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Preview and Prediction of #4 Clemson at Wake Forest

#4 Clemson travels to Wake Forest coming off its second loss in the last 28 games and is looking to win its 10th game for the 6th straight season, clinching its 5th share of the ACC Atlantic Division Title.

Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!

 

What a heartbreaker in Death Valley last week. It was a weird and unfamiliar feeling to see the visiting team celebrating on Frank Howard Field after 21 consecutive home wins. Right up until the 48-yard field goal found its way inside the left upright, it seemed like a given the Tigers would come out on top like they always have before. But streaks were meant to be broken, and something was in the air on that chaos Saturday that shook the college football world. Some Clemson streaks that came to an end on Saturday:

-          Nation-leading 21-game home win streak

-          23 regular season game win streak

-          15-game ACC win streak

-          46-game win streak vs unranked teams

 

Before Saturday, Dabo was 37-1 when the Tigers had over 500 yards of offense. The only loss was to Alabama in the National Championship Game. The Clemson program was 91-1-1 in those games. Since 1978, the Tigers were 26-2 versus schools playing their first game in Death Valley. The only two losses were a triple-overtime game with #10 Miami and a 13-10 loss to Chad Pennington and Marshall, who went undefeated that season—it was one of Tommy Bowden’s first games as head coach. All of that went by the wayside in a bizarre game that seemed to be in the Tigers’ grasp but simply got away. There were so many plays in which any one changed would have resulted in a Clemson win.

In case you missed it, by the way, it came out this week that the lead official in the game, Duane Heydt, is a real estate agent living in Columbia and a University of South Carolina graduate. That’s pretty suspicious considering that the Tigers were flagged 9 times for 101 yards and Pitt was only penalized 3 times for 40 yards. Not only that, but Heydt worked the Clemson game at Georgia Tech, and the Tigers had 65 more penalty yards than Tech in that game! In the 5 ACC games in which Heydt did not officiate, Clemson had 44 LESS penalty yards per game than its opponents. In Heydt games, the Tigers had 65 MORE than Georgia Tech and 61 MORE than Pitt.

Without Heydt’s crew, Clemson has been penalized just 27 times in five ACC games for 236 yards, while the opposition has 53 called penalties for 442 yards.

In Clemson ACC game’s in which Heydt’s crew was not officiating, the Tigers have been flagged for an average of five penalties for 47 yards a game, while the opponents have been penalized 11 times for 88 yards.

In Pitt’s final four touchdown drives, Clemson was called for either holding or pass interference on all four drives after Clemson made critical stops on third down. Two of those plays were third and ten, one third and eight and one third and seven. You can be the judge of whether it’s mere coincidence or something sinister, but its pretty compelling evidence for an investigation, if you aske me. I’m fairly certain the ACC front office has heard from Clemson regarding the matter. The disparity and glaring contrast between games Heydt has called and the ones he hasn’t are suspicious in and of themselves, but some of those calls against Pitt were completely blatant and on critical third downs that directly affected the outcome.

 

Still, despite the hose job by the officials, the Tigers had several opportunities to seal the win and were unable to do so. The two interceptions in the end zone were killers, and obviously failing to convert on 3rd and one and then 4th and one to put the game away. Before that, the Tigers were 12 of 17 on 3rd down and 1 for 1 on 4th down. The Tigers had played with fire and flirted with losses once too many times via turnovers, and it finally caught up with them. We can take solace, however, that Heydt’s crew will likely not be calling any more Clemson games this season. They definitely won’t be able to work over the Tigers in the playoff, should they be in it again. For a detailed analysis of the Pitt game, you can read my grades HERE.

On to the Wake game….

 

MISCELLANEOUS

Clemson is 63-17-1 in the all-time series with Wake Forest that dates back to 1933 and a 13-10 Clemson win in Charlotte. The all-time record should be easy for Clemson fans to remember, as the Tigers beat South Carolina 63-17 in Columbia—one of the biggest blowouts in series history…..The 63 wins versus Wake is second-most of any school, behind only the 67 wins over South Carolina….The two schools have played for 63 consecutive years. Only South Carolina has played Clemson in more consecutive years….Clemson has won 7 in a row in the series and Dabo is 7-0 versus Wake. Dabo’s first game as interim head coach came following a 2008 Thursday night 12-7 loss at Wake Forest under Tommy Bowden….The Clemson senior class has an overall record of 44-7. The .863 win percentage is the best in school history. They have an ACC record of 28-4. The Clemson record is 29-4 set by last year’s senior class, so this 2016 class has an opportunity to tie that record with a win at Wake. The 2015 class had an overall record of 46-8. The 2016 senior class is 25-2 at home. The 2014 and 2015 classes were each 26-2 at home. The 2016 class has been a part of a Clemson-record 17-game win streak, the school-record 21-game home win streak and the school-record 23-game regular season win streak. They were also a part of 35 of the 46-game win streak versus unranked teams. They have 9 wins over ranked teams, including 5 wins over top-10 teams. They have had a final ranking in the top-15 every year….With a win over Wake, Clemson would be just the 10th Power Five school in history to win at least 10 games in 6 consecutive seasons, and it would be the longest active streak behind Alabama, which is closing in on an 8th straight season. Other schools to have accomplished the feat include FSU, Texas, Virginia Tech, Miami, Alabama, Oregon, USC, Florida and Ohio State. It would be the Tigers’ 12th 10-win season overall, and Dabo will have coached half of those…Clemson still has the nation's longest active streak in the top-5 of the AP Poll at 20 consecutive weeks. Alabama is second at 18 weeks. The Tigers have the 4th-longest active streak in the top 25, behind Alabama, Florida State and Ohio State. Clemson would be 2nd on that list behind Alabama if not for a one-week absence from the rankings in 2014....Kendall Joseph and Cordrea Tankersley both have birthdays on Saturday. The former will turn 21 and the latter 22….This will be the Tigers’ 5th consecutive night road game this season, a school record. It’s the first time ever Clemson has played every road game at night. It will be the 21st night game out of 43 road games under Dabo….Clemson has won a school-record 9 straight road games, the third-longest active streak in the nation. A win at Wake would be the first time in school history Clemson has gone undefeated on the road in back-to-back seasons…The Tigers scored their 50th touchdown of the season against Pitt. It’s only the 9th time in school history they scored 50 touchdowns and the 6th time under Dabo….With his ACC record 580 passing yards against Pitt, Deshaun Watson joined Tajh Boyd as just the 6th player in ACC history to have 10,000 total yards in a career. He is the first junior to do so. If Watson decided to return to Clemson for his senior year, he would undoubtedly break Phillip Rivers’s all-time mark….

 

CLEMSON STATUS

It was kind of uncharted territory for all of us this week, coming off Clemson’s first regular season loss in two years. It was obviously a first for me, and the post-game interviews had the same unfamiliarity I felt after the National Championship loss. The dynamic during interviews is obviously a lot different, and one I hope not to experience again for a while. After the game, you could sense the shock and bewilderment in the players and even the coaches. Consider that the seniors on this team had lost ONE home game in their careers before Saturday. That was the FSU game way back in 2013. And there are only 12 seniors on this team. The rest of them had never experienced it. Dabo said that after the game, the players didn’t realize they were supposed to stay on the field for the Alma Mater. They truly didn’t know how to react. Fortunately, the attrition that unfolded with Michigan and Washington losing later that night was a huge shot in the arm for the morale of the team. Several players told me that they were all texting each other and letting each other know they were still in it after the ensuing carnage transpired. As disappointing as the Pitt loss was and all the streaks that were ended, in a weird way it could be a blessing in disguise and the best thing that could have happened for this team. As I alluded to earlier, the Tigers had been careless with the football and playing with fire every other game, and this time it cost them. They had 5 turnovers against a very good Louisville team but were good enough to overcome them. They had 4 turnovers and a turnover on downs against NC State but were good enough to overcome them—with a little luck on a missed field goal. This time, the 3 interceptions and 2 in the end zone—with the officials’ help—were too much to overcome, and Pitt played a near flawless game. You have to wonder: if the Tigers had gotten away with the turnovers again, would they have continued their bad habits? The red zone turnovers have plagued the Tigers all season long. We have seen what they are capable of when they play a clean game with no turnovers—they destroyed Syracuse and Boston College on the road. But the red zone turnovers have been a recurring nightmare. If they kick just ONE field goal instead of one of the end zone interceptions, the Tigers win the game. Perhaps this loss will finally be the wake-up call the team needed to change its ways and start protecting the football consistently. The Tigers are actually dead even for the season in turnover margin thanks in large part to a defense that has generated 15 interceptions—that’s tied for 8th in the nation—but they are 113th in turnovers lost, and the red zone turnovers have been particularly costly. As a result, the Tigers have the worst red zone offense in the ACC. To me, this is the most critical factor that will determine the Tigers’ National Championship destiny. If they don’t turn the ball over, I think they beat any team in the country.

This loss might also be the release valve for all that pressure that had been mounting on this team since before the season even started and everyone was ordaining them the team to beat. It is hard and exceptionally rare to mount a perfect season. It was so back in the days when there was less parity and there were only 11 games on the schedule. It is exponentially harder now, and the last two national champions have suffered home losses along the way. In both cases, Alabama and Ohio State seemed like transformed teams following their losses and played significantly better for the remainder of the season. Hopefully the same will be true for the Tigers! After the 2014 loss at Georgia Tech, they went on to win 17 in a row. After the National Championship loss to Alabama, they went on to win 9 in a row. Now they will hopefully start another streak of at least 5 in a row!

One of the bright spots of the Pitt game was the play of true freshmen tackles Sean Pollard and Tremayne Anchrum. With both true sophomore starting tackles Mitch Hyatt and Jake Fruhmorgen out, the two freshmen had to play the virtually the entire game, and they were equal to the task. It’s a testament to the way the Tigers have upgraded their recruiting on the offensive line over the last few years, and we are seeing that trend continue with this year’s recruiting class. Even with the two true freshmen tackles, the offensive line allowed just one sack and shut out Ejuan Price, who was #3 in the nation in sacks coming in. Mitch Hyatt is expected to start against Wake Forest, and Pollard will start at right tackle in place of Jake Fruhmorgen, who is still dealing with personal issues and has taken a leave of absence from the team. Pollard played most of the game at Florida State and played well, so starting on the road should not be difficult for him. BB&T Stadium is obviously not Doak Campbell.

The Tigers’ offense is still clicking. Their 630 yards against Pitt was the sixth-highest total in school history. They only had 50 rushing yards on 25 carries, but that was expected because of the nature of Pitt’s defense. They are designed to stop the run and were the #13 rush defense coming in but #126 out of 128 teams in pass defense. In addition, Dabo told me that they had about 30 designed run plays that Watson turned into passing plays based on defensive alignments. The Tigers had great balance both running and passing against Syracuse, and I expect the same against Wake. Wayne Gallman has needed just one more 100-yard rushing game to set the Clemson career record for what seems like an eternity, so maybe this will be the game in which he finally gets it. After the last two games, it seems evident that C.J. Fuller has supplanted Adam Choice as the second running back in the pecking order, so that will be something to keep an eye on in this game. I will also be interested to see if Feaster gets some early opportunities in the run game or even on a wheel route.

Watson has been playing phenomenally well outside of the interceptions, and you have to wonder where he sits in the Heisman race after Lamar Jackson’s poor performance in a 36-10 beat down at unranked Houston last night. In their second-biggest game on a national stage, he was just 20-43 for 211 yards and one touchdown. He was also sacked 11 times and fumbled! There are Heisman moments and anti-Heisman moments, and last night was certainly the latter. I’m sure there are those that still consider Jackson the best player in the country, but I’m not sure a player has ever won the Heisman after a performance that bad on a stage that big in a late-season blowout loss. As far as Watson is concerned, if he doesn’t win it we might all be left wondering what might have been if the Tigers had converted on that pivotal 4th and 1 against Pitt. That would have surely been Watson’s “Heisman moment.” He set an ACC record with 580 passing yards and a Clemson record, completing 52 of 70 passes, but it was totally overlooked by the national media because the Tigers did not come out on top. He would also still be undefeated this season, which has its own special allure when it comes to the Heisman. However, I still think Jackson’s performance last night opens the door for Watson. Louisville’s last two games will be completely ignored and forgotten, while Watson will have a Saturday night stage at Wake, potentially another one against South Carolina and potentially a big primetime one in the ACC Championship Game. Heisman voters have short memories, and Watson has an opportunity to make them completely forget about Lamar Jackson over the next 3 weeks. Incidentally, Watson has 476 more passing yards and 4 more passing touchdowns than he did through 10 games last year. He has 254 more yards in total offense and one more touchdown responsible for compared to the first 10 games last year.

Watson has done a fantastic job of distributing the ball to his numerous weapons. Mike Williams is coming off a career game with 15 catches for 202 yards and a touchdown against Pitt. Artavis Scott is coming off probably his biggest game with 13 catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. Renfrow had 7 catches for 77 yards, and Mackey Award Semifinalist Jordan Leggett continued his quality play with 6 catches for 95 yards. Deon Cain only had 3 catches against Pitt but hauled in his team-leading 9th touchdown of the season. With 9 touchdowns on just 25 catches this season, Cain has to be the #1 big-play wide receiver in the nation.

Finally, the Tigers suffered a significant loss with Scott Pagano’s injury against Pitt. The “Hawaiian Punch,” as I call him, broke the 4th metatarsal in his foot, which is to say he has a broken toe. It’s a similar injury to the one Austin Bryant suffered back in August, forcing him to miss the first half of the season. Dabo said Pagano will certainly miss the next two games, and it’s not certain whether he’ll be able to play in the ACC Championship Game if they win the division. However, Dabo does believe Pagano will be ready to play in the bowl game. The good news is that defensive tackle is probably the deepest position for the Tigers next to wide receiver, so it’s not as bad as losing a player in a more vulnerable unit. Pagano had been playing behind Dexter Lawrence, and the Tigers had already moved Jabril Robinson back inside after the return of Austin Bryant at defensive end. The player who will get more opportunities now and needs to step up his play is Albert Huggins. I asked Dabo if Wilkins will rotate inside as a result, but he’s keeping that under his hat. Now that Austin Bryant is back, it obviously affords the staff more flexibility there, but Wilkins is having a great season at end, so they might decide to stick with their current rotation on the interior.

 

WAKE FOREST SYNOPSIS

The Deacs are coming off a home loss to Louisville in which they led 12-10 in the 4th quarter but ended up losing 44-12. Despite the final score, the game demonstrated that Wake is a competent defensive team. Offensively, Wake has not lit up the scoreboard this season—particularly against teams with good defenses. Unlike Pitt, the Deacs run a spread offense and will look set up the pass with the run. Junior QB John Wolford was replaced by Kendall Hinton in the third game of the season against Delaware but regained his starting spot when Hinton was injured in that game. Wolford has thrown for 1,454 yards this season and has completed 56.7% of his passes. He has only 5 touchdown passes against 7 interceptions and has been sacked 26 times. He also has 6 rushing touchdowns this season. Wolford was effective running the ball against Delaware, Indiana, Syracuse, Army and Virginia, but he struggled against the faster defenses of Louisville, Florida State and NC State. At running back, they have a two-headed monster in Matt Colburn and Cade Carney, who have 1 touchdown and 4 touchdowns on 4.1 yards per carry and 3.9 yards per carry, respectively. QB John Wolford is actually second on the team with 454 rush yards. Colburn has 490 and Carney has 414. Wolford spreads the ball around to his receivers pretty evenly. Tabari Hines leads the team in both receptions and yards with 33 for 389. He also leads the team with 2 touchdowns. Cortez Lewis is second with 27 catches for 339 yards, and they have 3 other players with over 20 catches. Wake Forest is #113 in pass offense (164.8 yards/game), #92 in rush offense (154.9 yards/game), #123 in total offense (319.7 yards/game) and #118 in scoring offense (20.4 points/game). 9 of Wake’s 11 starters on offense are freshman and sophomores.

Wake is a much more veteran group on defense, and it is the strength of their team. They are led by DE Duke Ejiofor (#53). The redshirt junior is #11 in the nation with 9 sacks. He took over the Duke game back in September with 3 sacks, 4 tackles-for-loss, 2 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He is also #20 in the nation with 14 TFL’s. Senior linebacker Marquel Lee has 6 sacks on the season. Wake is #48 in rush defense (152.4 yards/game), #64 in pass defense (229.4 yards/game), #44 in total defense (381.8 yards/game) and #22 in scoring defense (21.0 points/game). Wake is #10 in red zone defense, and the Tigers are #93 in red zone offense, so that could be the most critical matchup in the game.

Wake has an excellent kicker in Mike Weaver, who is 17-21 on the season and 5-8 over 40 yards. He does not have an attempt over 50 yards.

 

PREDICTION

We are coming up on the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, a date that will live in infamy. A Japanese admiral was credited as saying after the attack, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” I believe the same can be said for this Clemson football team. I’m not insinuating that the Tigers had been sleep-walking their way to a 9-0 start, but they had only put together a complete, mistake-free game on a couple of occasions. After winning 17 of their last 19 one-possession games and winning numerous games consecutively in which they were minus two in turnovers, they might have developed an air of invincibility and been too comfortable in the knowledge that they could overcome any number of mistakes and turnovers. Last week was the wake-up call of wake-up calls. It was by far the worst performance of the season by a defense that takes a ton of pride in its preparation and performance. I am anticipating a rebound of rebounds on national television Saturday night.

The Tigers will have remarkably played every single road game (five total) at night this season, so they will be used to the routine and the atmosphere. Deshaun Watson and the passing attack pick up where they left off against Pitt, and they also balance it with the Wayne Train and the run game. He Heydt Me will not be officiating this game, and the Tigers will take out their frustrations on the Deacs. A new win streak begins, and the school record of 7 straight ACC road wins improves to 8 as the Tigers roll toward a date in Death Valley with South Carolina. I have never predicted a shutout before because they come by hard, but I do believe the Clemson D will be out for blood. Wearing their championship Orange Britches, the Tigers clinch their 5th share of the Atlantic Division Title and win their 10th game for the 6th straight year.

The Prowl toward a 16th ACC Title in ’16, a repeat appearance in the College Football Playoff and a second National Championship continues…….

 

 

 

CLEMSON  41    Wake Forest  0

 

 


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