In the interest of economy, I’m going to include my grades for the Virginia Tech game here. Before I dive into that, I just want to remind you that the #5 Men’s Soccer team hosts #9 Notre Dame in another top-10 ACC showdown 7:00 Friday night at Riggs! There will be a scarf giveaway for those who get there early, and there will also be a photo opportunity with the 1987 National Championship Trophy for soccer as well as the 2016 National Championship Trophy for football. Fans can have their pictures taken with the trophies beginning at 6:30. There will be a halftime tribute to the 1987 National Champions, and a new championship flag will be raised at that time. The Tigers suffered a heartbreaking double overtime loss at #2 Wake Forest last Friday and look to rebound with a huge conference win this week. So if you’re in the area or in Tiger Town for Homecoming this weekend, stop by and root on the Tigers! If you can't make it to Riggs, you can watch the game on your computer via WatchESPN or on your phone via the ESPN app. And if soccer simply isn't your thing, drop by Death Valley for Tigerama, the traditional Clemson Homecoming pep rally! It begins at 7:00 on Friday as well.
I also wanted to let you know that we are entering a period of transition for the site, so you will notice some significant changes in the coming days, but not to worry! We will keep trucking along here at CUTigers.com and continue to bring you great, comprehensive coverage of all things Clemson. I do appreciate your patience with our growing pains as we work through this transition. Finally, I plan to post a big photo gallery over the next week with game shots, cheerleaders and more, as well as some good video I’ve been holding onto from the first half of the season. So stay tuned right here!
On to the grades…..
Last week’s game in Blacksburg was rightfully billed as the game of the week in all of college football, as the Tigers faced possibly their most daunting test of the season—a night game in Lane Stadium against the undefeated #12 Hokies. The game started about as well as the Tigers could have hoped, as the defense forced 3 straight three-and-outs to start the game, and the offense jumped out to a 10-0 lead before the Hokies even mustered a first down. The Hokies punted on their first 5 possessions. The Tigers took the raucous Blacksburg crowd out of the game early and never really gave them a chance to get reinvigorated. The 31-17 was not nearly indicative of As much of a domination as it was, it could have even been worse, but the Tigers made some mistakes and missed some opportunities to put more points on the scoreboard. Here are the grades….
The offense only ran 64 plays for 332 yards, and they have been averaging around 80 plays and 500 yards for over two years. They also only scored 24 points, as the defense scored on a pick-six. However, some of that is attributed to the fact that they got out to such a big early lead and got conservative with the play calling. The Tigers actually possessed the ball for a minute and a half longer than the Hokies despite running 9 less plays, converting 3 less first downs and gaining 10 less yards. On the plus side, the Tigers were 6 of 16 on 3rd down—not as good as they have been this season, but respectable—and 1 of 1 on 4th down. They continued their outstanding red zone efficiency, going 3-3 with 2 touchdowns and a field goal. More importantly than all of that, they did not turn the ball over. As I noted in last week’s WWAH, the winner of the turnover margin had won the last 6 meetings between these two programs. Now make it 7. The Tigers had 2 unfortunate interceptions against BC and fumbled twice, but they recovered both. So it was nice to see them protect the football in such a big game on the road. They did the same thing at Louisville, and that game was a blowout as well.
Kelly Bryant was average at best in the passing game, but he was sensational in the running game, netting 94 yards on 4.9 yards per carry. The Houdini act he pulled near the goal line, in which he evaded 3 or 4 tacklers to turn a would be sack for a 15-yard loss into a one-yard gain, was the stuff of legends. It’s just too bad he couldn’t make it into the end zone! He was sacked 3 times in the game. One was on him, another was on the offensive line and the other was just a good blitz by Bud Foster that caught them off guard. If you had told me before the game that Bud Foster’s exotic blitzes would only get to Kelly 3 times, I would have taken that all day. Bryant’s only 2 road games in his career were in hostile environments at night in front of an ESPN College GameDay crowd, and he has performed magnificently in both. He did miss a couple of passes that should have been touchdowns—one to Higgins and one to Cain—but he made a couple of spectacular passes as well. One was dropped by Hunter Renfrow in tight coverage—a tough catch, but one we’ve seen him make countless times—and the other was a 30-yard fade to Ray-Ray on a critical 3rd down that led to the field goal on the Tigers’ opening possession. I was also impressed with Kelly’s poise on the touchdown pass to Feaster. It was an easy throw, and he couldn’t have been more wide open, but Kelly demonstrated his maturity in going through his progressions and finding Feaster on his third read. That touchdown really set the tone for the rest of the game after the Tigers had to settle for 3 on their first scoring drive. Overall, Bryant was 12-21 for 186 yards through the air with no interceptions and one TD.
The rushing yards were harder to come by for the backs than they were for Bryant. Again, part of that was attributable to the big lead and predictability in the Tigers’ play calling. The Hokies were also committed to stopping the run going into the game after what the Tigers did to Boston College. Feaster rushed for 29 yards on 9 carries, but he added another touchdown to the one he caught. Freshman Travis Etienne finally resembled a human, rushing for 19 yards on 8 carries, and Fuller added 10 yards but scored a huge touchdown on a 4th and goal from the one. I thought Dabo and the coaches showed a tremendous amount of confidence in calling Fuller’s number in that situation. He fumbled on his first carry of the game against Boston College—his second fumble of the season—and sat the rest of the game. Yet the coaches put him in there to receive his first carry in a critical 4th down, goal line situation in one of the biggest games of the season in one of the most hostile environments in the nation! Thank goodness Fuller was equal to the task and rewarded the coaches for their confidence in him. That was big for the Tigers moving forward because they will need Fuller to be confident and right psychologically. He made some big plays in some big games last year, and they will surely need him again.
Kelly did a good job of spreading the ball around to the receivers, but there were only 12 receptions to be had. Several of them were for big plays, however. Ray-Ray led the team with 3 catches for 35 yards. Milan Richard had 3 for 14 yards, Cain went 2 for 55 and Renfrow had 2 for 19. His first catch was a big one that put the Tigers near the goal line and set up the chip-shot field goal for Spence.
Finally, the offensive line did a decent job, considering the Hokies were loading the box to stop the run. They also only accounted for one sack, which is outstanding in an environment like that against a Bud Foster defense. However, they false started 4 times—3 of them in the 1st quarter. Hearn and Falcinelli false started on back-to-back plays, and they had the big one on Wilkins on 3rd and goal when he and Dex were brought in for the jumbo package. That false start likely cost the Tigers 4 points early in the game. Hyatt added another one later in the game. Other than the false starts, the Tigers didn’t have any penalties on offense.
Once again, the defense was suffocating, stingy and spectacular. For the second game in a row, the Tigers did not allow a touchdown in the first half, and for the second consecutive night road game against a top-15 team, Dorian O’Daniel came up with a big pick-six. The one at Louisville completely swung momentum in the Tigers’ direction to begin the rout, and the one at VT essentially sealed the game. Folks, he is the first Clemson player in history with a sack, fumble recovery, pick-six and double-digit tackles! And we all know how many countless incredible defensive players have come out of this program over the years. Austin Bryant also exhibited his ball skills with another interception that you will rarely see NFL defensive linemen make. He nearly had another one shortly before that as well.
The Tigers’ front four were able to get good pressure on Josh Jackson all night, and the secondary was outstanding in coverage, not committing a single pass interference, despite the absence of starting corners Marcus Edmond and Trayvon Mullen, who played sparingly coming off a concussion. Ryan Carter played an outstanding game and had a couple big pass breakups. Isaiah Simmons had a good game as well, recording one of the Tigers’ 2 sacks.
The Tigers held the Hokies to 342 total yards and just 90 yards rushing. 72 of their total yards and one of their two touchdowns came on their final possession, when the game was well over. The other touchdown came after a line drive punt and a return inside the 10, so it’s amazing how close the Tigers were to holding the Hokies to just 3 points—same as their last trip to Blacksburg in 2011! The Tigers only recorded 2 sacks and 8 tackles-for-loss, but they forced 7 three-and-outs in the game—a category in which the Tigers lead the nation over the last 3 years. The Hokies were just 4 of 15 on 3rd down and 3 of 5 on 4th down. They scored on 1 of their 2 trips to the red zone. The defense didn’t commit a single penalty and created two turnovers, scoring on one. That’s a good day at the office in and of itself! Allowing the Hokies to score the TD so easily after the long punt return and again in the final minutes, however, preclude the perfect A+ grade.
It was nice to get Alex Spence an easy field goal from 23 yards for his first career attempt, but he missed his next one from 41. Still, at least he made the big one on the opening possession to give the Tigers some momentum. Spence averaged 62 yards on his 5 kickoffs and only had one touchback. Groomes had his bounce out of bounds at the one yard line for a penalty.
I remember thinking Spiers really had an off night punting the ball after being so solid in the first 4 games, but after watching the tape, he wasn’t so bad. He really just had two poor kicks. Obviously, the line drive that he mis-hit cost the Tigers a touchdown, although you have to also give the return man credit for making a great play, catching the punt on a full sprint. Isaiah Simmons also made a tremendous hustle play to make the touchdown-saving shoestring tackle, even though it went for naught. Spiers also had a 29-yard punt that was fair caught at the 21-yard line, and he should have landed that closer to the 10. He still averaged 37.9 yards on his 7 punts and had a couple over 50 yards. I’d like to see him land more than just one inside the 20.
The coverage unit only allowed 12 yards on the other 3 punt returns and did a good job on kickoffs as well, allowing about 20.8 yards on 4 returns.
Finally, Spence was 4-4 on PAT’s, and the unit did a great job on the fake field goal by the Hokies. However, 1-2 on field goals and the long punt return count for a lot toward the low grade this week.
It could have been a bigger blowout than the score indicated, but it was nonetheless a mighty impressive showing by the Tigers’ in their second top-15 road test at night. And it could be their second of three if NC State has anything to say about it! Dabo was not happy with the defensive performance at Louisville but said they played their best game in Blacksburg. Clemson is the first program in history to beat 3 top-15 opponents in the month of September….EVER. You can add another couple tombstones to the graveyard outside the practice fields, and 3 of them have come at the expense of Virginia Tech!
Now onto the Homecoming game against Wake……
Clemson leads the all-time series with Wake 64-17-1. The 64 wins against Wake is second-most versus any opponent. The most is 68 against South Carolina…..Clemson has won 8 straight in the series, all under Dabo Swinney. Tommy Bowden’s last game as Clemson head coach was a 12-7 Thursday night loss at Wake. That was the last time they beat the Tigers…..A win for Clemson on Saturday would give the Tigers a 6-0 for the 3rd straight year, tying a school record.....Clemson has won 25 of its last 26 home games and 48 of its last 49 games against unranked teams......Clemson has won a school record 12 straight true road games. That is tied for the second-longest active streak with Alabama. Oklahoma’s 13 is the longest.....Clemson has won 10 straight games since losing to Pitt last season. That is tied for the second-longest active streak behind Oklahoma (14)…..Clemson has won a school record 10 straight ACC road games…..Clemson has won 8 straight games against ranked teams. That is tied for the second-longest streak in ACC history with FSU (1992-93). FSU also holds the ACC record at 9 straight ranked wins from 2012-14……Clemson has the longest active streak in the AP top 5 at 30 weeks. Alabama is 2nd at 28 weeks. Clemson and Alabama are tied for the longest active streaks in the AP top 10 at 32 weeks. Clemson has the third-longest active streak in the top 25 behind Alabama and Ohio State. If not for a brief period outside the rankings in 2014 due to a 1-2 start, losing at UGA and in overtime at FSU, Clemson would have the second-longest streak behind Alabama...Clemson now has a 9-7 all-time record in games featured by ESPN College GameDay. Only 14 schools have made more appearances on the premier college preview show.....
The Deacs are coming off a heartbreaking 26-19 home loss to Florida State in which they led in the 4th quarter and were tied with a minute left. That win would have been program-changing for them and would have given them a rare 5-0 start and likely a ranking.
6’1, 200-pound senior QB John Wolford is a solid veteran. He has completed 63.2% of his passes this season for 947 yards and 8 touchdowns against just one interception. He is also deceptively athletic, rushing for 332 yards and 4 touchdowns on 5.0 yards per carry. In last week’s FSU loss, he was 24-34 for 271 yards but threw his only interception of the season and didn’t have a passing touchdown. He did rush for a touchdown and 63 yards on 19 carries, leading the team in rushing yards.
6’1, 190-pound freshman RB Arkeem Byrd (#5) only rushed 6 times for 13 yards last week, but he is averaging 5.6 yards per carry on 246 yards this season and has one touchdown. 5’10, 200-pound junior RB Matt Colburn (#22) has rushed for 160 yards and 2 touchdowns this season on 3.9 yards per carry. He is from Irmo, just outside Columbia, so you know he’d love to have a big game in Death Valley!
5’9, 165-pound freshman WR Greg Dortch (#87) is diminutive, but he leads the way for the Deacs at the receiver position. He has 30 catches for 352 yards and 5 touchdowns already. You might see him as the recipient of an end around or jet sweep a couple of times on Saturday. He had a big game last week with 10 catches for 110 yards.
Wake was a pretty good defensive team last year, but they are even better this year. It all starts for them with DE Duke Ejiofor (#53), who was tied for 14th in the nation in sacks last year. The 6’4, 275-pound senior monster only has 3 sacks so far this season, but he had one last week against FSU and also forced a fumble. He shows up in big games, so Kelly Bryant will need to know where he is at all times.
Wake is ranked #51 in rush defense (132.40 yards per game), #30 in pass defense (184.4 yards/game), #26 in total defense (316.8 yards/game) and #12 in scoring defense (14.4 points/game). They are ranked #48 in rush offense (192.2 yards/game) , #70 in pass offense (226.8 yards/game), #63 in total offense (419.0 yards/game) and #50 in scoring offense (34.0 points/game).
The Deacs have been extremely fortunate with injuries this season and are good to go health-wise.
The team went through quite an eye-opening ordeal on Tuesday night when, just after practice concluded, a car veered off the road and halfway down the cliff that overlooks the mote surrounding the practice fields. The team quickly came to the driver's aid and likely saved his life. As it turns out, the driver was a former Daniel High classmate and teammate of Dabo's son, Will, and Dabo had known the young man for years. You can read more about it HERE and listen to Dabo recount the story our Wednesday evening interview video HERE. It was obviously a very emotional, life and death experience, and I think it gave the entire team some real perspective amidst all the pressure they are dealing with from a football standpoint. Suddenly rankings and playoffs don't seem to matter as much. And I think that can only be a good thing for this team, coming off the incredible, historic September it had.
On a lighter note, Dabo, President Clements and the players dropped by Bowman Field on Wednesday night to deliver pizza to the Homecoming float workers. Watch below!
Freshman QB Chase Brice having a toss with Dabo's youngest son, Clay:
Speaking of the historic September, I asked several of the Clemson players this week if they felt like they had turned a corner in the schedule, having navigated such a brutal early-season gauntlet unblemished. A couple of them admitted that it did, but to a man, they all recited the company line that the next game is the biggest of the season and that they will be singularly focused on Wake Forest. After winning 48 of their last 49 games against unranked teams, that is not just “coach speak” anymore. It is truly the culture now, and no one deviates from it. Even if there were the slightest doubt about whether the Tigers would take Wake lightly, I think the fact that the Deacs came within a hair of beating FSU for a 5-0 start would put any of those doubts to rest.
Defensively, the Tigers are playing at an all-time high and as well as any unit in the nation. They have play-makers at every level, and the scary part is that they are getting better. They didn’t create any turnovers in their first two games, and they have created 5 in their last 3—two of them for scores. Dorian O’Daniel, as I mentioned, became the first player in Clemson history to record a sack, recover a fumble, return a pick-six and post double-digit tackles in a single game. Just think for a minute about all the dozens and dozens of NFL players that have been produced by the Clemson defense over the years that never accomplished the feat. Dorian has been named ACC Linebacker of the Week twice already, and he had a game-changing pick-six at Louisville for which he did not receive the honor. Amazingly, O’Daniel has more touchdowns than any of the receivers at WRU! He is playing as well as any linebacker in the nation. Austin Bryant is tied for 8th in the nation in sacks with 5, but 4 of them came against Auburn. It will be interesting to see if he adds to that total on Saturday, although it will be tough against an experienced quarterback who moves as well as Wolford does.
I asked Big Dex Lawrence if it upset him at all that they allowed that late touchdown to Louisville, and he said it absolutely did. To me, that exemplifies the type of edge this defense is playing with right now. It was also demonstrated by Simmons’s diving tackle to save the punt return touchdown at Virginia Tech last week. In years past, as good as this defense has been, you might have seen a player let up on a play like that, knowing that the game was over. I can recall Jayron Kearse doing that late in the 2015 ACC Championship Game against UNC. However, this unit seems to have a different edge and pride to it than I’ve seen in the past couple years—as great as those defenses were.
I also love the way the secondary is playing despite the losses they have sustained early this season. Both starting safeties and two starting corners have been out at various points this season, but there has been little to no drop off, and many assumed the secondary would be the Achilles Heel of this defense in the preseason!
Offensively, Kelly Bryant has had ups and downs but has passed every test and exceeded expectations by far. You can see him gaining confidence and improving by the week. He told me on Monday that he feels like the game has slowed down for him significantly, and you can see that in the way he is staying in the pocket and going through his progressions. I also like the way he is spreading the ball around to the receivers, as opposed to getting comfortable with one particular receiver, which can often happen with young quarterbacks. It would be nice to see a few touchdown receptions on Saturday, and I expect we will. The offense has been a little run-heavy up to this point. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s time to start airing it out a little more.
Diondre Overton is Kelly’s roommate, and I would love to see him get a few more opportunities this week. I believe he was only targeted once last week, and it was a rare drop on a nice pass from Bryant, but the coverage was pretty good. Overton has made a couple of enormous 3rd down catches in big moments against Louisville and BC. I’d also like to see Higgins get a few more opportunities. He was open on a post route in Blacksburg that probably should have been a touchdown, but Kelly overthrew him.
In the running game, let’s see if Travis Etienne can get back on a hot streak with another long run or two after only going for 19 yards on 8 carries last week. I’m expecting Feaster will bounce back with a big game as well. Protect the football! The Tigers didn't commit a single turnover last week in Blacksburg. I want to see that continue! In my opinion, Clemson is superior to Alabama overall, but the Tigers don't hold a candle to the Tide in terms of turnover margin and ball security. Bama hasn't turned the ball over once in its last 8 games! The Tigers need to catch the Tide in that department before a potential THREEmatch in Atlanta.
In special teams, look for Spiers to improve his average from last week and down some punts inside the 20 and hopefully the 10. Touchdowns are always preferred to field goals, but it would be nice to see Spence make a couple of field goals or at least one from over 40 yards before going on the road again to Syracuse next week.
The Tigers are #7 in total defense (250.0 yards per game), #12 in rush defense (92.0 yards/game), #16 in pass defense (158.0 yards/game) and #4 in scoring defense (10.8 points/game). They are #18 in rush offense (246.8 yards/game), #68 in pass offense (227.8 yards/game), #26 in total offense (474.6 yards/game) and #35 in scoring offense (36.4 points/game).
As far as injuries, the Tigers are in good shape. Starting corner Marcus Edmond will be held out again with the sprained foot he suffered early in the Auburn game. The other corners are playing well, so the coaches will probably hold him until after the bye week. TE Garrett Williams, who tore his ACL last spring, looks great according to Dabo and has been working with the scout team. They will have to decide soon whether to let him play this season or use it as a red shirt. Another tight end, D.J. Greenlee, is still out with a sprained MCL. Finally, freshman DE Justin Foster will sit out this week after injuring his ankle at Virginia Tech.
This one will be short and sweet. Wake Forest has come a long way in Dave Clawson’s 3 years, but they are still out-manned from a personnel standpoint. They will probably do some things defensively that BC did to try and confuse Kelly Bryant and prevent the big plays, but in the end the Tigers have too many weapons on offense to contain.
Much of the talk across the air waves and on all the national talk shows this week has been the debate over whether Clemson or Alabama is the #1 team in the country. From what I have seen, despite the polls, most believe Clemson should be #1, and I believe that if the status quo remains between now and Halloween, when the first CFP rankings come out, Clemson will be #1 just like the last ranking in January and just like the first CFP ranking in 2015. There's a lot of football to be played between now and then, but now that the Tigers have survived the September gauntlet, I believe they are ready to flex their muscles and blow some teams out like Alabama has been doing the past couple weeks.
The Tigers’ defense will continue its stellar play at all three levels, aided by the deafening noise of a Homecoming crowd of 82,000 in Death Valley. Dabo exhorted the Clemson faithful on Tuesday, saying, “We need a Naitonal Championship environment on Saturday.” I believe Clemson Nation will answer the call. Unlike the Tigers’ last home game, this one gets away from Wake fast.
The Prowl toward a record 17th ACC Title, an unprecedented 3rd consecutive National Championship Game and a repeat National Title continues……..
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