The game will mark the 2nd time in modern history that the Tigers have played on a Thursday night in Death Valley. The other time was a 3-point loss to Georgia Tech back at the end of the Tommy West era.
The Wolfpack come to Clemson ranked 9th in the country, just off of a 2-point win over Duke last Saturday. Here are my 5 keys to beating NC State, and ending their championship run Thursday evening.
Clemson did a nice job for the first six games of the season hiding their weaknesses on the offensive line. But last Saturday, Wake Forest exposed the Tigers lack of talent and depth up front. Despite only rushing three and four defensive players, Wake consistently got pressure on Willie Simmons, forcing the Tiger quarterback to throw a little earlier then what he would have liked.
State has quietly put together impressive defensive statistics in their first 8 games of the year. Entering their game versus Duke, the Wolfpack were leading the league in sacks and were 2nd behind only Clemson in total defense. While the State offense gets most of the credit, the defense has been able to put up solid statistics with hard play and plenty of speed to burn.
On one hand, you can argue that State has not played the toughest schedule in the world. On the other hand, you can say Clemson's greatest weakness is lies on the offensive line. Any way you look at it, the Tigers must protect Willie better Thursday night if they plan on moving the ball with any sort of consistency.
T.A. McLendon versus Rambert/Kelly
State's super freshman T.A. McLendon rushes for almost 100 yards per game. Added together, Bernard Rambert and Keith Kelly are right at 100 yards per game. While most of America and the 80,000 fans in Death Valley will be focusing on Simmons and Rivers, the game will most likely be won or lost in the running game.
Wake Forest was able to put up scary numbers on the ground two weeks after Florida State was able to have similar success. An optimist would say the Tiger defense was the victim of a NFL running back (Greg Jones), and a wacky offensive scheme (Wake Forest) for those gaudy running numbers. A pessimist would say that Clemson's defensive weakness is stopping the run. Keeping McLendon under 100 yards will be critical to the Tiger defensive success.
Just as important, the Tigers' two headed monster at running back in Bernard Rambert and Yusef Kelly will need to match McLendon yard for yard. If the Tigers can run the ball effectively, it will keep Rivers off the field and also open the passing lanes for Simmons.
Keep State's Receivers In Front
Philip Rivers does a nice job of spreading the ball around to just about every receiver that rolls out onto the field. Jericho Cotchery and Bryan Peterson are two of Rivers' favorite targets, but trying to focus on one or two guys is fruitless in my estimation simply because Rivers will throw to whoever is open.
The Clemson secondary has done a nice job in not allowing big plays through the air, although there have been times when they have been beat and the pass has fallen incomplete. It would be foolish to assume that Rivers', who leads the country in numerous passing statistics, will do the same thing.
While being a pleasant surprise, the Clemson's defensive backs will face their toughest challenge of the season Thursday eveing. Making N.C. State drive the length of the field instead of giving up big plays will be one of the most important aspects of the Tigers' defensive game plan.
Grab A Lead…Tighten The Noose
N.C. State's schedule has been, well, pitiful. But to the credit of the Wolfpack, they remain the only undefeated team in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In fact, close wins at Texas Tech and at home versus Duke are the only exceptions to a fairly smooth ride in their impressive 8-0 start.
There is a lot riding on this game for Clemson, but in the big picture of college football this year, there is much more riding on this game for N.C. State. It is fair to say that the Wolfpack have outside ambitions of winning an ACC Championship and possibly a National Championship. Putting them behind on the road (in a place other than Chapel Hill) would be interesting to see how they react.
Clemson, on the other hand, has been poor at holding leads. The Tigers led in all three of their losses, but were unable to seal the deal and grab the win. If Clemson can get out to a 10 or 14 point lead, it will be very interesting to watch how the Pack handle their own aspirations as well as the Death Valley crowd. Will State crack? While I can't say for sure, it would be very, very interesting to what would happen.
The D-Ham Special, Please
In Thursday night ESPN games, big time players tend to rise to the top of the barrel. There is no doubt that Derrick Hamilton will be the most talented player on the field Thursday night, and he will have to play like it if the Tigers are going to win.
Hamilton dazzled in Tallahassee several Thursday's ago, but the last two weeks he has been just another good wide receiver and kick/punt returner. While being just another good player is enough on most weekends to help pull the Tigers through, it will not be enough Thursday night. Hamilton will get more touches than the past few weeks, that's for sure and the bottomline is that he will need to turn those touches into big plays. Simply put, he may be the one player that holds the Tiger's fate in his own hands.
While I am 6-1 on the season in picking either for or against the Tigers, I find this week to be one of the tougher games to visualize. State has the ability to run straight over Clemson, and the performance level in Raleigh seems to match some of the best teams in the country through the first 8 games of the year.
Nonetheless, there is something eerie about this game. Something is in the air that seems to spell trouble for the Wolfpack faithful.
On Clemson's side, there is enough indecision about how good or bad the Tigers are to give State the impression that they should be favored. Clemson, at times, has been as good as anybody in the ACC. At other times, Clemson has been as bad as the worst teams in the conference cellar. State has to sense that, even if their coaches preach otherwise.
Last year's game means almost nothing, even though the Tigers were able to move the ball at will in Raleigh. That confidence may be able to extend over in this game, but I wouldn't count it once these two step onto the field under the bright lights of Death Valley.
While State could easily roll in this one, I have a pretty solid hunch that they won't. The Tigers are playing at home, and seemingly have all of the intangibles in their corner. Mark it down right now, N.C. State will suffer their first, and maybe only, regular season loss Thursday night.
Ending N.C. State's Dream Season
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