5 Keys To Whipping The Wolfpack

In what must be considered the most important game of the year for both teams, the Clemson Tigers and the North Carolina State Wolfpack will clash Thursday evening in front of a national television audience on ESPN. Here are the keys to a resounding Clemson victory and an unprecedented march towards an ACC championship.

Clemson and N.C. State will battle in the 23rd annual Textile Bowl on Thursday night in Raleigh, North Carolina. Overall, Clemson has a 44-26-1 lead in the series, including a 15-14 record in Raleigh.

The last time Clemson went to Raleigh, the Tigers came away with a 45-37 victory over the Wolfpack. Last year, N.C. State embarrassed Clemson on a Thursday night in Clemson by the tune of 38-6. The Wolfpack caused 5 turnovers and completely frustrated the Clemson offense and special teams.
The Wolfpack are 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. N.C. State opened the season with a 59-20 win over Western Carolina before losing back to back games against Wake Forest (38-24) and Ohio State (44-38).

The Wolfpack then rebounded for two straight wins over Texas Tech (49-21) and North Carolina (47-34). State found trouble again the next week, losing in Atlanta to Georgia Tech 29-21. And last week, the Wolfpack scored a defensive touchdown in the final seconds to win in Raleigh over Connecticut 31-24.

Here are my 5 keys to Clemson getting a huge win in Raleigh:

McLendon Madness
We all know what a great quarterback Philip Rivers is, so wasting a key on trying to stop him is like saying the sun will rise tomorrow. "Like most good quarterbacks, you have to make it a little more difficult with coverage's and pressure. But he is throwing it at a 70% rate, so he is pretty good", Tommy Bowden said Tuesday.

The bigger problem in defending State is trying to run around in the secondary chasing Rivers' passes one moment then getting plowed over by T.A. McLendon the next moment. He was the difference in the game last year against Clemson, and he could be the difference again this year.

McLendon is suffering through a sophomore slump in addition to being banged up since the start of the season. McLendon's numbers are modest, only 277 yards rushing on the year that equates to only 62 yards per game. Rumors have been floating that he is just about back to being healthy, but you would not get that impression from the limited amount of work he got last week versus Connecticut in a tight game.

How healthy McLendon really is remains uncertain, but the Clemson defense finds itself in a familiar situation to the last two weeks when it comes to stopping the run. The Tigers have been near perfect against the run, holding Maryland and Virginia to less than 150 combined rushing yards in two games. In fact, Virginia all but gave up running the ball against Clemson in the 2nd half, throwing 17 straight passes at one point.

The Wolfpack as a team, have failed to rush for more than 100 yards in 5 of the 7 games they have played this year. The two exceptions were Texas Tech and North Carolina, two teams that are horrible against the run. Compounding State's running woes is the fact that starting guard Ricky Fowler will miss the game Thursday night.

With all that being said, the running game of NCSU still holds a major key to this game. If McLendon, healthy or not, runs for 100+ yards Thursday it will be tough for Clemson to win because you know Rivers is going to get his yardage. State is a lethal offensive team if they can run and pass, but they are only a good offensive team if they can only pass. "Will the key to this game be the running game? Yes. Were they successful running last year? Yes." Bowden emphasized Tuesday.

Miller And Friends
NCSU has 5 players that are averaging over 10 yards a catch and another player that averages 9.8 yards per catch. Philip Rivers is going to find open receivers Thursday night, just like he has against every other team the Wolfpack have faced the past several years. Rivers is averaging around 38 passes a game, so the ball is going to be flying around pretty often Thursday night. The Clemson secondary, especially Justin Miller, is going to have to make some plays.

Jerricho Cotchery is as talented of a wide receiver as Clemson has faced this year, averaging 17.4 yards a catch. You would think Justin Miller would shadow him Thursday, but that is not how Lovette has used Miller. He has moved Justin around on the field, sometimes covering the marquee receiver and sometimes not. He sometimes covers the short side of the field and sometimes he covers on the wide side.

At any rate, Miller needs to make some plays on the defensive side of the ball. Granted, he has broken up a handful of balls and he made a vicious hit that almost caused a fumble last week on the 2 yard line. But, he still is not quite where we want him to be and he is nowhere near where he thinks he can be.

Tye Hill and Toure Francis (assuming Francis is healthy) also will have their hands full, as will the safeties (Travis Pugh and Jamaal Fudge). Collectively, tackling by the secondary will be crucial. The Wolfpack don't stretch the field as much as you would think. They dink and dunk 5-10 yard passes and then try to rack up yards after the catch. If you tackle well, it will limit the effectiveness of the dinks and dunks. That will force Rivers into throwing deeper routes, and that is where plays need to be made by Miller and company.

Yusef…The Man And The Myth
The Clemson running game was awakened against Virginia in the return of the prodigal son Yusef Kelly. Kelly looked like he did a year before in the regular season finale against South Carolina, falling forward and bullying over people on his way to 89 yards rushing Saturday.

The Wolfpack are giving up only 101 yards per game on the ground, but this is a case where the numbers are misleading. Because teams have had so much success throwing the ball against the Wolfpack (325 yards per game), teams have not needed to run against the Wolfpack to stay in the game.

But a dependable running game Thursday night will go a long way to determining whether Clemson wins or not. The Tigers, regardless of the passing prowess that we have, want to keep Rivers off the field as much as possible and give the defense a chance to rest. It also allows the defensive coaches more time to make adjustments between series, something that was going on feverishly Saturday against Virginia.

By all accounts Kelly should be able to pound for yardage Thursday night against the young Wolfpack front seven. If he can duplicate his performance this week that he had last week, Clemson fans will be smiling late Thursday evening.

Be "Special" on Special Teams
Part of the embarrassment of last year's game with the Wolfpack was the special team's performance. The Pack blocked a punt for a touchdown and returned an onsides kick for a touchdown to add insult to injury in Death Valley.

After starting the year very well on special teams, Clemson has shown some cracks over the past couple of games. Kickoffs are not sailing into the end zone with regularity, and some longer runbacks are starting to take place. Jad Dean and Tye Hill both made touchdown saving tackles on kickoff returns last week, something that you hate to see happen.

Cole Chason is now averaging less than 40 yards a punt after starting the year with a 41 yard per punt average. We still seem stuck in the mud on punt returns, which makes no sense considering Derrick Hamilton and Justin Miller have the potential to be two of the best punt returnee's in the conference. Our punt coverage has been great, but UVA almost blocked every punt we attempted Saturday.

We cannot afford a snafu in the special teams area if we are to win in Raleigh Thursday night. I hope our slip is not a trend…but just a fluctuation.

Bottle That Emotion
Clemson played one of its most inspired games under Tommy Bowden last Saturday. At times, that emotion got the best of the team, especially on the unsportsmanlike penalty at the start of the game.

But, the Clemson players were fired up to play football last Saturday, and it helped provide the Tigers with a big win over a Top 25 team. The bench could be seen jumping up and down all game long and leading the crowd in cheers at several crucial times. That is the emotion we need, and what we did not have in College Park two weeks ago.

That same kind of emotion must be in Raleigh Thursday night. This is a big opportunity for this team, and the players and coaches need to seize the moment.

Clemson is a little banged up, but so is N.C. State. Currie, Sampson, and Vaughn should be back, but the loss of J.J. Howard is a tough blow. State lost Ricky Fowler, cornerback Lamont Reid, and defensive end Renaldo Moses last week; and we still don't know about McLendon or Rivers and how close to 100% they are.

State is teetering on the verge of imploding under the weight of their self imposed expectations at the beginning of the year. A loss Thursday and the Wolfpack will be hard pressed to become bowl eligible considering they have yet to play Virginia, Maryland, and Florida State. This is a team that figured it would challenge for the ACC Championship this year, something that does not appear will happen regardless of how they fare against Clemson Thursday night.

A Clemson win and the Tigers are poised to make a serious run at the ACC Championship. With Duke, Wake Forest, and North Carolina remaining on the schedule, the Tigers would have a legitimate shot at hosting Florida State for a piece of the ACC crown if they can get by State Thursday night. As unreal as that thought may have seemed August 31st or even after the Maryland loss, that is exactly the position the Tigers are in.

And the focus this week is not on revenge. "When you blow the whistle, it is a non-factor. That game was ugly last year, but by the time you start talking about getting revenge you have lost focus on the defensive and offensive game plan", Bowden said this week in workmanlike fashion.

State, by way of human nature, is surely thinking they will fare well against the Tigers after what they did last year in Clemson. And, who could fault them for feeling that way? But, this is a much different Clemson team that is better on both sides of the ball and it is a team that is due for something really good to happen to it.

State is so bad on defense that it will put a tremendous amount of pressure on their offense to keep pace Thursday night. The Wolfpack have struggled scoring against good defenses, and I just don't think they can put 30+ points on the board Thursday night without turnovers or special teams disasters by Clemson. In fact, I think the Tigers will seize a couple of turnovers on the Pack that will make Clemson fans sleep well Thursday night.

In most football games, the better defense wins the game. Last year, State had the better defense. This year, Clemson does.

Rhymer's Pick
Clemson 31 N.C. State 27

CUTigers.com Top Stories