The entire Clemson fan base breathed a collective sigh of relief when red-shirt sophomore Kyle Parker announced his intentions to play football this fall after baseball talks with the Colorado Rockies broke down on July 20th. Second-year head coach Dabo Swinney was already facing the unenviable task of replacing two of the ACC's top playmakers from '09 in running back C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford, so Parker's return was considered critical for a program hoping for a second-straight appearance in the ACC Championship Game.
But after easy victories over North Texas (35-10) and Presbyterian (58-21) in the first two weeks of the season, the Tigers faltered against top-20 programs in Auburn (27-24 OT) and Miami (30-21). As a result, Clemson is a loss on Saturday to North Carolina away from matching Swinney's record in '09 through five games at 2-3. Parker (49-of-93 passing, 652 yards, 6 TD, 4 INT) suffered bruised ribs against Auburn and has fought through the pain, but the Tigers's passing game has failed to get off the ground, ranking 85th nationally in passing offense (186.75 ypg) and 68th in passing efficiency (127.24). Clemson's ground game is good enough (201.8 ypg, 28th nationally) to carry the load, but defensive struggles (385.3 ypg, 85th nationally) have made it difficult for the Tigers to avoid going to the air at crucial times, as evidenced by the Tigers calling pass plays on 10 of their 14 offensive plays in the fourth quarter against Miami.
"You just get back up. You show up and you are honest with your players. We know what our problems are. We make sure everyone understands the reality of the situation. The truth of the matter is, we've lost two games to two good football teams and we've had an opportunity to win both of them. Our job is to get it fixed, come together as a family and get better. Life is about adversity but the whole key to it is that when adversity comes, you either get bitter or get better. It's either a stepping-stone or a stumbling block. How you respond to it, that's how that matters." – Swinney on facing adversity after losing two straight games
Matchups to Watch
Clemson's Ground Game vs. North Carolina's Run Defense
It's never easy to replace the ACC Offensive Player of the Year the season following his departure to the NFL, but red-shirt sophomore running back Andre Ellington is doing his part in easing the loss of C.J. for Tiger fans. The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder has churned out 380 rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season, good for a 7.0-yards-per-carry average. The Moncks Corner, S.C. product has delivered 11 runs of 10 yards or more, including a 71-yarder against Miami.
"He's an electric player," Parker told reporters following the loss to the Hurricanes. "He plays fast and just makes a lot of plays."
Junior Jamie Harper is a load at 6-foot and 235 pounds and serves the battering ram role for Clemson, totaling 211 rushing yards and a touchdown on a 4.3-yards-per-carry mark. Both players extend their effectiveness to the passing game, as Harper ranks second on the team in receptions (nine catches for 85 yards, 3 TD) and Ellington stands third (eight catches for 90 yards).
North Carolina counters with a run defense that ranks 85th nationally in giving up 171.3 yards per game, but that statistic is misleading as Georgia Tech gained rushing 372 yards. UNC's other three opponents – LSU, Rutgers and East Carolina – have totaled 313 yards on 89 carries, good for a 3.5-yards-per-carry mark. But the Tigers do represent the toughest challenge for the Tar Heels on the ground this season, outside of the Yellow Jackets.
UNC's defense received a huge boost in run support last weekend with the return of strong safety Da'Norris Searcy to the lineup, and free safety Deunta Williams adds another significant piece of the puzzle this weekend after serving his four-game suspension for extra benefits.
North Carolina's Play-Action vs. Clemson's Defense
While Clemson's total defense numbers may not be all that impressive (385.3 ypg, 85th nationally), the Tigers rank 11th nationally in sacks (3.0 per game) and fourth in tackles for loss (9.0). North Carolina is allowing 2.25 sacks per outing (83rd nationally), but quarterback T.J. Yates's jersey looked crisp after last Saturday's victory over East Carolina, thanks to a rushing attack that churned out 263 total yards.
Offensive coordinator John Shoop's pro-style scheme relies heavily on the ground game to set up the play-action pass, which serves to confuse defenses and limit their effectiveness. Yates, who has completed 86 of his 126 passes for 1,006 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception, pointed to the improved rushing attack as a critical factor in the success of the play-action pass.
"It's going to help out our passing game a whole lot with the nakeds and everything," Yates said. "It's a good thing to get outside the pocket because you can throw the ball away if you need to. That's a big part of our game, a big part of our scheme, so we're definitely going to focus on that a lot."
The Tar Heels posted 42 points against the Pirates, but play-action helped create the opportunity for big plays in the passing game. Yates misfired on three long ball throws that likely would have resulted in touchdowns, overthrowing Dwight Jones twice and Erik Highsmith once.
That's significant because Clemson has been devastated recently by big plays, including Auburn quarterback Cam Newton connecting with Terrell Zachery for a 78-yard touchdown pass two weeks ago and Miami quarterback Jacory Harris finding Lance Hankerson for a 65-yard touchdown pass last Saturday.
"I'm disappointed in the uncontested big plays," Swinney said. "That's what's cost us in two games… It's four or five plays that are killing us, and it's busts. It's guys not doing their jobs. It's mental lapses. You have to look in the mirror and get it fixed."