Welcome to the ACC opener edition of What We Are Hearing!
What a game on Saturday! It was just what the Tigers needed to put any doubts to bed before opening the ACC slate on a Thursday night in Atlanta of all places. We all know the history of the Tigers playing Georgia Tech in Atlanta over the past several trips dating back to 2005, and the last thing anyone wanted to see is the Tigers limping into that bees’ nest with lingering issues. On Saturday, we finally saw the Tigers that went 14-0 in 2015. They out-gained SC State 555 yards to 102. They were utterly dominant in all three phases, albeit against an FCS opponent. But it is never about the Tigers’ opponent anyway. That is what we heard Dabo and every player repeatedly recite last season. That is why no one was satisfied with a 6-point win at Auburn, where Clemson hadn’t won since 1950. Regardless of the opponent, we all just wanted to see the Tigers execute and play at the level of which we all know they are capable. Well, that’s exactly what we saw in the Tigers’ final audition before ACC play. They picked up right where they left off in the 4th quarter against Troy—having scored two touchdowns and a field goal in their final three possessions—and scored a school record 31 points in the first quarter against SC State. They went from 8 drops against Troy to 2 drops (one by true freshman Cornell Powell, who earlier made a great fingertip catch). The Tigers scored on 10 consecutive possessions between the end of the Troy game and the SC State game combined. They were 6 for 6 in the red zone on Saturday with 5 touchdowns and one field goal. Watson was finally looking like the Heisman finalist from last season, completing 12 of 15 passes for 152 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions. Ray-Ray had an outstanding performance again, leading the Tigers in receptions and yards for the second consecutive game. The defense started strong—just as they did against Auburn and Troy—but this time they time they finished strong and maintained the shutout. Again, it was just the tune-up the Tigers needed to build some momentum and confidence, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. For a more detailed analysis of the SC State game, see my grades HERE.
Before we get started, I just wanted to let y’all know that we have good reason to believe the Tigers may be getting another big commitment soon, so be sure to visit the Recruiting Radar Screen forum regularly for the latest updates and intel on the Clemson recruiting front! On to the Georgia Tech game….
Clemson has won 42 consecutive games against unranked team dating back to 2011. Only Alabama has won more (61), and the next closest are Ohio State (21) and Navy (19)…..Clemson has the longest active streak of consecutive weeks in the AP Top 5 at 12 weeks. Alabama is second at 10 weeks…..Georgia Tech leads the all-time series 51-28-2. However, all games were played in Atlanta until 1974. Since Tech joined the ACC in 1983, the series is tied at 17-17. Clemson is 13-6 versus Tech in games played in Clemson…..The home team has won the last 7 games of the series…..12 of the last 20 games have been decided by 5 points or less. 6 games from 1996 to 2001 were each decided by exactly 3 points. 11 of the last 14 wins by Tech were by a touchdown or less….Dabo is 4-4 versus Georgia Tech. His first game as interim head coach was a 21-17 home loss in 2008 in which the Tigers led in the 4th quarter….In Dabo’s first full season as head coach, Clemson lost to Georgia Tech in a 30-27 Thursday night overtime game in Atlanta and again in the ACC Championship Game, 39-34. Neither team punted in that ACC Championship Game, and both teams rushed for over 300 yards….John Heisman coached at Clemson from 1900 to 1903 and at Georgia Tech from 1904 to 1919. While at Clemson, Heisman was 2-0 vs Georgia Tech and outscored the Jackets 117-5. As the Tech head coach, Heisman was 10-2-1 versus Clemson and won the last 9 straight, holding the Tigers to a combined 15 points in those games….This will be Georgia Tech’s 20th Thursday night game, the most in the nation. It will be the 16th such game for Clemson, which has only hosted 3 times—two of those were versus Georgia Tech. The Tigers are 6-9 in Thursday night games but have won the last 5 straight. Tommy Bowden’s last game as Clemson Head Coach was a Thursday night road loss at Wake Forest in 2008….Wayne Gallman needs 79 yards to move to 9th on the all-time Clemson rushing list….Watson has thrown at least one TD in 19 consecutive games, an active school record. The previous record was 17 games by Tajh Boyd…..Watson is the 4th Clemson QB, along with Boyd, Whitehurst and Dantzler, to throw for at least 6,000 yards in his career….Clemson has won 28 of the last 30 games when throwing for at least 300 yards. One of those losses was to Alabama….Clemson is 31-1 over the last 4 years when leading at the half……
As you might expect, it was a much better vibe talking to the coaches and players this week. It was obvious how disappointed they were in their performance against Troy, and, as Deshaun put it, “We got our swag back.” It was a relief to see the Tigers shake loose the shackles that constrained them in the first two games and play the game with joy and verve. From that standpoint, the quick turnaround might be beneficial because when you’re hot, you want to stay hot.
Not only did the Tigers sharpen their claws offensively on Saturday, they were expeditious enough to allow Dabo to rest several starters early—a luxury that could pay dividends with a quick turnaround at Georgia Tech. Christian Wilkins and Carlos Watkins, for example, only played 12 snaps each despite having recorded a sack apiece. Watson played less than a half, as did Gallman, so both will have fresh legs on Thursday. Ben Boulware sat out the entire game, though he probably could have played. In all, 92 players were able to see the field—virtually every player on the Clemson roster who will not be redshirting. It was an exciting glimpse into the bright future of the Tigers, as there was little drop off when the next generation came into the game. Diondre Overton caught his first career touchdown. Albert Huggins and Jamie Skalski recorded their first career sacks. Huggins also had a fumble recovery that was negated by an offsides call. The sack by Skalski was a beautiful form tackle that rivaled the infamous helmet-knocking sack by David Dunham on Matt Ryan in his college debut. It was enough to get Boulware excited on the sideline, and Ben would later say it was one of the best hits he has ever seen. Trayvon Mullen got some serious playing time as well, and Venables told me that Mullen was one of the younger defenders who stood out and likely would see more playing time. Tanner Muse looked good in the secondary, and both Cannon Smith and Garrett Williams had a couple of nice plays at tight end. Shaq Smith made an appearance, so he won’t be redshirting. Red shirts are still in tact, however, for Xavier Kelly and Isaiah Simmons. Last but not least, Tavien Feaster scored his first career touchdown and led the team with 83 yards on 6.9 yards per carry! It seemed only fitting that #28 would grace the end zone with C.J. Spiller on the sideline. The ever-humble and classy Clemson legend was generous enough to share his retired number with Feaster, and even while he was being interviewed on live television, Spiller couldn’t help but “ooh” and “ahh” as he watched Feaster tote the rock whilst wearing his number.
One of the other big takeaways from Saturday was the encore of Ray-Ray. We knew he had a great spring and August camp, but you had to wonder whether what we saw from Ray-Ray against Troy was a harbinger of things to come or a flash in the pan. It would appear to be the former, which is great news because the Tigers will need a reliable go-to slot receiver while Hunter Renfrow convalesces. Not only has Ray-Ray elevated his play in the passing game, but he has shown consistency in the punt return game. In fact, Ray-Ray is averaging 25.3 yards per punt return, which is second in the nation! The Tigers have not had a true weapon in kick or punt returns since the days of Spiller and Ford. If Ray-Ray can continue what he has shown so far, it will be a big asset in the field position battle that was lacking last season. Speaking of field position, it appears that Dabo and Venables have straightened out the kickoff coverage conundrum that plagued the team last season. We’re only 3 games in, but the Tigers are currently tied for #6 in the nation in punt return defense, allowing just 14 yards per return! They were 115th out of 127 teams last season, and it can be argued that if the Tigers’ had Saturday’s special teams unit against Alabama, there would be one more National Championship Trophy in Tiger Town.
As good as the Tigers looked on Saturday, a couple questions still remain. First, why the slow start for Jordan Leggett? The Mackey Award Finalist has just one reception so far, and he had a couple of mental mistakes at Auburn that put the offense in a bad spot. I asked Dabo about it, and he was quick to point out that Leggett has been targeted several times, but it just hasn’t clicked yet for him. Watson has missed him on a couple occasions, and on Saturday a pass hit him in the hands in the corner of the end zone, but Leggett was unable to come down with the catch. Dabo seemed confident that Leggett will have a lot of big plays to come, so we’ll see if he can get off the schneid on Thursday night.
Second, is Mike Williams really back? His eagerly anticipated return at Auburn was a tremendous 174-yard performance, but he dropped two touchdowns that he would normally catch—one with his eyes closed. He had another bad drop against Troy and dropped a touchdown on Saturday that we are used to seeing him catch. The irony of ironies is that he impossibly hung onto the touchdown catch that fractured his neck and ended his season in the very first game of last season, and now he’s yet to catch a touchdown in three games and has three drops in the end zone. So in my mind that begs the question: is this a psychological phenomenon? Who among us can know what it’s like to have experienced the trauma Mike Williams did on that fateful day, and as much as I hate to practice pop psychology, the circumstances are too peculiar not to wonder and speculate. Regardless of whether it is mental or mere fluke, my hunch is we see #7 reel in a touchdown before long. He is off to a great start and on a pace for a 1,000-yard season, so the scores should come eventually.
Finally, don’t think for a second that the team isn’t cognizant of the Bobby Dodd demons that have haunted Clemson for the past 11 years. The last time the Tigers beat Georgia Tech in Atlanta was 2003, and Tony Elliott caught a touchdown in a 39-3 beat down of the Jackets. That has really put into perspective for these players just how long the streak has been. In fact, Elliott also had two long receptions and a TD catch in the Tigers’ 2002 win over Tech in a Death Valley monsoon, so maybe he is a good luck charm when it comes to these guys. The Tigers have Atlanta wins over Tennessee, Auburn and LSU in the interim since their 2003 win at Bobby Dodd. Deshaun, of course, is a Georgia native and tore his ACL in the first quarter of the 2014 game in Atlanta, so you can bet this game has a special significance for him. In fact, 17 Tigers hail from the state of Georgia, including Wayne Gallman and the following:
Ray-Ray McCloud, although a Florida native, is close with a few players on the Georgia Tech squad, so you can bet he’s anxious to have a big game!
As far as injuries, the Tigers are in fairly good shape but will obviously be without Austin Bryant (foot) and Hunter Renfrow (hand). Also, Denzel Johnson, who recovered the kick return fumble in the end zone for a touchdown on Saturday, will miss the Tech game with a pulled hamstring. The Tigers hope to have Austin Bryant back for the Louisville game.
GEORGIA TECH SYNOPSIS
You are all well-schooled in the modus operandi of Paul Johnson and Georgia Tech. It’s the dreaded triple-option offense that every defense hates to play. It’s boring. It’s cut blocks. They hit you with it over and over, chewing up huge chunks of clock and limiting your possessions. They go for it on just about every 4th down with less than 5 yards to gain. And just when they have lulled you to sleep, they catch you in a busted coverage and hit you deep. That’s what we know to be true of Tech historically.
This season, Tech is #18 in rushing offense at 257.3 yards per game, #117 in passing offense at 140.3 yards per game and #72 in scoring offense at 30.0 points per game. Senior QB Justin Thomas is a third-year starter and knows this offense better than any other QB Paul Johnson has had. Thomas has only completed 19 of 38 passes for 335 yards on the season, but he has no interceptions and has rushed for 169 yards and a touchdown on 6.0 yards per carry. The Jackets always seem to have one big WR, and this season that would be #2 Ricky Jeune (6’3, 212). He’s not Calvin Johnson or Demaryius Thomas, but he leads the team in receptions with 6 for 102 yards and no touchdowns. Their slot receiver is #1 Qua Searcy, who has 6 receptions for 97 yards and no touchdowns. Not surprisingly, Justin Thomas is their leading rusher with 169 yards, but RB Dedrick Mills (#26) has 126 yards and 4 touchdowns in just two games. He had 3 in their last game against Vanderbilt.
Defensively, Tech is #40 in rush defense, allowing 115.3 yards per game, and #39 in pass defense at 189.7 yards per game. The Jackets are #7 in scoring defense, allowing just 10.3 points per game, but two of their three games were against Boston College and Vanderbilt—two of the worst offenses in the Power Five. They are led by LB P.J. Davis, who leads the team with 20 tackles. As a group, the Jackets only have 4 sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss on the season. Those are comparable numbers to a single game for the Tigers’ defense. They have 2 interceptions and 2 fumble recoveries. They have also already blocked 2 kicks, so that is something Huegel will have to be wary of. He had a blocked kick on Saturday, and he had a chronic issue with kicking PAT’s low last season. Let’s hope we don’t see any blocked field goals taken for touchdowns like Tech famously did against FSU last season!
The Tech kicking game is pretty solid. They average about 40 yards per punt and have had 14 touchbacks on 17 kickoffs, so we probably won’t get many return opportunities. Ideally, the Tigers would only be returning one kickoff anyway!
Injury-wise, starting right tackle Trey Klock and backup right tackle Jake Stickler are both listed as questionable for Thursday.
In his short tenure, Dabo Swinney has taken this Clemson program to unprecedented heights with the exception of a national title. He has exorcised several demons along the way, such as winning ACC Titles, beating South Carolina and beating Auburn on the road. The next big one is beating Georgia Tech in Atlanta. The misfortunes that have befallen the Tigers at Bobby Dodd Stadium since 2005 are too numerous to count and border on the surreal. It all started in 2005 when the Tigers had zero fumbles on the season but somehow managed to fumble 4 times in that game, including one that was returned for Tech’s only touchdown. The Tigers’ would-be game-winning touchdown in that game was reversed for having only 10 players on the field. In 2007, the Tigers were again plagued by turnovers and missed field goal after field goal. In 2009, a miraculous Thursday night comeback by the Tigers was ruined by a phantom holding call by our beloved Ron Cherry on Thomas Austin. In 2011, Andre Ellington missed the game with an injury, and Hot Rod McDowell fumbled on the opening possession, setting Tech up for a quick touchdown to fire up the crowd and set the tone for the rest of the game. And, of course, there was 2014 when the Tigers would have likely steam-rolled the Jackets, but Watson tore his ACL after driving into scoring position, and Cole Stoudt immediately threw his first of three pick-sixes. Remarkably, the Clemson defense held the Tech offense to just one touchdown in that game despite being on the field virtually the entire game.
The key on Thursday night will be getting off to a fast start and taking the crowd out of the game. In the last few years, the Tigers have been able to force an incredible number of three-and-outs against Tech given that it’s one of the toughest offenses in the nation against which to do that. If the Tigers can score on the first couple of possessions and force a couple three-and-outs, the Tigers could run away with it. The crowd will become subdued, and the Tech offense is not equipped for an aerial comeback. I am anxious to see how Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and the other defensive ends handle this Tech offense. The only one of the group with any experience against it is Wilkins, and he of course played DT last season. Wilkins told me that he worked at defensive end quite a bit during August when they were preparing for Tech, so at least it won't just be for the few days this week. The ends have done a great job to this point, but Georgia Tech is a whole other animal. Will Wilkins and company be able to consistently set the edge against this triple-option? Then you also have to wonder about the secondary. Tankersley is the only one who started against Tech last season. Will they be able to maintain discipline? I asked Jadar Johnson about that one bad play he had in an otherwise great game at Auburn. He cheated up to help with run support instead of staying home, and as a result he was burnt deep for a big passing play. Johnson said it was a good learning experience for him and that he's the type of person who doesn't make the same mistake twice. Let's hope not because that's exactly what Tech likes to do to safeties! The constant on the Clemson defense is in the middle--which is where you want it. Watkins and Pagano know what to expect from this offense, and you have to like what you've seen so far from Big Dex. This is Boulware's third time playing against Tech, and Dorian O'Daniel did a great job against them last season.
Given that the only thing to expect when the Tigers play GT in Atlanta seems to be the unexpected and the fact that the Jackets always play out of their minds against Clemson at home, it makes this game harder to predict than any other. Since it’s impossible to predict which Tigers may be injured or how many tornadoes will block Clemson field goals, I’ll just make my prediction based on what should happen on Thursday night in a logical world.
I believe this is the year the Tigers finally get that Atlanta monkey of their backs. This Clemson team has already been battle tested at Auburn, and much of the team has been through the rigors and pressure of the ACC Championship Game, Orange Bowl and National Championship Game as well. I believe Brent Venables has unlocked the secret to beating Paul Johnson’s offense. Venables has dominated it for the past three years. Even if Tech does score some points, I like this Clemson defense to get more stops than the Tech defense. Most of all, I like #4. The only reason Tech won that game two years ago is that they managed to knock Watson out of the game. The only other game he has lost as a starter is the Alabama game. As long as Watson plays the entire game, I don’t think he lets the Tigers lose.
One more demon exorcised. Dabo improves to 6-1 in Thursday night games, and the prowl toward a 16th ACC Title in ’16 and a second National Championship continues……
CLEMSON 34 Georgia Tech 17