5 Keys to Dumping the Deacs

Clemson and Wake Forest will lock heads Saturday at 3:30 in the season opener for both teams. Inside I will give you my 5 Keys for Clemson to get the win as well as my weekly prediction.

Clemson and Wake Forest Tidbits
Clemson lost to Wake Forest 45-17 in 2003 in a miserable game up in Winston Salem. That being said, Clemson has more wins (53) against Wake Forest than any other ACC team. The Tigers have won 15 of its last 20 season openers and are 79-21-8 all-time in opening games. Wake Forest is opening the season with a conference opponent for the first time since 1992.

1. Raising The Bar-Clay
Chris Barclay got his redemption last year after fumbling late in the 2002 game. Against the Tigers last year, Barclay ran for 163 yards on 24 carries with two touchdowns in the 45-17 Wake win. Barclay is already 10th on the career rushing yardage list for Wake Forest, and he appears poised to move up quickly in 2004. In all honesty, Barclay had a great game against Clemson last year and it would be foolish to chalk all of that up to talent. But Barclay is good enough to do it again in 2004, and there are rumblings from the Wake camp that Chris has improved physically in the off-season.

"He's stronger this year. I don't think we saw a healthy Chris Barclay last year until the fourth or fifth game," Head Coach Jim Grobe said this week. "He has very good foot speed. He is one of those guys that you would pick in a sandlot game; he's just a good player."

Keeping Barclay contained is a simple, yet terribly difficult, thing to do. You can't over-pursue and you must play assignment football. That is a very difficult thing for an athletic defense built around speed. Simply put, if the Tiger defense plays sloppy assignment football, Barclay will once again have his way with the Tigers. And if Barclay can muster up greater than 100 yards, it will be difficult for Clemson to win Saturday.

Chris Barclay feels he'll be ready.

"I don't really know what it is. I've had pretty good success playing them. They have a defense that pursues really well. We'll be ready for this weekend," said the junior running back.

2. Take What You Can Get
Wake Forest traditionally runs a 3-3-5 defensive scheme, similar to what Charlie Strong did at South Carolina several years ago. The 3-3-5 is a conservative defense that tries to keep everything in front of the defensive players. It also tries to force offenses into long drives in the hopes that there will be a malfunction at some point. The 3-3-5 also, traditionally, has been soft defending the run.

The Deacons will switch to the more traditional 4-3 this year, and that in itself could change this key completely if they do. Grobe's comments suggest that he is still sitting on the fence as to whether he will line up in a 3-3-5 or a 4-3 on Saturday. "I didn't have a timetable of switching defenses," Grobe said.

If he does switch to the 4-3 for Saturday, it will be to try and shore up the run defense.

"The switch will really help our defensive line. Last year our ends had to line up over tackles, and a lot of times this year they will be over tight ends. The interior linemen are better run stoppers, and this suits us a lot better." Grobe said.

If the Deacons play some 3-3-5 (which I suspect they will), Clemson will have to run the ball to move the chains consistently. This is going to take patience since running the ball, especially minus Duane Coleman, is not Clemson's forte. It will also mean that the Tigers will have to settle for long drives instead of the big play. This is an area that haunted Clemson last year versus Wake, especially in the first half. The Tigers had two drives of more than 10 plays each that resulted in zero points. That cannot happen this year.

Wake Forest defensive back Marcus McGruder admitted to the change being a work in progress. "The main change for us is that we can stop the run a lot better. We really improved over the spring and in preseason and are adjusting to the new defense."

3. Who Kicks The Ball?
Until I see Stephen Furr or Jad Dean kick in front of a packed stadium, excuse me while I have a slight bit of pessimism. Furr and Dean have been locked in a brutal battle over the field goal kicking job and Bowden has hinted that he may wait until Saturday to choose a kicker.

Both kickers have had more ups than downs in Fall camp, so the battle is a good one for the team. Dean's leg is certainly stronger, but Furr has shown better accuracy over the long haul.

What Tommy Bowden wants is an accurate kicker…somebody he can trust. It's too tempting for Bowden to want to go for a first down on 4th and 3 from the 20. With this offense, he feels like he can pick up the yardage, move the chains, and go get a touchdown.

So if Bowden is going to march a kicker out to get a three pointer, he wants to be assured that the kicker will make the kick. While Bowden would certainly like to see a kicker boot a 50 yard kick, he would rather see every kick from 30 yards go through the goal posts.

In the long run, it looks like we have two solid kickers. In the short term, who is going to kick Saturday and are they going to make all of their kicks? Stay tuned.

4. Musical Chairs Continue
Trying to keep up with Coach Scott's shifts and moves on the offensive line is like keeping up with three year old quintuplets at the grocery store. Coach Scott has moved his linemen around so much that by the time this goes to press the starters may all be playing different positions than I have them at right now.

Roman Fry has been the journeyman, playing every position on the line except center. While that speaks volumes to Fry's ability to adapt, you have to wonder whether or not he will have everything down mentally on Saturday. Let's say Roman is playing left guard. When the ball is snapped, is he going to lose his train of thought and forget he is at guard and think he is at tackle? Who knows?
One thing remains sure: all eyes will be on the left tackle position, which was horrid in the spring. Jesse Pickens has been the surprise of the spring and fall, and he apparently will get the job on Saturday. He has earned that by being the best left tackle on the team, and I expect he will play in the game like he practiced. But you still have to keep an eye on that situation since he will be starting for the first time.
As a whole, the offensive line should be able to move the Wake front four. Wake is one of two or three smallest lines that Clemson will play in 2004, and I expect Clemson to be able to get a push for the running game and contain in the passing game. If the line can't do that, it is going to be a long day and maybe a long season up front.

Regardless, it will be a point of concern Saturday.

5. Where's Your Head?
The 2003 game between these two teams was one that left a lasting impression. Both sides are downplaying the significance of revenge. Grobe downplayed the revenge factor this week, saying, "I see it as much a redeeming rather than revenge factor. This game [against Clemson] has grown into a rivalry for our guys over the past few years."

While revenge may or may not play a significant factor, there are some questions as to how much or how little last season's finishes by these two teams will carry over. Most of us know that Clemson finished by winning the last four games of the season against Florida State, Duke, South Carolina, and Tennessee in dominating fashion.

Many don't know that after the Clemson game, Wake Forest went winless in their remaining four games. The Deacons lost to North Carolina, Connecticut, and Maryland by a combined score of 134-79.

As amazing as Clemson's turnaround was last year, Wake's demise was almost as shocking.

What kind of momentum from 2003 will carry over for Clemson this season has been the subject of much debate since last January. Many think it is difficult to carry over that momentum, although I feel like there will be some residual benefits from the streak.

Wake's hangover from 2003 should be well erased from the mind by kickoff. But what happens if the Deacons suffer some adversity early in the game? Do they fold tent, thinking this is just an extension of the finish of last year? Or do they suck it up and not let the disappointment of 2003 carry over?

The loss last year to Wake was a wake up call for the Clemson players and coaches. Jim Grobe has out coached Tommy Bowden in each of the first 3 years Grobe has been in Winston-Salem.

Bowden has had all spring and summer to prepare for Wake, and I'm sure the Clemson game plan will be outstanding and will give the Tigers a great chance to win the game Saturday.

But Grobe has had just as much time to prepare for Clemson as Bowden has Wake, and that simple fact is the reason this game will not be a 12 point win like Las Vegas thinks.

Simply put, this is a 4th quarter game that will come down to who makes the crucial mistakes late and who makes the big plays. Trying to predict that is like trying to predict where Hurricane Frances will make land fall…not an easy assignment.

That being said, It think Clemson is the better football team playing with more confidence. I also think Clemson has more players on both sides of the ball that are capable of making the big play in the 4th quarter.

While I expect a dog fight, I think Clemson wins and exorcises the final demon from the 2003 football season.

Clemson 24 Wake Forest 20

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