck with me “

“Clemson’s D-Line played an incredible game and their defense set the tone for the whole game.” 

What he is hearing from the staff : “Coach Hobby told me that he’s seen my film, and I just got to keep working harder and keep getting stronger and better. “ 

2019 Prospect Zacch Pickens, TL Hanna (Anderson, SC) DE

“It was good to see Clemson beat Notre Dame, but Notre Dame did not give up”  

What he is hearing from the staff:  “Coach Hobby told me he was excited to see me there at the game, and we talked about my game last Friday and he asked about how I was doing in School.” 

You can read the rest of Gary’s recruiting wrap-up and view his great photos of the recruits HERE. Gary will also post a follow-up piece on Friday with some quotes from recruits who weren’t at the game last week and what their impressions were from watching on television, so be sure to check back for that! He will also post a list of the recruits who will be at the GT game. It won't be the assembly we saw last week, but there will still be some noteworthy visitors.

One final note on recruiting, the SC and NC rosters for the Shrine Bowl were announced the other day, and you can find those rosters HERE. Several Clemson commits and prospects will be on each sideline. Tavien Feaster, Nyles Pinckney, John Simpson, Cade Stewart and Jayson Hopper will suit up for the South Carolina squad. Cornell Powell, Sean Pollard, Diondre Overton and Dexter Lawrence will line up under the North Carolina flag. Dexter Lawrence is arguably the #1 DT in the nation and told CUTigers just the other night that he will officially visit Clemson for the big showdown with FSU on November 7th. He was just in Clemson a few weeks ago on an unofficial visit with his mother, brother and a friend!

MISCELLANEOUS 

Players of the game against Notre Dame were Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd on defense, the OLine on offense and Andy Teasdall and Jim Brown on special teams....Ryan Norton, Austin Bryant and Chris Register will not play against GT. The staff is hopeful that they will all be back for the BC game. Dane Rogers should be eligible for the GT game....Clemson is now ranked #6 in both polls, which was the AP ranking held by Notre Dame last week....Clemson is now 2-1 all-time versus Notre Dame, making Clemson one of just 5 schools to have a winning record against Notre Dame with at least 3 meetings.....Dabo Swinney is now 7-3 against teams ranked in the top-10 of at least one of the two polls.....Dabo has now beaten 8 of the 20 winningest programs of all time....This rivalry dates back to 1898, when Clemson bested GT in Augusta 23-0 (just the 11th game in Clemson history). Clemson won the first 4 games in the series, including 1902 and 1903 when John Heisman was Clemson's coach. In 1903, Clemson beat GT 73-0 under Heisman in Atlanta before Heisman left Clemson to become Tech's head coach--Heisman beat Clemson the following year.......Clemson has a 12-6 home record versus GT since they first played at Death Valley in 1974. However, since GT joined the ACC in 1983, they have a 17-16 lead overall against Clemson.....The home team has won each of the last 6 regular season games in the series and 8 out of the last 9.......12 of the last 20 games have been decided by 5 points or less, including a 6-game streak from 1996-2001 in which every game was decided by exactly 3 points, possibly the only time in college football history......11 of Tech's last 14 wins in the series have been decided by a touchdown or less......Dabo Swinney's first game as interim Head Coach was against GT in 2008, five days after being named to the position. Clemson led in the 4th quarter but ultimately lost that game 21-17. He has not lost to GT at home since....The 2009 ACC Championship Game between Clemson and GT was the only game in Clemson history in which neither team punted a single time. It was also the only college football game that year in which both teams rushed for over 300 yards....The first time Clemson hosted ESPN Gameday was for the 2006 GT game. James Davis rushed for a career-high 216 yards, and CJ Spiller became the first player in Clemson history with a TD run over 50 yards and a TD reception over 50 yards in the same game.....Clemson's last win against GT in Atlanta was in a 39-3 blowout in 2003. Clemson Co-Offensive Coordinator Tony Elliott had a TD catch in that game....Clemson has won twice in Atlanta since that time against teams other than GT. They beat both Auburn and LSU in the Georgia Dome....B.J. Goodson caught his first career INT against Notre Dame. He also had a fumble recovery (his 4th), and both turnovers came in the 4th quarter. Goodson is the first player to do that in the 4th quarter of a Clemson win by 7 points or less since Terry Kinard did it at Notre Dame in 1979. It has happened in each of Clemson's last two meetings with the Irish and not once in the 36 years between....Shaq Attack Lawson now has 9.5 tackles-for-loss and is 3rd in the nation in TFL's per game. Lawson had 3.5 TFL's in the first quarter against Notre Dame's Ronnie Stanley, who many project to be the first offensive lineman to be selected in next year's NFL Draft. Lawson is now 11th on the active list for career TFL's and has achieved that in just 30 games.....

CLEMSON STATUS

After the opening couple of possessions, it looked as if we were going to see the offensive explosion for which we’ve all been waiting with bated breath. After scoring 14 points in the first two possessions, however, the Tigers only put 10 points on the board the rest of the way. The overall reaction from most seems to be “here we go again” because we saw a similar offensive malaise at Louisville a couple weeks ago. However, I would caution the Clemson faithful to take a step back and be patient. The points are coming. I believe that the points have been limited in the last two games due to a confluence of circumstances. In Louisville, it was Clemson’s first road game on 3 days of preparation. Any road game on 3 days rest with travel is going to be difficult—let alone a first road game against a talented divisional foe that is desperate for a big win! That’s a big reason Thursday night games favor the home team so much—and that is when the visiting team usually has a bye the preceding weekend. Also, Louisville’s defensive scheme was designed to prevent big down field plays and keep everything in front of it. Consequently, Tony Elliott, Jeff Scott and the offense took what the defense was giving it with underneath throws and run plays. The plan worked well enough—we had a 10-point lead late in the game. Unfortunately, the offense just didn’t put it away when it had the opportunity, and special teams allowed Louisville to get back in the game with a kickoff return touchdown.

Against Notre Dame, the plan was to attack them through the air, but no one expected to be playing in a hurricane. The weather completely changed the game plan, and once the Tigers jumped out to an early 14-point lead, the prudent strategy became leaning on the running game—which we had done very effectively all season—to shorten the game and prevent turnovers. Again, that strategy worked. Sure, we would all like to have seen a blowout and, in retrospect, Notre Dame had a chance to tie the game at the end. However, the Tigers had an 18-point lead going into the 4th quarter, and the defense allowed the Irish to score only 3 points. Based on the all of the factors—the lead, the time, the conditions, the way the defense had played and the effectiveness of the running game—the somewhat conservative play-calling was an exercise in probability and prudence. By the way, Notre Dame didn’t throw the ball deep either. I believe they had one deep ball, but everything else was underneath and led to big yardage after the catch. It was just that type of a game because of the weather.

Another thing to keep in mind is that we did take a couple of shots down field. Watson put a ball right on the money that went off of Artavis Scott’s hands in the corner of the end zone. That would have put the Tigers up 28-3 and probably puts the Irish away for good. It also would have drastically changed the critique of Clemson’s offensive performance for the game if Scott comes down with that catch. Deshaun threw another deep ball to the end zone intended for Peake that was intercepted. Peake should have fought to ensure that the DB wasn’t able to collect it, but it illustrates why the coaches went with the more conservative philosophy. That was the Tigers’ only turnover and probably took at least 3 points off the board.

Clemson averaged 4.7 yards per carry on 43 rushes on Saturday, and with the conditions and the way the defense was playing, I think it was perfectly understandable why the coaches leaned on the running game. Having said that, it is obvious that Mike Williams is missed. His ability to stretch the field and keep the defense honest cannot be overestimated. Peake, Cain and Thompson have the size, speed and potential to fill that role, but we have yet to see it on the field for the most part. We did see a glimpse of it when Peake had a career game against App State, but his productivity has lagged the past two games. Let’s hope Saturday’s game against Tech will be a statement game for Peake, and I would also hope to see Deon Cain make a couple of big plays in the passing game.

To reiterate, I consider the past two games anomalous for a variety of reasons. This week, Clemson has the home crowd and will hopefully have better weather, so I am expecting us to see more creative play-calling and more explosive plays than what has been displayed in the past two outings. As Dabo said, the last thing we should be worried about is the passing game. He knows that Clemson can throw and catch because he sees it every day in practice against arguably the best secondary in the nation. If you had told me in the preseason that Clemson’s running game, offensive line and defense were going to be carrying the load and have us off to a 4-0 start, not only would I have been shocked, I would have been ecstatic. The passing game will be fine. Have patience.

Defensively, Clemson obviously struggled big time in the 4th quarter on Saturday night. Counter to what some in the media have surmised, it had nothing to do with the unit being fatigued. It had much more to do with mental errors, missed assignments and poor tackling. All of the mistakes that led to Notre Dame’s 19 points in the 4th quarter are correctable. Even despite the 4th quarter effort, it is remarkable what the defense accomplished. They essentially shut down WR Will Fuller, making him a non-factor with only 2 receptions for 37 yards. They also held C.J. Prosise—who was averaging 150 yards per game rushing—to only 50. All of the pundits expected the big Irish offensive line to put Clemson’s defensive front on skates all night in the rain, but that didn’t happen. Clemson stuffed the run and was in the backfield all night long—to the tune of 4 sacks and 9 tackles-for-loss. It was a statement to the nation that Clemson’s defense is a formidable unit and the defensive rankings so far are no fluke.

Unsung heroes on special teams were Andy Teasdall and Jim Brown, the long snapper. A single bad snap in the heavy down pour could have cost us the game, but Brown was solid all night long. Brown was just put on scholarship weeks before the season started, and he earned it the other night! Teasdall averaged 43.7 yards per punt, which is phenomenal in those conditions. He also pinned 5 punts inside the 20 and one inside the 10, really flipping the field for the Tigers.

Of course, who could forget about Ammon Lakip's season debut. He put his helmet right on the ball, creating a fumble that led to a huge touchdown in the second half. Consequently, Lakip received the "Beaver Award," which is a weekly award given to a player who creates the first turnover. Dabo said it is the first time that the award has been given to a kicker. Ironically, I asked Dabo last week if he felt more comfortable with Lakip as the "last line of defense" on kickoffs, given the struggles in coverage and the fact that Lakip has more experience than Huegel. Dabo's response was that Lakip "is no Spencer Benton." Well, that may be true, but Lakip sure made a Bentonesque hit that was instrumental in the Clemson victory. Lakip proceeded to put his subsequent kickoff out of the end zone. I think he was pretty fired up to be back in Death Valley! In his interview on Tuesday, Lakip told us that he wanted to apologize for his poor decisions and thank all of those who have supported him through the ordeal. He also said that, while he wants to win his old job back, it is more important to him that the team continues winning. He said he will do anything he can to help the team win, and if that means assisting Huegel, handling kickoffs and being the best backup kicker in the nation, that is what he will do.

You can read my grades an analysis of the Notre Dame game HERE.

 

GT SYNOPSIS

With Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets, it’s the same story every year: the triple-option. However, no one expected Tech to have 3 straight losses coming into this game. In fact, the vast majority expected them to have whipped Notre Dame in South Bend and bee coming into Death Valley as a top-10, undefeated team. Kirk Herbstreit even picked Tech to win the ACC this year. Surprisingly, it hasn’t turned out that way. The Jackets were basically dominated by Notre Dame and Duke. Justin Thomas is not having the All-ACC season everyone was expecting him to have. They started out looking as strong as ever offensively in the first two games, but in their last 3 losses, they have only averaged 24 points per game. If you look at the Duke game, Tech was only in the Duke red zone twice. And we know Duke doesn’t have the greatest athletes in the world. What they are, though, is well-coached and very familiar with Paul Johnson’s offense. Against Notre Dame, Tech was only in the Irish red zone four times and scored only twice. In the 3 games against Power 5 opponents, Justin Thomas is 26-67 for 142 yards per game, with 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Tech has never been a passing offense under Johnson, but those numbers are even below their standards, and certainly not what the experts expected of Thomas this season. They are not rushing the ball as well as we’re accustomed to seeing either—214 yards per game in those 3 losses. The Jackets don’t seem to have that one dominant, big-play wide receiver that we’re used to seeing every year—like Calvin Johnson and Demaryius Thomas. Their most consistent WR has been Ricky Jeune, but they spread the ball around a lot. Skov has been the starting back for the GT offense, but Marcus Marshall is their best big-play back. He averages 11.8 yards per carry and has 2 touchdowns in 4 games. Marshall did not play in their loss to UNC last week because the coaches felt he needed improvement in several areas, particularly blocking, but I would expect to see a lot of him in Death Valley.

 

Tech has struggled equally on defense in its last 3 games against Power 5 teams. It has allowed 34 points per game in each of those losses. That includes a 34-point loss to Duke, which is not an offensive juggernaut. They have several players back from last year’s team that shut down Clemson’s offense in Atlanta, but we know there were other factors that contributed to the Tigers’ demise that day. Tech hasn’t allowed a ton of yardage—in their 3 losses, they only allowed 349 total yards per game—but their red zone defense has been an issue. In those games, Tech’s opponents scored on 10 out of 11 trips to the red zone. They do have some ball-hawks on defense, racking up 3 INT's in their last 3 games. Tech has recovered 2 fumbles in those games. However, they have struggled to get pressure on the quarterback, with only 4 sacks in the last 3 games. Their best player on defense is senior DT Adam Gotsis, who was selected as first-team All-ACC by the media in the preseason. He has 2 sacks and 4 tackles-for-loss on the season. 

 

PREDICTION

You hear the same things from Brent Venables and the defensive players every year when the game with Tech is approaching. “Set the edge. Read your keys. Stay disciplined. Gap control. Stop the dive.” Familiarity and experience are huge when it comes to stopping Paul Johnson’s triple option, and I think after 3 seasons, Venables has a good bead on how to prepare for and stop it. His unit was very successful shutting the Tech offense down in each of the last two seasons. In 2013, the Jackets scored some points in the second half when the game was out of reach, but it seemed like Clemson’s defense could will a three-and-out on that Thursday night just about whenever it wanted. Last year, Clemson’s defense again forced several three-and-outs and only allowed 14 points, despite being on the field most of the game. In fact, one of those touchdowns came late in the game. While the defense has several players this year with limited experience facing Tech in a game, many of them have seen it and prepared for it, and—more to the point—Venables knows how to defend it. Stopping the Tech triple option is all about discipline and team defense, and I believe this unit has both of those attributes in spades. They are playing with every bit of confidence that we saw from last year’s #1 unit, and you could make the assertion that this year’s unit is playing with more of an edge and with more intensity. That probably has something to do with an entire off-season of hearing that they will be the weakness of the team this year. We have heard sentiments from some of the players to that effect. Geico could make a commercial out of the Yellow Jackets' offense: "If you’re Georgia Tech, you cut block...It’s what you do." However, Venables told us that the defense practices getting off cut blocks not just this week but every practice all season long. Furthermore, Dabo told us that the Clemson coaching staff scouts and prepares for Georgia Tech all year--they don't simply wait until the week of the game. This season, the Tigers had a dress rehearsal of sorts against Wofford in the opener because Wofford runs a very similar triple-option to Paul Johnson's. The main difference is that Wofford runs it out of multiple formations, whereas Justin Thomas is almost always under center in Paul Johnson's brand. The combination of Venables's experience facing this offense, the momentum and confidence with which Clemson's defense is playing and the fact that Tech's offense is slumping lead me to believe this will be a long day for the Jackets.

Playing under normal circumstances for the first time since the App State game, the offense breaks out of its shell, and the defense continues its dominance--aided by 85,000 loud (and hopefully dry) fans in Death Valley. Tech loses 4 straight games for the first time since 1996.

Clemson’s prowl toward the CFP and a 15th ACC Title in ’15 continues.

 

 

CLEMSON  41      Georgia Tech  17


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