Let's quickly look back to last week, where I picked a 24-20 Clemson win over Wake Forest which moved my season prognostication record to 1-0.
Clemson enters the game 1-0 (1-0 in the ACC) while the Rambling Wreck also enter 1-0 (0-0 in the ACC) after defeating Samford 28-7 last week.
1. It's a Ball Game
After getting romped last season 39-3, Reggie Ball finished his freshman campaign in Atlanta by throwing for almost 2,000 yards and rushing for another 384 as the season progressed.
Ball is not as quick as, say, D.J. Shockley or Woodrow Dantzler, butr he does have the ability to beat you to the corner with his legs as well as elude pressure in the pocket. He also has started out the 2004 season on a solid note, throwing for 201 yards and two touchdowns in the Jackets' season opening win over Samford.
What Ball does not have, at least based on his performance last year, is the ability to consistently read defenses and pressure opposing teams into adjusting their defensive game plan during the game. In general, he is a quarterback that locks in on one or two receivers without reading the defense and throwing to the best outlet.
Expect John Lovett to mix his coverages and allow Justin Miller and Tye Hill to play more tight man coverage this week against Tech in an attempt to confuse the redshirt sophomore.
Wide receivers Nate Curry, Levon Thomas, and true freshman Calvin Johnson all had solid games last week and are capable of putting up big numbers. But those wide outs can only do that if Ball is able to get the ball into their hands. Simply put, if Ball is able to react and read the defense, his wideouts are good enough to make plays. This will be an interesting challenge for Clemson's secondary, and an interesting chess match for the defensive coaches.
2. Tackle Training
Fact: Clemson did not tackle well last week against Wake Forest. The defensive line missed tackles, the linebackers missed a bunch of tackles, and the secondary missed a few tackles. Tommy Bowden has said this week that Clemson will need to return to some fundamentals during the week to shore up the problems that persisted against Wake Forest.
Tech running back P. J. Daniels is no slouch, having rushed for almost 1,500 yards last season and 169 last week. Clemson was able to shut down Daniels last year, which was a big reason why the Tigers won that game so handedly. But if Clemson is going to shutdown Daniels this year, tackling must improve from week one to week two.
Tech's focus will obviously be on Leroy Hill, as Chan Gailey states, "You better know where he is. He can really find the football."
While Gailey's admiration for Hill will be a common theme as the season progresses, the importance of the play of Anthony Waters, Nick Watkins, and Eric Sampson become magnified assuming Hill will draw the attention of every opposing offense he faces this season. And those guys, along with the front four for the Tigers, are going to have to wrap Daniels up every single time.
If not, expect Daniels to break a long run similar to Barclay last week.
3. Spread The Wealth
It won't take long for other teams to figure out that Chansi Stuckey and Airese Currie are the two biggest threats at wide receiver for Clemson this season. Teams around the league are going to quickly adjust, placing more emphasis on Stuckey and Currie, while neglecting Kelvin Grant, Curtis Baham, and Ben Hall.
Last week, Clemson was certainly two-dimensional in the passing attack, focusing squarely on Currie and Stuckey when Clemson needed first downs. Expect Tech to watch the film and make adjustments on those two, especially Stuckey.
While that extra focus is probably bad news for Chansi, it is great news for Kelvin Grant and Ben Hall. Stuckey and Currie will draw the attention, and possible double teams, allowing single coverage for Grant on one side of the field and for Hall if he releases instead of staying in to block.
Even Gailey understands what Clemson was able to do last week, saying, "They put their guys in position to be successful. They spread them out and give you different formations. He is able to figure out where they all belong and throw it to the guy that is open."
Charlie Whitehurst has proven that he can take what he is given and spread the field. That being said, it would be easy for him to simply assume that Stuckey and Currie are his only trusted guys to go to on a big 3rd down.
Understanding that others may be in man coverage, Whitehurst may be able to use Stuckey and Currie more as decoys to getting the ball to other players. If he is able to do that, expect some big plays to materialize Saturday. And if Charlie stays focused on Stuckey and Currie solely like he did last week, expect the offense to struggle similar to what we all saw in the third quarter against Wake Forest.
4. Run To Those Holes
I think it is quite obvious that Clemson is not going to be a dominant running football team in 2004. I think it's also obvious that Clemson is going to struggle in the running game until Duane Coleman returns from his broken foot.
That being said, Georgia Tech is ripe for the taking in the running game. While Tech surrendered just 42 yards on the ground last week, it is very possible that Clemson could move the ball consistently against Tech. While Tech is very good on the defensive line (led by end Eric Henderson) the Yellow Jacket linebackers are young and inexperienced.
At linebacker, Chris Reis had 10 tackles last week, drawing the praise of Chan Gailey who said, "Chris did a really nice job considering it was his first ballgame. He's not the fastest or strongest, but he is going to be around the football."
Yusef Kelly is a hard nosed running back, but he simply could not make it to the holes last Saturday against Wake before they collapsed.
Hopefully, this offensive line will maintain their blocks longer this week, but you have to assume that Reggie Merriweather and Kyle Browning are going to get more snaps. Both have a quicker hit to the hole, something that may be needed until this line can establish the line of scrimmage with more regularity.
Regardless of who is running the ball, Clemson simply cannot continue winning games rushing for less than 100 yards. Kelly deserves the start, but Merriweather and Browning deserve some snaps (assuming they can handle their blocking requirements at a satisfactory level).
5. Reverse The Turnovers
A rather bizarre anomaly of last week's game with Wake is that Clemson was able to win the game while losing the turnover battle. Clemson's quick strike ability does not require that the Tigers win the turnover battle, but breaking even is usually a prerequisite for a win.
Two of Clemson's turnovers were with the Tigers driving for a score, with one coming inside the red zone. Is it possible that this could happen again this week and Clemson still pull out a win? Yes, but don't count on it.
Tech is also going to throw the ball more than Wake did last week, and that in itself will offer up more opportunities for Clemson's talented secondary to make some plays. Playing Wake Forest and their offense is absolutely no fun for the secondary, but this week will be a return to normalcy with Tech bringing a more traditional offensive attack to Death Valley.
Breaking even in the turnover department will be critical this week, and winning the battle may mean a big Clemson win Saturday night.
Analysis and Prediction
"This is really not one of those games where you have to do special things like bring out a visual aid to get them to focus. They will be focused and ready to go for this one," Gailey said this week in preparing for the Clemson game.
And I agree. Clemson and Georgia Tech have battled it out in some great college football games over the past few years. Last year, Clemson did something to Tech that they have not been able to do since silent movies were popular.
Give Tech the edge in the revenge department, but that should be outweighed by the home field advantage of a sold out and rowdy Death Valley. Clemson had the fortune of playing a tough game last week, and Georgia Tech did not. Clemson also showed that they know how to handle adversity in a big game if it is presented, and Tech did not.
While I do think the 39-3 win last year was an anomaly, I do think Clemson is a better football team that is playing at home after a good test in week 1. That, in itself, does not make for a Clemson win. There are plenty of variables that could mean a Clemson loss on Saturday night, but I have a hunch the Tigers are ready to improve on the first game against Wake and pick up the critical 2nd ACC win.
It won't be as ugly as last year by a long stretch, but it will be much more comfortable than last Saturday.
Clemson 31 Georgia Tech 17
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