Here are my 5 keys to the game Saturday.
1. Where's Your Head?
It would be easy, almost acceptable, for Clemson to come out and lay an egg Saturday. Duke is not a very good football team and has no business winning the game against Clemson.
The Tigers are coming off an emotional win against a top 10 team on the road. The Tigers are also in the midst of a three game stretch where the games have come down to the final play before the outcome was decided. And the Tigers will be playing in front of the smallest crowd they have seen since their spring game back in April.
"It's nothing to negate the staff, the players, or their intensity," Bowden said this week about Duke. "But in a small alumni school, it's a difficult draw. You'll come out here (Wallace Wade Stadium) and there will be 10,000 the whole game. It's different."
Add all that to the plate and it will be a near miracle if Clemson does not play uninspired Saturday. And let's face it; a 59-0 victory will do little for Clemson's program or the confidence level heading into the showdown with the Gamecocks.
So the goal here is not to whip Duke up and down the field. A better hope is that the Tigers win and win comfortably. Something similar to what the Tigers did last year against the Blue Devils after the win against FSU will do just nicely.
However, something like two years ago in Durham would not be so nice. And it is possible that something like that could happen if Clemson is in sleep walking mode. Bringing a game face to Durham will be the key to getting a win without sweating bullets in the 4th quarter.
2. Run Some More
A pleasant surprise in Miami was the play of the Clemson running game, led by Reggie Merriweather's 114 yards. "I think he's pretty much on track with a lot of other great backs" Bowden said this week. "He's not great yet, but he's doing pretty good."
Miami showed vulnerability in stopping the run by having only the 7th best stats in stopping the run in the ACC. Duke is even worse, ranked 10th in the league in stopping the run by giving up a whopping 229.4 yards a game on the ground.
While Clemson fans will expect the Tigers to throw the ball early and often in order to blow Duke away, expect a more steady approach with Merriweather and Coleman attempting to chew up some yardage on the ground. The positive results of that could help fuel the confidence of an offensive line that is beginning to play a little better each week.
The result of running the ball will also open the passing game against the Duke secondary, which is also pretty bad (9th in the ACC in passing yardage allowed). But running will also keep the rest of the teams on the Tiger schedule from ignoring the run in their game preparation.
Clemson is not a running team, per se. But the Tigers are beginning to show signs of not being a horrible running team…and that is music to our ears.
3. Schneider Heat
Duke quarterback Mike Schneider is ranked a respectable 7th in the ACC in passing efficiency, ahead of Joel Statham, Cory Randolph, Reggie Ball and Charlie Whitehurst.
Schneider loves to throw the ball to sophomore Ben Patrick, who is 9th in the league in receptions per game. Duke's MO is obviously running the football under Ted Roof, but the Blue Devils won't be able to run Saturday unless they can keep the Tigers off balance with some passes.
The Tiger defense has terrorized the past four quarterbacks they have faced, and expect a similar game plan Saturday. How well the Tigers get to Schneider and how easily he gets rattled if they do will go a long way in telling the tale of this game.
And Bowden understands the importance of what his defense has done the past few weeks getting after opposing teams quarterbacks. "We are getting more pressure than before. I think our seniors for the first time, before the Utah State game, had a player's only meeting. It started at that meeting. Maybe that had something to do with it."
I'm not suggesting that the Clemson offense needs to deliberately bog down in order to give Jad Dean some field goal attempts Saturday. But if Clemson does bog down, Dean needs to get some confidence back after a 1-4 night in Miami last week.
Bowden has publicly supported Dean, and rightfully so. But the Tigers are going to need some consistency in the kicking game if they are going to win the remaining games on the schedule after the Blue Devils. And getting Dean's confidence back is step one in that process.
5. Injury Free
As I've said, this is a game where you have to set different standards for keys to the game. Let's assume the Tigers can get a win Saturday. I realize that it may not happen, but bare with me for just a second.
A secondary benefit in winning would be to avoid getting any injuries that would plague the Tigers in next week's game versus the Gamecocks. Grabbing a lead and allowing starters to sit in the late stages of the game is one way to help avoid injuries, but I doubt Clemson has the ability to put the Blue Devils completely away.
Therefore, keeping folks from getting banged up will be as important Saturday as anything other than just getting the win. It would be nice to head back home with a healthy bunch of football players ready to get after their arch rival.
Analysis and Prediction
These games are really no fun to pick because who really would pick the Blue Devils to win? But the reality of this game is that the Tigers are probably still not clicking enough on offense to really put a ton of points on the board Saturday.
So, in many ways I think this game will be closer than most Clemson fans want it to be. That, in itself, would not be a major concern to me because I have almost accepted to myself that there is going to be a letdown by the team. What I don't want to see is Clemson lose, and I would prefer that it turns out to be a game that I don't have to bite my nails off watching.
I won't bite my nails off, but it will be unspectacular nonetheless. Clemson moves to 6-4 overall and 5-3 in the ACC.
Clemson 30 Duke 17
5 Keys to Victory
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