The Aggies, under head coach Mike Dennehey, are off to a 2-4 start on the season with wins over Idaho and UNLV with losses to Alabama, Utah, Troy, and North Texas.
Here are my 5 keys to the Tigers defeating the Aggies:
1. Spread The Field
It seems like years since Clemson consistently got the ball in the hands of Airese Currie, Chansi Stuckey, Kelvin Grant, or Curtis Baham without a defensive player being draped over the top of him the moment he made the catch.
Utah State is decent against the pass, giving up only 165 yards a game through the air. So it will most certainly not be a cake walk for the passing game unless Clemson executes the offense. Finding a way for these receivers to get the ball in space is going to be a priority as the season goes on, and we'll see what the offensive coaches will do scheme wise to mix things up.
Utah State Head Coach Mike Dennehey sees some progress with his defense. "With the exception of three or four plays on defense, we are getting better". We'll see Saturday how much better."
2. Run. If Not Now…Maybe Never
You would be hard pressed to find a more pitiful run defense on Clemson's schedule than the one we will see this weekend. Utah State is giving up a brutal 228 yards on the ground so far this season, so there is no reason to believe Clemson won't at least try to run the football with consistency Saturday.
"I'd like to run it 65 percent of the time and pass it 35 percent of the time. That would be ideal. If I could do that, then we could be winning and I could run the ball late and control the game and not run the score up." Bowden said Tuesday.
The scary thought is…what happens if Clemson can't run the ball Saturday against the Aggies?
I don't want to think about it, and to be honest I don't think that will be a problem. Expect a steady does of Duane Coleman and Reggie Merriweather Saturday in an effort to get the Aggies to defend the run. A modest goal would be for Clemson to rush for 150 yards Saturday, but an attainable number is 200 yards on the ground.
If Clemson can rush for 200 yards Saturday, it probably won't create too many sleepless nights for the Maryland coaches. But at least it will give an ounce of confidence to the Clemson coaches and the offensive line…not to mention the running backs that have been given nothing close to a legitimate chance to succeed so far this year.
While it may not be the most entertaining brand of football, Clemson will more than likely try to line up and smash Utah State in the mouth at some point Saturday. Let's see if the Tigers can do it and how well they can do it. The answer will go a long way to the outcome of this game and the confidence (or lack thereof) that Clemson will take down the road with the running game.
3. Reckless Swagger
The Aggies are not exactly a juggernaut with their ground game, averaging only 76 yards per game. In other words, don't lose any sleep wondering if they are going to be able to line it up and run the ball. Clemson should shut the Aggie run down and keep Utah State under 100 yards, which should force the Aggies to try and get their yardage through the air.
The Aggies can throw the ball with Travis Cox averaging over 200 yards through the air. Typically, one dimensional football teams are in for a long day in Death Valley, and you would think that would be the case Saturday for the Aggies. Clemson has had trouble defensively in getting stops. The Tiger defense should be able to pin their ears back and go after Cox, and the result could be some big plays on defense. And let's face it; there have been very few big plays on defense for the Tigers so far this year.
Cox has thrown an astonishing 13 interceptions so far this year, but he has not lost the confidence of Dennehey.
"Everybody looks at (quarterback Travis) Cox and has a tendency to point a finger. However, what everyone fails to realize is that Cox led us down the field three or four times after the turnovers," said Dennehey.
The Clemson defense is in desperate need of a little swagger that can be backed up by play on the field. I expect a reckless game plan with Tiger defenders flying to the football. If all plays out as it should, expect the defense to make some plays and gain some of that 2003 swagger back…at least for one week.
4. Charlie's Comfort Zone
Charlie Whitehurst needs to find a groove. He has yet to see any type of consistent flow since the Georgia Tech game, and the Tigers desperately need him to gain a groove. I'm a firm believer in the need to get quarterbacks some easy completions early in the game just so they can get off to a good start. "It's tough to find a rhythm in 48 plays. It's tough to find a rhythm in 54 plays", Coach Bowden said Tuesday in reference to Whitehurst.
You could make the argument that Charlie made those early completions against Virginia, but I would argue that by the 2nd and 3rd drive he was already missing on others.
The swing pass, the slant, and the screen pass need to be a more integral part of the passing attack if for no other reason than to get Whitehurst some cheap completions to build his confidence and allow him to find that QB groove. On the flip side, it would not hurt to give these receivers some confidence in catching the ball as well.
Sometimes our schemes on offense are just too complex. There is nothing wrong with running a screen pass…just as Texas A&M, FSU, and UVA. They made a living off of it against Clemson earlier this year. And we may need to "dumb" down our passing attack just to give everybody a breath of fresh confidence.
5. Fans Pull Their Weight
I very rarely have the fans in my keys to the game, but this will have to be an exception to the rule. Great road crowds followed the Tigers across the country the past three weeks, and now the rest of Tiger Nation has the opportunity to welcome the Tigers back to Death Valley.
Are any of us thrilled to be 1-4? No. But the challenge that lies ahead for this football team also in a smaller way lies at the feet of the fans that love Clemson football. The Homecoming crowd should be solid, and I'll be stunned if it is not. But just being there will not be enough. This team needs a shot of adrenaline, and Clemson fans can give that shot early and often Saturday.
Coach Bowden agrees. "It will be good to get back. We'll need support from our fans. It will be good to go out and feel the environment that we haven't felt in a while. The atmosphere Clemson creates is something that is known throughout college football," said the sixth year head coach earlier this week.
Forget that Utah State rarely plays in stadiums this big. While that may hinder them to some degree, the crowd will be more of a benefit to Clemson's players than to the detriment of Utah State. Get to your seat early and make noise as the Tigers come down the hill. Supporting your team when it needs it most is what makes great football programs great and not just average.
Let's see if Clemson football has great fans.
Analysis And Prediction
Coach Bowden summed it up well Tuesday by saying, "We've been close in every game in the 4th quarter. I don't want them (the players) to lose sight that we aren't doing everything wrong. We're not happy where we are, but we're not far off."
Clemson has not been very good of late. I realize that is not the most profound thing I've ever said, but it had to be said nonetheless. What Clemson is in need of right now is a home game against a team struggling more than they are. And Utah State is that remedy.
There are a hundred reasons why this should get ugly Saturday with the Tigers winning by a bundle. And I can think of a few ways where this thing gets too close for comfort if Clemson shows up going through the motions.
There are times when teams need to make a statement to get the confidence back. Beating the heck out of Utah State will not necessarily help Clemson as they prepare for Maryland, but it sure would not hurt the Tiger's ego either.
A big, ugly route is needed Saturday. The coaches need it. The players need it. And the fans need it. I'm not sure this team is capable of doing it quite honestly, but I don't think this one will be a nail biter either.
While Clemson could use a 45-7 type win, I think a more modest win will be the reality. Clemson moves to 2-4 on the year and prepares for a big two game stretch against Maryland and N.C. State with a little more confidence.
Clemson 34 Utah State 16
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