WHAT WE ARE HEARING: Preview and Prediction for #2 Clemson at Georgia Tech
- 2018-09-21 12:48:22
Welcome to the ACC opener edition of What We Are Hearing!
The Tigers dodged Hurricane Florence last week thanks to the noon kickoff time, and they played a much better game on the defensive side of the ball than they did at Texas A&M. The Tigers were able to sack the quarterback 5 times, which is incredible considering it was against an option offense with a very mobile quarterback. They nearly pitched a shutout, but a fourth-quarter trick play on a double pass set up Georgia Southern’s solitary score of the game.
Offensively, the Tigers gave up their first 3 turnovers of the season but were otherwise equally impressive. Trevor Lawrence played the entire second half after Kelly Bryant left the game with a bruised chest, and he looked like he’d been starting quarterback for a year. He led the offense to 24 points in about half a game played and looked completely comfortable in going through his reads. His only blemish was an interception on a pass that was batted by the linebacker at the line of scrimmage. As with the first two games of the season, there were explosive plays aplenty for the Tigers, racking up 595 total yards of offense. They had tremendous balance with 309 passing yards and 286 rushing yards. Justyn Ross looked like Tee Higgins against Texas A&M the week before, catching 3 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. In Ross’s first 3 catches as a Tiger, he scored 2 touchdowns! After only 11 touches against A&M, Travis Etienne was back to putting up his usual gawdy numbers, rushing for 162 yards and 2 touchdowns on 16 carries. He is averaging 7.7 yards per carry on the season!
The blowout home win over Georgia Southern was just what the Tigers needed after a mentally and physically taxing game on the road in College Station. They were able to get a lot of players on the field and fix some issues before going on the road again for their ACC opener in Atlanta, a place that has been a nightmare for the Tigers over the years.
Incredibly, this will be the Tigers’ SEVENTH consecutive ACC opener on the road! And Atlanta has been about the unluckiest place in the conference for the Tigers over the years, along with Tallahassee. On Wednesday after practice, Dabo spoke to us a little about the difficulties the Tigers have had playing the Jackets in Atlanta over the years. Indeed, the Tigers lost 5 straight trips to Bobby Dodd over a 10-year period before dominating Tech 2 years ago and going on to win the national title. You could see some of the angst on Dabo's face as he was recounting some of the "flukish" losses he experienced down there, even as an assistant coach. For example, in 2005--the first of five straight losses--Clemson was the only team in the nation that hadn't fumbled the ball yet. It was James Davis's freshman year, and he was having a great season, but on that day fumblitis struck the Tigers with a vengeance. They fumbled the ball 5 times and also had an interception, losing 10-9! The next trip, in 2007, converted soccer player Mark Buchholz--a reliable kicker for the most part in his career--missed 4 field goals, and the Tigers lost 13-3. And he made a 48-yarder at the start of the game to take a 3-0 lead! Then, of course, there was the Thursday night 2009 game, in which official Ron Cherry made the infamous "phantom hold call" on Thomas Austin that negated the game-winning touchdown for the Tigers. In 2011, the Tigers were undefeated and ranked in the top-10 going into Atlanta. Andre Ellington was injured early in the 1st quarter, and the Tigers were beaten badly. All of this culminated in 2014 when Deshaun Watson drove the offense right down the field in the 1st quarter and then tore his ACL. Cole Stoudt proceeded to throw 3 interceptions, including 2 pick-sixes, and the Tigers lost to the eventual ACC Coastal Champions despite their defense practically shutting the Tech offense out. However, the curse was finally broken in 2016, as the Tigers' defense held Tech to just 124 total yards, and Deshaun Watson and company did just about anything they wanted on offense, winning 28-6. We'll see if that gets a streak going in the Tigers' favor!
If you're making the trip to Atlanta this weekend, don't forget to take your stamped $2 bills with you! After all, the unique Clemson tradition traces its origin to the Tigers playing the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta. For those who don't know the whole story, the Clemson vs Georgia Tech football game was always played in Atlanta for decades, which was an obvious advantage for Tech. In 1973, in an attempt to induce Tech officials to reciprocate and alternate games in Clemson, fans of the Tigers stamped $2 bills with Tiger Paws and used them for all their purchases in Atlanta that weekend--the objective being to demonstrate how much the Atlanta economy was benefiting from hosting the game. The ploy worked, and the game was played in Clemson for the first time in 1974. That also begat the First Friday Parade, which was originally held the day before the first home game against Tech. It's now held on the day before the home opener every season. After the $2 bill tactic worked with Georgia Tech, the same practice was used by Clemson fans every time they went to a bowl game, and consequently, Clemson received many a bowl bid strictly because those bowl committees knew how much money their bowls and cities stood to make from the well-traveled Clemson faithful. The $2 bill tradition is still alive and well, as Clemson fans continue to take and spend them every time they follow their beloved Tigers on the road.
Before I dive into this week’s game, the Tigers began fall ball yesterday, and we had our annual fall baseball interviews with Monte Lee and players. Monte recently reeled in a top-10 recruiting class, and he is excited to start coaching some of the new young talent he has brought into the fold. You can watch our interviews with Monte and the players HERE.
John Heisman coached at Clemson from 1900 to 1903 and at Georgia Tech from 1904 to 1919. While at Clemson, Heisman was 2-0 vs Georgia Tech and outscored the Jackets 117-5. As the Tech head coach, Heisman was 10-2-1 versus Clemson and won the last 9 straight, holding the Tigers to a combined 15 points in those games...Clemson is just 30-51-2 all-time against Georgia Tech thanks to the fact that the game was always played in Atlanta until 1974. Clemson is 15-6 at home versus Tech and has won the last 3 straight meetings…The Tigers are 15-1 in their last 16 true road games, losing only at Syracuse last season on Friday the 13th with an injured starting quarterback…Since 2011, Clemson is 23-4 in games decided by eight points or less. The 85.2 winning percentage in those contests is the best in the nation….Clemson has won 19 straight Saturday games, the longest streak in the Power Five. It is the second-longest streak in program history. The Tigers won 21 straight from 2014 to 2016….Clemson has won 16 straight games in September, last losing in 2014….The Tigers have not allowed a first half touchdown in 7 of their last 8 games….Hunter Renfrow has caught a pass in 31 straight games…Last week, Mitch Hyatt became the 5th Clemson player in history to play 3,000 career snaps…Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 47 weeks. Next is Georgia at 16….
GEORGIA TECH SYNOPSIS
Paul Johnson is in his 11th year at Tech. In fact, he was in his first season there when Dabo faced the Yellow Jackets for his very first game as interim head coach in 2008. This game always has its own identity—not just because of the proximity and rivalry of the two schools that play every year—but also because of the uniqueness of the triple-option offense that Paul Johnson has patented. They require a great deal of discipline and patience from the defense, and if any one player gets over-anxious or misses an assignment, that’s when Tech rips off a big play on you. If you’re going to stop them, you’d better be good on first down because Tech makes a living off of methodically advancing the ball downfield a few yards at a time. They routinely go for it on 4th down if they only have a couple yards to go, and they can eat large chunks of the clock away before you know what hit you, keeping your offense cold on the sideline.
Tech is off to a rough start, with a 1-2 record, but that doesn’t make them less dangerous. They started slow at Pitt last week and were down 21-0 at the half, but they outscored Pitt 19-3 in the second half, losing 24-19. A key play in that game was a fake punt Paul Johnson attempted in the first half. The play was unsuccessful, and that set Pitt up with great field position and a touchdown. Tech actually out-gained Pitt by 50 yards and had 6 more first downs, rushing for 320 yards in the game. However, they only passed for 66 yards, which is not atypical for Paul Johnson’s teams. They gained only 4.4 yards per pass versus 5.7 yards per rush.
Tech doubled its point total in its other loss at South Florida, losing 49-38. The difference in that game was again special teams. The Jackets allowed not one but two touchdowns on consecutive kickoff returns, within a space of about 3 minutes in the first quarter! The first went for 98 yards, and the second for 97 yards. Once again, Tech outgained the team that beat them, racking up 602 yards of total offense versus 426 for USF. The Jackets rushed for 419 yards in that game, averaging 7.4 yards per carry. Tech also had 8 penalties for 80 yards and turned the ball over 3 times, so they should have won that game and could easily be 3-0 right now. If they finally put it all together for their first home game in three weeks, it could be a tougher test than some might expect from a 1-2 team.
The key to Paul Johnson’s offense, of course, is always the quarterback, and senior TaQuon Marshall has a year under his belt as the starter. Last week at Pitt, he rushed for 103 yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 3.7 yards per carry. He was only 6-15 for 66 yards through the air with an interception. He rushed for 113 yards and a touchdown the week before at USF, averaging 8.7 yards per carry, and passed for 183 yards and another touchdown. He also threw 2 interceptions in that game, however, and left the game at the start of the second half when he injured his toe. Redshirt freshman Tobias Oliver played the rest of the game and played well. He did not attempt a pass but ran 18 times for 97 yards and 3 touchdowns. Oliver is 6’2 at 182 pounds and is from Warner Robins, the same hometown as quarterback turned wide receiver Chansi Stuckey of Clemson fame. Marshall played the entire next game at Pitt and didn’t seem too encumbered by the toe. Marshall threw a pick in their 41-0 win over Alcorn State in the opener, so he’s thrown an interception in all 3 games this season, 4 in all, despite only throwing the ball 17 times per game. I don’t expect we’ll see Oliver in the game unless Marshall gets hurt again or the game gets out of hand. If Oliver does get in, the defense will know he’s not going to throw the ball, so that’s a big advantage.
At running back, the Jackets lost a thousand-yard B-back from last season, junior KirVonte Benson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury just over a week ago. Benson had 5 carries for 41 yards at USF before leaving the game in the first quarter. He had 10 carries for 75 yards and 2 touchdowns in their opener the week before. But as Brent Venables told me the other day, that is a plug-and-play position for the Tech offense, so the loss might not hurt them as much as another team losing its featured back. Again, the Jackets rushed for 320 yards on the road at Pitt last week, so they seem to be making do in his absence. Since the loss of Benson, they have split the carries between Jerry Howard (#15), a 6’0, 215-pound sophomore from Rock Hill, SC, and Jordan Mason (#24), a 6’1, 212-pound freshman. Howard only carried the ball 4 times in the first 2 games but had 8 carries for 82 yards at Pitt last week. Mason had 10 carries for 94 yards last week and has 274 yards with a touchdown this season. He is averaging 8.1 yards per carry. At the A-back position, kind of a hybrid RB/WR, Qua Searcy (#1) is a big play threat. The 5’11, 174-pound senior has just 9 carries this season but has 146 yards, averaging 16.2 yards per carry. He is also averaging 18.8 yards per on his 4 catches this season. Searcy has yet to find the end zone this season but has 6 touchdowns in his career.
The wide receivers obviously don’t play a very big role in the Tech offense. In yeas past, the Jackets have always seemed to have that one big WR with an NFL body that would burn the defense for a couple big plays downfield, such as Demaryius Thomas or Calvin Johnson. They are lacking that big-play WR on this team in my estimation, but 6’1, 195-pound senior Brad Stewart (#83) has 8 catches for 88 yards and a touchdown this season. His best year was in 2016 when he had 19 catches for 382 yards. 6’2, 217-pound junior Jalen Camp (#80) has 4 catches for 49 yards this season.
On the defensive side, Tech has a new defensive coordinator after parting ways with 10-year DC Ted Roof. The separation seemed to be a mutual one, as Roof accepted a position with NC State as its 10th assistant coach last December. He will be their Co-Defensive Coordinator and Associate Head Coach. But there was widespread speculation about whether Paul Johnson would fire Roof in the off-season after a couple of disappointing seasons from his defense. Tech brought in Nate Woody to replace Roof. Woody spent 5 years at App State as the defensive coordinator, so he faced Clemson in 2015, losing 41-10 to Deshaun Watson and the Tigers. Woody also played at Wofford and served as its defensive coordinator from 2000 to 2012, so he had to game plan for the Tigers 2 other times in 2001 and 2011. The former was obviously a much different Clemson team with Tommy Bowden and Brad Scott running the offense, but Woody went up against an offense very similar to this one in 2011 when Chad Morris was in his first year as Clemson OC and Tajh Boyd was quarterback. That was just the second game of the season for the Tigers in Boyd’s first year as starter, and it was much tighter than anyone expected. The Tigers prevailed 35-27, but you may recall the Tigers actually trailed 24-21 in the second half, and many fans in Death Valley were booing the lackluster effort.
I asked Paul Johnson about Nate Woody the other day, and he said Woody is a little more aggressive than Roof from a philosophical standpoint. They’re now playing a 3-4 scheme as opposed to the 4-3 they’ve played in the past. Johnson said they are still in the infancy stages of implantation, so they are expecting some growing pains on the defensive side. The high-powered, high-tempo, explosive Clemson offense should be an early crash course for that new defensive scheme! I also asked Johnson about the challenge of preparing for two quarterbacks, and he said it wouldn’t be too much of an added difficulty or burden because he thinks both quarterbacks will run the same system. While that is true, there will still be different nuances and tendencies with Kelly Bryant and Trevor Lawrence that the defense will have to account for and adjust to.
The Tech kicker, Brenton King, is just 1-3 this season with a 35-yarder at USF. He was 5-6 last season with a long of 42. Paul Johnson loves to go for it on 4th down if it’s inside 5 yards, so lacking a stellar kicker will just reinforce that tendency. But it could be an advantage for the Tigers and result in a couple turnovers on downs.
If you missed Wednesday's ACC Coaches Teleconference with Paul Johnson and Dabo, you can find the audio and transcripts HERE!
The big question to start this week was obviously the status of Kelly Bryant after he sat out the entire second half last week with a bruised chest. He landed hard on the football and said he was breathing erratically, so he was taken to the hospital as a precaution. Trevor Lawrence ran the offense beautifully in his absence, and thankfully Kelly Bryant has been given a clean bill of health. When we talked to Kelly on Tuesday, he was all smiles and said he would play the game that day if he could. So despite what transpired last Saturday, you can expect the status quo at the quarterback position down in Atlanta. Kelly Bryant will start, but they’ll bring Lawrence into the game after the first couple series.
The Tigers demonstrated their explosive potential on offense once again last week and are among the nation’s elite in that category. In fact, Clemson is the only team in the top 5 for plays over 30, 40 and 50 yards. The Tigers are 2nd, behind only Memphis, with 9 plays over 40 yards this season. This time, they were led by freshman Justyn Ross, who had a 57-yard touchdown catch, faking two would-be tacklers en route to the end zone. The week before, of course, it was sophomore Tee Higgins with the highlight reel catch and score. The Tigers are #20 in total offense at 513 yards per game, but they will quickly move up the ranks as other teams’ competition stiffens.
The starting lineup is the same as last week, but there is a good battle going on at right guard between Cade Stewart and Sean Pollard. The former grey shirt Stewart, from local Daniel High School, got his first career start at A&M and started again last week, but he and Pollard are now listed as co-starters. Pollard, of course, split time starting at right tackle last season with Tremayne Anchrum, who has really solidified himself at that position opposite Mitch Hyatt. I asked Dabo if John Simpson responded the way he wanted him to last week. Simpson did not have a good game at Texas A&M, but Dabo said he rebounded nicely last week, although he was called for a chop block in the first half. I asked Dabo if there is still a wide separation between Simpson and redshirt freshman Matt Bockhorst at left guard, and it would seem there is. But I could tell Dabo is very excited about Bockhorst, who has that nasty attitude you look for in an offensive lineman, and Dabo thinks he will have a tremendous career for the Tigers. Incidentally, Bockhorst had a bad unnecessary roughness penalty on Saturday that prevented the Tigers from going for it on 4th down.
At tight end, Milan Richard and Garrett Williams are now listed as co-starters. Richard caught his first two passes of the season on Saturday—both from Trevor Lawrence. Richard was banged up at the end of August camp and missed the opener, so it is good to see him making plays again. Richard is actually a Georgia native and caught a touchdown against Tech last season, so he is very excited about playing this game in Atlanta. He told us he will have lots of family and friends in the stands on Saturday. Garrett Williams missed the Texas A&M game due to injury, so it is good to have him back as well. He brings a lot to the Tigers’ running game with his blocking prowess. He was the only tight end without a catch last week. Richard, Cannon Smith, JC Chalk and young Braden Galloway all caught a pass. Galloway’s catch came early in the game, and he blocked the wrong player on a screen pass that led to Kelly Bryant’s interception, so Daob sidelined him for the rest of the game. I could tell Dabo was upset by that, but he is also very excited about Galloway’s future. Dabo told me the only thing keeping him from significant playing time in a road game such as this one is the mental aspect of the position. In fairness to Galloway, he is a true freshman with hardly any experience playing tight end, and that is the most difficult position to learn in this offense, other than the quarterback. Once the light turns on for him, I expect him to be a major factor for the Tigers late in the season. Dabo said Galloway is light years ahead of where Leggett was as a freshman, and the Tigers wouldn’t have won that national title two years ago without Leggett!
Defensively, the Tigers played a great game last week, but they were upset with themselves for losing the shutout in the 4th quarter. It was a trick-play, double pass that led to the touchdown, but that doesn’t make the players feel any better. They were also just 90 seconds from a shutout in the opener against Furman before allowing a late touchdown in that one as well. Still, the 140 yards of total offense allowed was just what the doctor ordered after allowing 430 pass yards and 23 second-half points at A&M the previous week. The Tigers sacked the quarterback 5 times—a rare feat against a quarterback that athletic running an option offense! They also created a turnover for the 11th straight game—a fumble forced and recovered by DT Nyles Pinckney. Austin Bryant collected his first 2 sacks of the season, his roommate Clelin Ferrell added one more and highly heralded freshman Xavier Thomas earned his first career sack. He is just going to keep getting better as the season goes on, folks! Wearing that #3, he brings back memories of Vic Beasley’s lightning-fast pass rush. Ferrell, by the way, has 5 sacks already this season, recording at least one in all 3 games. He is leading the nation in that category, tied with Wyatt Ray from Boston College. As a team, the Tigers are tied for 4th in the nation with 12 sacks, despite having played 2 option teams in their first three games!
The Tigers are #10 in total defense (268.0 yards/game), #16 in rush defense (89.33 yards/game) and #15 in scoring defense (13.3 points/game).
As for special teams, Huegel is coming off perhaps his worst career game, going 1-3 last week. However, I believe the strong wind was a factor on at least the first miss, which was barely outside the right upright with the wind blowing in that direction and in his face. The ball was also spotted on the right hash, so he probably just didn’t compensate enough for the wind. We know Huegel won’t rattle under pressure on the road, though, so I expect him to come through if needed. Freshman BT Potter continues blasting all of his kickoffs out of the end zone for touchbacks, so that gives the Tigers’ that much more of an advantage. Amari Rodgers had another long punt return last week, but it was negated for a holding call. He has been a great spark for the Tigers in all 3 games so far, so hopefully that trend will continue. I asked Jeff Scott this week about the punt return game and whether he thinks they will try to work freshman Derion Kendrick into the mix anytime soon. Scott acknowledged how explosive DK is with the ball in his hands but feels like it will take some time before they have the same comfort level that they have with Rodgers. So I wouldn’t expect to see anyone but #3 on punts this Saturday.
When playing Tech’s triple-option, it’s all about setting the edge and stopping the dive. Brent Venables told us last week that he doesn’t have any sort of “magic elixir” for stopping Tech, but he sure seems to! Venables allowed some yards and points in his first couple meetings with Tech, but in the last 4 years since 2014, his defense has allowed just 209 total yards per game against the Jackets! Two years ago in Atlanta on Thursday night, they stymied Tech for just 124 total yards. In my opinion, Venables could teach a Doctorate level course in defending Paul Johnson’s triple-option, and, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have the talent he does in the front seven either. Run stuffers like Big Dex and Christian Wilkins make it much easier to stop the dive. It also helps that the Tigers prepare for Tech in stages both in the spring and August camp. Moreover, they have already played two option teams in their first three games. While the Furman and Georgia Southern styles are somewhat different than Tech’s and the athletes are certainly a different caliber, those were still good warmups for this game.
Dorian O’Daniel came up huge against Tech in each of the last 3 seasons, and, to Paul Johnson’s delight, he’s moved on to the next level. So a big thing to watch on Saturday will be Isaiah Simmons in that nickel role. I asked Dabo if he thought Simmons had the tool kit to enable him to fill that void left by O’Daniel, and the answer was a resounding yes. Simmons is a little better than O’Daniel in coverage and is longer and even more athletic. We’ll see if he has the chops and eye discipline to shut down this offense the way O’Daniel did for 3 straight years!
I fully expect to see a fifth consecutive year of dominance from the Venables defense over Paul Johnson’s offense. They will stay disciplined, win first down and keep Tech behind the chains for most of the game. Over the past 4 years, the Tigers have forced three-and-outs early and often against the Jackets. If they can continue that success, it will enable the offense to take an early lead, and that is the key to beating Tech. Make them play catch-up and force them into 3rd and long passing situations. Tech beats teams by getting early leads, getting 3rd and short or 4th and short and chewing up clock with the opponent’s offense helpless on the sideline. Barring another turnover-laden game by the Tigers, I don’t see that happening. I expect the defense to force 2 or 3 short possessions to start the game and the offense to respond with points, putting the Jackets in a hole they can’t get out of. This one is over in the 3rd quarter, folks! The Clemson seniors win their 4th straight conference opener—all on the road. Don’t forget to take your $2 bills to Atlanta!
The Prowl toward a 4th consecutive ACC Title, a 4th consecutive College Football Playoff and a 3rd National Title continues….
CLEMSON 38 Georgia Tech 17
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