Obviously Deshaun Watson's emergence has been the story so far for Clemson's offense. Has he shown any weaknesses?
Honestly, not yet.
Vic Koenning tried to make him beat the UNC defense with his arm by stacking the box to take away the running game. Clemson rushed 44 times for less than 100 yards, but Watson torched the Tar Heels’ secondary for a school-record six touchdowns.
NC State’s defensive personnel is better, so the Wolfpack will have a better opportunity for success. The one thing Dave Huxtable should try is different looks. Try to keep the true freshman off-balance with some man coverage and some zone. Blitz some but not too often because Watson leads the country with an 85% completion percentage against the blitz. Make him dink-and-dunk his way down the field to see if he’s capable of doing that without turning it over.
Watson could be better in the zone-read game too... he's made the wrong read on a handful of occasions thus far.
How would you assess his overall play so far?
Outstanding. I’ve never personally seen a freshman quarterback get off to a better start than Deshaun. His skill set is through the roof, but his calm demeanor may be even more impressive.
Talk about the rotation Clemson is using at running back. It seems like a committee approach. Have they been pleased with the ground game?
It’s been lackluster up to this point. They have a bunch of unproven guys like Wayne Gallman, Adam Choice, C.J. Davidson and senior D.J. Howard. Their combined effectiveness has been limited by inconsistent play up front too.
No one at Clemson has been pleased with the production on the ground... from Coach Swinney all the way down to the average fan. UNC stacked the box, did some run blitzing and made it nearly impossible to break off big plays on the ground, so maybe some of the numbers are off base as a result.
I will be curious to see how NC State tries to limit Watson while also keeping Clemson’s rushing attack in-check.
The offensive line is normally a strength for Clemson. Has that been the case? Where are they health-wise?
I wouldn’t say that’s an accurate statement. In two years it might be, but that hasn’t been true in a long while.
Joe Gore, who has started some at right tackle this season, is out the next two weeks after undergoing an appendectomy. Clemson also lost reserve tackle Shaq Anthony before the season started as well (transfer). Truthfully, this unit has about seven quality players right now and can ill afford losing anyone else. Reid Webster and Kalon Davis can literally play any position on the line and they have at various points this season.
The best way to describe Clemson’s offensive line is a “work in progress.” It’s far from a strength on this team.
Break down the skill positions...wide receiver and tight end.
Pick your poison at wide receiver... although they are all young.
Mike Williams is a prototypical jump-ball wide receiver who has been compared to Alshon Jeffrey in his young career. Artavis Scott is an explosive freshman who leads the team in receptions. Germone Hopper is starting to emerge as a down-field threat and has the most explosiveness out of his cuts. Charone Peake was considered one of the top wide outs in the country coming out of high school, but has battled knee injuries since last season. He figures to play against N.C. State, but it’s unknown how effective he can be.
The tight ends have been MIA through the first four games, but Clemson does get its most physical blocker of the bunch back this week in Sam Cooper. He figures to help out the running game and could allow Clemson to use more 12 personnel with two tight end sets.
Clemson's defense has been regarded as one of the strongest in the ACC, but North Carolina had success last week. How were they able to do so?
Clemson’s defense has had two strange mental lapses this year, once in the fourth quarter in a loss at Georgia and the other in the second half against UNC. The Tar Heels exploited Clemson’s poor tackling with tunnel screens, and I feel fairly certain Matt Canada will try to do the same thing to see if the Tigers have improved in this department. I would try Bryan Underwood here, assuming he’s healthy.
There were two key points in last week’s game where it felt like North Carolina was going to be run out of town. The first time, Clemson put in Cole Stoudt leading by three scores, the drive stalled and UNC quickly scored to make it a 22-7 game going into halftime. The second, Clemson’s defense fell asleep, took its foot off the gas, whatever you want to call it.
I expect a re-energized unit Saturday as a result. The Tigers’ front four is as good as you’ll find in college football, especially when challenged. The linebackers are good, not great... but solid. The secondary is improving but will obviously be tested by Jacoby Brissett.
How do you believe Clemson is approaching this game strategically on both sides of the ball?
Clemson will have to run it more effectively this weekend because there’s no way NC State will stay in man-to-man coverage against Clemson for four quarters like North Carolina did. I don’t know why any defensive coordinator would do that now that Watson has proven what he’s capable of. They will still take their shots and likely find some success there – but not as much as last week against the Tar Heels.
Defensively, they have the personnel to pressure Jacoby Brissett and matchup with NC State’s wide receivers. I think this is where the game will likely be won or lost. If it's the same Clemson defense that showed up the first three quarters against Georgia, for four quarters at Florida State, and for two quarters against North Carolina, Clemson will win. If there are more lapses and State can force a turnover or two, the potential for an upset is real.
Finally, how do you see this game playing out?
Personally I think this game is close. Closer than what Vegas thinks. 38-31 was what I predicted this week on CUTigers.com.
However Clemson playing at home has lost just once in 31 games versus unranked competition under Dabo Swinney and that was in his first game as an interim head coach way back in 2008.
So I think that trend continues, I just think State is good enough to keep this one uncomfortably close.