The Tigers return to the Orange Bowl for the first time since that memorable January night in 1982 when the Tigers defeated Nebraska for the National Championship.
This Clemson team will not be playing for a championship this time around, but the stakes are still very high as the Tigers try to take a step closer to bowl eligibility and the Hurricanes fight to remain in the hunt for an 2004 ACC Championship.
Here are my 5 keys to the game:
1. First Down Success
One of the big things Clemson did last week against N.C. State was avoiding bad plays on first down. The offensive staff mixed up the play calls to balance some runs and throws at just the right times to allow Clemson to enter 2nd and mid-range instead of 2nd and nine or more.
The Tiger passing game, while improved somewhat in the win versus N.C. State, is still not clicking well enough that the Tigers can play behind the chains against the Hurricanes and expect to have success.
The Miami defense, statistically speaking, is far below what the Tigers have played so far this year. Miami ranks 7th in the ACC in total defense and behind N.C. State, Florida State, Maryland, Georgia Tech, and Virginia. So, in theory, the sledding will be easier for the Tigers against the Hurricanes simply because the Hurricanes have shown some vulnerability.
Larry Coker, head coach of Miami, praised the play of Charlie Whitehurst this week. "It is going to be a key for us to put some pressure on him, because he is a very good passer and a good leader."
And the Hurricane defense may not be as good as some of the teams Clemson has played earlier in the year, but they are still pretty good. So that most certainly does not mean that the Tigers can waltz into the Orange Bowl and expect to score points if they consistently have negative yardage via sacks, botched plays, or penalties.
Down and distance will once again play a major role in this outcome.
2. Rolle Call
Antrel Rolle has had about as much hype heading into a football season as one could ever expect. And, by most accounts, Rolle has lived up to much of it.
Expect Rolle to match up with Clemson's leading receiver, Airese Currie. Currie leads the ACC in receptions per game with 5.88 and he has consistently proven he is Charlie Whitehurst's most dependable receiver.
Because Currie has been so good, and partly because no other Clemson receiver has really stepped forward, expect the Miami defense to focus on stopping Currie and making the other Tiger receivers make plays.
And the Hurricanes certainly have that shut down corner in Rolle, who will undoubtedly shadow Currie all evening long. Can Clemson find ways to get the ball to Currie between 5-10 times a game like they have in the past? And if not, which Clemson receiver is going to pick up the slack?
3. The Fall of Berlin?
Miami quarterback Brock Berlin has certainly been the whipping boy to some of the Hurricanes' struggles the past two years. And much of the criticism of Berlin was well founded and backed up by his stats in big games.
But the senior quarterback apparently has turned the corner, lighting up the past few weeks as if he is a Heisman candidate. Berlin has thrown for 1,111 yards and 13 touchdowns the last four games. In addition, Berlin's passing efficiency rating has jumped from 117.2 to 147.6 during that 4 game stretch versus Georgia Tech, Louisville, N.C. State and North Carolina.
Berlin leads the ACC in passing with 226.7 yards per game while throwing for a league best 14 yards per reception and a league-high 15 touchdown passes against ACC foes.
If Berlin has settled into an excellent quarterback like his statistics suggest, the Tigers are going to have a hard time winning Saturday night. Clemson must find a way to get to Berlin and rattle him around a little bit in the hopes that he will revert back to some of his bad habits from earlier this year and last year.
Expect a steady does of blitzes from John Lovette to try and accomplish these goals. If Clemson is successful in getting to Berlin, it could be a good day. Coker praised the Clemson defense this week, saying "Their defense is a strength for their team. They have played very well on defense the entire year, and in the games they have won the defense has been terrific."
Clemson's challenge will be getting to Berlin and that holds a big key too this game. Just ask N.C. State what happens if you don't get to Berlin…and the answer is not pretty.
4. The Miller and Hester Show
Justin Miller and Miami's Devin Hester are two of the most electric special teams players in the country. Hester is third in the nation in punt returns with a 26.2 yard average and third in the nation in kickoff returns with a 31.7 yard average.
Miller is second in the nation in kickoff returns with a 33.9 yard average and is 16th in the nation in punt returns with a 14.7 yard average.
Hester has four touchdowns on special teams (three punts and one kickoff) while Miller has three (two kickoffs, one punt).
Speaking about Hester, Coach Coker said "We are always going to have a package for him. You can see the speed he has with the touchdown he scored against North Carolina."
To say the game could hinge on the play of these two players is simply and understatement. For the first time all year, Tommy Bowden has hinted that he may kick the ball out of bounds on punts and kickoffs for fear of Hester.
"We've talked a lot about what we are going to do in the special teams", Bowden said Tuesday. "The plan is not to kick it to him. He presents a lot of problems, only because he's really, really good. I brought in Cole and Jad and talked to them yesterday about how important they are this week."
While I don't expect Clemson to actually kick the ball out of bounds Saturday, the point Bowden makes is clear.
That feeling is mutual as Coach Coker went out of his way to praise the Clemson return game, saying "They have really good return players and the return yardage they had against Florida State could have been a national record."
It could be quite a show on special teams Saturday evening.
5. Run to Throw
Miami ranks 7th in the ACC in rushing defense, so there is hope for Clemson (ranked 11th in ACC rushing offense) in their efforts to run the football Saturday night.
Miami is giving up 153.7 yards a game on the ground this year. However, if you take the first two games against Florida State and Louisiana Tech out of the equation, the Hurricanes are giving up a whopping 193 yards per game on the ground the past 5 weeks. "We are thin in some areas, but I think we can play better", Coker said Tuesday about his defense. "Our defensive line did not play very well against North Carolina. We got blocked, our line game was not crisp, and we put very little pressure on the quarterback."
The problem is that Tigers rarely break the 100 yard mark in rushing and are only averaging a measly 97 yards per game for the year.
Miami may have some cracks in the running game, and Coach Bowden knows how important it is for Clemson to find a way to run the ball. "North Carolina ran and threw the ball. It looks like they (Miami) are giving up more plays of over 20 yards or more, more consistently than in the past."
But the Tigers aren't going to walk into the Orange Bowl and win by just throwing the ball Saturday night. This may be the Tiger's best opportunity to establish a running game this year minus the Utah State game. As hard as it is to believe, Miami is simply bad at stopping the run. And Clemson is going to have to find a way to keep the Hurricanes from pinning their ears back Saturday night to defend the passing game.
Analysis and Prediction
Miami is ripe for the taking. The Hurricanes are a very good football team, but they have proven over the course of the season that they are not a great football team. They needed, and got, excellent play against Louisville and N.C. State down the stretch to escape with wins. However their luck ran out against North Carolina last Saturday in Chapel Hill.
It will be intriguing to see where their heads are, considering their hopes of a National Championship have been extinguished with the Tar Heel loss. "We need to put the loss behind us", Coker said Tuesday. "A loss is tough, because we have not lost very much. We just need to put it behind us and regroup and see how good we can be. Everybody was down after the loss."
While Miami may be ripe for the picking, the bigger question revolves around the Clemson Tigers. Is this team ready to go on the road and get a big win to solidify that things have turned around similar to last season?
Clemson most certainly is not going to get overlooked by the Hurricanes. "We'll get their best effort. We'll get their full attention", Bowden said this week.
Bowden went on to say that he thinks this team is returning to the swagger it had at the end of last season. "I think our defense is playing up to the level it was during the last four games of the year, we just haven't matched that offensively. I think eventually it will. If we can just catch fire offensively we'll be a position to do some things down the stretch."
So the million dollar question is this. Can the Tiger offense match the defense and put together a complete game good enough to beat Miami in the Orange Bowl?
I, fretfully so, regret that I must again error on the side of pessimism. This offense improved from the Maryland game to the State game, but it's going to have to improve again this week if Clemson is going to win.
The Tigers fall to 4-5 on the season and 3-4 in the ACC and remain two games away from bowl eligibility.
Miami 24 Clemson 13
5 Keys to Victory
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