For the second straight week, Clemson has the opportunity to leap the team it is playing in the ACC standings if the Tigers are able to pull out a win.
Here are my 5 keys to whipping the Wolfpack:
1. T.A. McLendon: Hangnail or Hero?
Ask any Atlantic Coast Conference football fan what they think of State running back T.A. McLendon and they will undoubtedly say, "He's great if he can stay healthy."
The fact that McLendon is not listed on the injury report put out by the Wolfpack this week is a minor miracle in itself. T.A. played hard and played well last Saturday night against Miami, racking up 140+ yards in the Wolfpack loss.
T.A. is probably the one player on either team that could literally hold the game in his hands. He also has a history of killing Clemson, literally running over the Tigers two years ago in Death Valley and then limping to a couple of key first downs late in the game last year in Raleigh that helped seal the Wolfpack win.
Unless McClendon turns his ankle getting out of bed this week, he will start the game Saturday in Death Valley. Trying to take bets on whether he will make it the whole game uninjured in Clemson is like betting that a tornado will touch down in your back yard within the next week. It's a complete crap shoot.
But if McClendon stays healthy and chugs out close to 150 yards Saturday, Clemson has little to no chance to win the game. The Tigers have been much better in stopping the run the last few weeks, so there is hope that the defense is ready for this challenge. But State throws the ball better than Utah State or Maryland, so the Tigers won't be able to pin their ears back as much without fear of getting burnt in the passing game like the past two weeks.
Keeping McClendon under 100 yards rushing will tell the tale of this game. Let's hope for that hangnail that McClendon has a history of getting.
2. Return of the Red Herring
Former Clemson defensive coordinator Reggie Herring returns to Clemson Saturday with a defense that ranks #2 in the nation statistically.
And it's nothing new for Herring, who guided the 2000 Clemson defense to a top 5 ranking in mid season before slipping terribly down the stretch in losses to Georgia Tech and Florida State.
The entire Clemson Nation waited patiently for Herring's defense at State to implode in similar fashion in Raleigh the first six weeks of the season. But State did not crumble until Miami came to town last week and laid 45 points and 415 yards on the Wolfpack. "His team right now, they blitz a whole bunch, and that's kind of his personality," Tommy Bowden said Tuesday.
Trying to determine if State was exposed is a little premature. First, Clemson is not nearly as good up front on the offensive line as the Hurricanes are. Secondly, Brock Berlin had by far his best game of the season at the expense of the Wolfpack.
"Let me tell you something about Reggie - every game his intensity level is immeasurable. He doesn't care who it is, he just wants to win. I've worked with now for seven games and I'm not sure he even knows who were playing, because he's so focused on getting our defense ready," Amato said this week.
You can bet that Clemson is going to attack, because that is what Herring defenses have problems defending. The N.C. State secondary was not exposed early in the season as a weakness because of a schedule dominated with running teams. But the Wolfpack have struggled in pass defense when matched up against passing teams over the past few weeks. Darian Durant threw for 192 yards and three touchdowns several weeks ago while Berlin racked up 265 yards and five touchdowns last week.
Expect Clemson to at least challenge Lamont Reid, Andre Maddux, Marcus Hudson, and Dovonte Edwards on Saturday. The good news is this group can be burnt for big plays because of the aggressive style of Herring. The bad news is the Clemson offense has not shown the ability in the first seven games to make those big plays.
That trend must change for the Tigers on Saturday.
3. Special Blunders
Chuck Amato's team lacks discipline at times and has the tendency to give up big plays in the special teams' area. State is averaging 11 penalties for 77 yards per game compared to 6 penalties for 44 yards by their opponents.
Against Miami, the Wolfpack were flagged 10 times for 95 yards, most of which came at critical times when the Wolfpack could ill afford to be undisciplined. And it seems to annoy Amato that the media is dogging him about the penalties.
"Miami had 10 penalties too, but nobody is asking their coach about their penalties," Amato said. "It's the same number we had. No, I don't like it. Some of them were dumb and foolish. Those were on both sides too. You get that kind of energy you're going to get some foolish penalties. We've gotten better and better and turnovers and penalties."
The Wolfpack have also given up some big plays in special teams. Virginia Tech had 107 yards in punt returns and Miami racked up 169 yards in kickoff returns last week, including a 100 yard touchdown.
While State has been really hurt with penalties, the Tigers have been good most of the year in avoiding the yellow flags. Clemson only is averaging 6 penalties per game for 48 yards. But last week Clemson made some stupid personal foul penalties against Maryland by offensive lineman, so that must be corrected this week.
But Clemson's obvious strength so far this year has been on special teams. Clemson is averaging 13 yards per punt return and 30 yards per kick return. On the reverse side, Clemson is only giving up 9.8 yards per punt return and 22.5 on kickoff returns.
Cole Chason continues to be impressive, averaging right at 40 yards per punt and Jad Dean has consistently kicked the ball into the end zone on kickoffs.
All of which add up to a situation where Clemson is decidedly better than N.C. State on special teams. And in a game where you are the slight underdog, outplaying your opponent on special teams and in the penalty department is critical.
4. Bang on the Banged Up
N.C. State literally looks like the walking wounded up front. Right offensive tackle Derek Morris (high ankle sprain) will not play Saturday. Center Leroy Harris is questionable with a sprained shoulder, but rumors are that the coaches are not optimistic about Harris playing Saturday.
The preseason starter at center, Jed Paulsen, has been out after having ankle surgery. Freshman Luke Lathan would be inserted into the lineup if Harris can't go.
It's not any better at the guard position where Amato has moved folks around in order to have warm bodies to play.
"It's nice to go in there and play next to the same guy the whole game, but at the same time, in practice, we rotate with each other," said senior left tackle Chris Colmer. "During the game, you're not really thinking about it that much. You know guys are capable of doing the job like Luke and Jon Holt did."
To complicate matters for the Wolfpack, backup quarterback Macus Stone is listed as doubtful because of a sprained knee.
"You've been coached, you've been drilled and you've been prepared for seven weeks now and it's time to play like a first-stringer", Amato said referring to his reserves.
All of which should give the bubbling confidence of the Clemson front seven even more to gun at. The Tiger front has hit hard and swarmed to the ball in the past two weeks, something that we had not seen consistently in the first five games of the season. Expect defensive coordinator John Lovett to have his linebackers in the mode to stop McClendon by pounding away at the State offensive front. Lovette would love to swarm McClendon and force the State offense to pass protect for Davis.
Coach Bowden thinks the Clemson defense may have turned the corner. "I think the defensive players want to see if they can take it as far as they did last year. The last two performances have been very impressive."
Can that make-shift offensive line unit keep the blitz happy Clemson linebackers from making plays Saturday? If it can't, Clemson will have a legitimate shot at pulling the upset.
5. Stay in Front of the Chains
Clemson has had its share of problems on offense this year and they have been well documented. But last week a new problem arose with almost disastrous results. Clemson spent much of the day in second and long and third and long. And when I mean long, I don't mean seven or eight yards. I mean 10+ yards.
The five sacks were part of the problem. The end around reverses that lost big yardage was a part of the problem. And the penalties were a problem.
State's front four is scary good, led my Mario Williams and Manny Lawson at the two ends. Clemson has enough problems protecting Charlie Whitehurst in situations where the Tigers could run or pass. But if you take the option of running out of the equation and you let Williams and Lawson rush up field without consequence, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out you've likely got some problems on your hands.
Part of the solution is some unpredictability in the offensive play calling. An incomplete pass on first down followed by a running back draw on second and ten is not exactly surprising anybody at this point in the season.
The other part of the solution is not losing yardage on 1st and 2nd down due to sacks or penalties. Clemson fell behind the chains way too many times last week and it became futile to pick up first downs because of that.
"We haven't executed and we need to play smart. There are things like that where we have to improve", Bowden said Tuesday.
Down and distance is a cliché, but it will be a big part of Clemson's success (or lack thereof) Saturday afternoon.
Analysis and Prediction
Clemson most certainly catches State at a good time after the humbling loss at home last week to Miami in a game where the Wolfpack and their fans poured their entire souls into.
But State has rebounded from their other losses this season by sniffing out wins at Virginia Tech and at Maryland. How much of a hangover will the Wolfpack have from the Miami game is to be determined, but I imagine it will play a small factor in this game.
The bigger issue to this game revolves around the Clemson offense, which was horrific last week versus Maryland. With all due respect to the Clemson defense (which has played well recently), there is no way Clemson can stay competitive with State Saturday with an offensive day like last week.
There is sentiment with the coaches and players that Clemson is ready to break out of that offensive funk and play a good football game. It will need to happen Saturday, or Clemson will lose and lose big.
While State is not nearly as good as they thought they were at several times this season, they are still a good football team that is playing better than Clemson is right now. That's the bad news.
The good news is that Clemson can play better and the Tigers are at home. And I think we will see a much more exciting football game Saturday than what we were forced to sit through last week.
But while the game will be more interesting, the result will be down right depressing. Two weeks ago I thought Clemson could very easily win this game, but after what I witnessed on offense last week I see no reason to believe the Tigers will win. It's amazing what an ugly win can do to ones confidence.
Clemson's bowl hopes all but extinguish as the Tigers fall to 3-5 on the year.
N.C. State 20 Clemson 10
5 Keys to Whipping the Wolfpack
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