WHAT WE ARE HEARING: Preview and Prediction for #4 Clemson at Wake Forest
- 2018-10-05 12:54:51
Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!
The Tigers took a big step forward with their heart-stopping, come-from-behind win on Saturday when all the stars seemed aligned against them. It was déjà vu all over again when, for the second consecutive year, their starting quarterback didn’t make it to halftime against Syracuse. As if the week hadn’t been hard enough on the Tigers with all the off-the-field drama of senior Kelly Bryant leaving the team, they lose Trevor Lawrence in the first half and have to turn to third-string quarterback Chase Brice, a redshirt freshman who had only attempted 8 passes in games this season! Greg Huegel even missed an early field goal, which was also reminiscent of last year’s upset loss. Many forget Huegel tore his ACL days before the Syracuse game last year, and backup Austin Spence missed two field goals inside 40-yards in the 3-point loss on the road.
But the Tigers showed, as Dabo put it, “the heart of a champion,” and willed their way to a win. They ran the ball down the Orange’s throat even though that’s exactly what Syracuse knew they would try to do. The Tigers finished the game with 300 rushing yards, and Travis Etienne had the best game of his career when they needed him the most, scoring all 3 of the Tigers’ touchdowns and breaking 200 yards for the first time in his career. The offensive line deserves a lot of credit as well, and of course, so does Chase Brice. What bigger test could a backup redshirt freshman quarterback be given than to know he has to mount a 94-yard drive with 6 minutes left in order to save his team’s season? Brice answered the bell, making a couple completions to fellow freshman Justyn Ross and then one of the most clutch passes you will ever see—a strike to Tee Higgins in a tight window on 4th and 6. On the very next play, Brice personified the Tigers’ determination with a first down run, pushing defenders back for extra yards. The play was symbolic of a Clemson team that simply refused to lose no matter what was stacked against them. The ending seemed scripted for a QB who was fourth string just a year ago and could have been first or second string at many other schools. Brice always loved Clemson and signed with the Tigers in the same class as Hunter Johnson with Trevor Lawrence a year behind, knowing there was a chance he could never see the field. Well, his love for the school was rewarded on Saturday, as he wrote himself into Clemson lore with one of the all-time game-winning drives in the history of Death Valley and won the hearts of Tiger Nation.
The defense was also stupendous, and Brice wouldn’t have had a chance to be the hero without them. They allowed just 90 total yards in the second half and would have pitched a shutout in the second half but for a dropped punt by Amari Rodgers on the 10 yard line. A.J. Terrell had the Tigers’ first interception of the season, and it led to a field goal. It was the 13th straight game in which the Tigers have created a turnover. The Tigers pressured Eric Dungey all day long, but the slippery QB was able to get the ball away and escape sack after sack—including getting away with grounding a couple times. However, he wasn’t able to elude freshman Xavier Thomas, who added an exclamatory highlight reel sack to send Death Valley into a frenzy on Syracuse’s final position in the waning seconds.
Huegel also redeemed himself for his first-half miss, making two key field goals in the second half. He was 1 for his last 4 attempts before that.
I’m sure everyone was hoping for a less stressful noon game on Saturday, but the way it turned out could not have been better for the Tigers in the long run. This was one of those games that tests a team’s mettle, and the confidence they gained from passing the test will be monumental when they are faced with adversity later in the season or in the playoff. Hopefully Trevor Lawrence will never have to leave a game again, but if he does, Chase Brice will have all the confidence in the world, and the team will have confidence in him as well. They also know they can lean on the running game when they have to—even when the opponent knows it’s coming. The Tigers may have dropped to #4 in both polls this week, but it shows just how little the voters know. If anything, I would have moved the Tigers up based on their performance. They showed the stuff of championship teams on Saturday, coming from behind 10 points in the second half with a third-string quarterback with no meaningful experience to beat a 4-0 Syracuse team that blew out Florida State. That left me more impressed with the team than I was when they were #2 in both polls early in the season. All the pollsters see is that Clemson was favored by 25 points and only won by 4. They weren’t in Death Valley and can’t see how truly special this team is…but they will find out later. This program is now 24-4 in games decided by 8 points or less since 2011. That is a remarkable record, and not even Alabama can touch it.
On to this week’s game….
WAKE FOREST SYNOPSIS
The Deacs are 3-2 and coming off a much-needed 56-24 win over Rice after Notre Dame came into Winston Salem and trounced them by almost the same score, 56-27. Prior to Notre Dame, the Deacs lost at home to Boston College by a touchdown, so last week’s win was a shot in the arm from a confidence standpoint. Head Coach Dave Clawson fired his defensive coordinator after the Notre Dame loss, so they’re making do with a couple of assistant coaches on that side of the ball. I asked Jeff Scott how much the change affects their preparation from a game planning standpoint, and he doesn’t think they will change too much philosophically or scheme-wise simply because of the difficulty of doing that mid-season. However, he expects to see a couple wrinkles here and there that haven’t shown up on film. Wake was giving up huge plays on defense—even when they were designed to prevent the big plays—which was part of Clawson’s motivation for the staff change. The Deacs had one of the best defenses in the nation a couple years ago when Mike Elko was the defensive coordinator. He left to revamp Notre Dame’s defense and left there a year later to take the same job at Texas A&M. He is one of the best in the business and has already improved the Aggies’ defense, as the Tigers found out. As for Wake, it’s been downhill since the departure of Elko. The Deacs are #99 in plays allowed over 20 yards, #112 in plays over 30 yards and #97 in plays allowed over 40 yards. You may recall their Belk Bowl win over Texas A&M last season—a 55-52 shootout. Wake is #110 in total defense (461.2 yards/game), #108 in pass defense (271.6 yards/game), #101 in rush defense (189.6 yards/game) and #95 in scoring defense (31.6 points/game). That sophomore Boston College quarterback had 5 touchdown passes against that secondary, including several deep balls. Wake has just 10 sacks on the season, and the team leader has just 2. That is defensive end Carlos Basham, Jr. (great name), a 6’5, 270-pound redshirt sophomore. One of the pleasant surprises for Wake has been Chuck Wade, Jr. (#9), a 6’0, 205-pound senior who was converted to strong safety after playing 3 seasons at WR. Wade had a 60-yard interception return for a touchdown last week. That wasn’t the only big play made by the defense against Rice. Backup free safety Luke Masterson (#12) had a 43-yard interception return, and starting corner Essang Bassey (#21) returned a fumble 51 yards for a touchdown. So the defense certainly elevated its play less than a week after the defensive coordinator was fired, albeit against Rice.
On offense, Wake has one of the best play-makers in the nation: WR Greg Dortch (#3). The redshirt sophomore is diminutive in stature at just 5’9 and 170 pounds, but he is as quick and elusive as they come, and he exploded for 4 touchdowns last week. Dortch was 2nd Team All-ACC last year as a redshirt freshman. He was tenth in the ACC in receptions last season and second in touchdown receptions (9). He already has 5 TD’s this season. He is leading the ACC in catches (#2 in the nation) and reception yards (#6 in the nation) and is just one shy of the lead in touchdowns. Dortch was a high school teammate of starting Clemson safety K’Von Wallace and they are best friends, so that will be a very intriguing matchup when Wallace is lined up on Dortch in the slot. Dortch is electric in the return game—he had a big punt return TD against BC negated by a block in the back penalty. He is one of those guys that can take it the distance anytime he touches the ball in space, so the Tigers must know where #3 is at all times.
As fate would have it, the Tigers are going against two of the fastest offenses in the nation from a tempo standpoint in back-to-back weeks. Syracuse was #4 in the nation in offensive plays per game going into the Clemson game, and Wake is now #2 in that category, trailing only Texas Tech. Dave Clawson’s offense goes warp speed in an effort to snap the ball before the defense can get lined up or catch the defense with 12 men on the field for a penalty. I asked Venables and a couple players whether it is beneficial to face a similar tempo, and they all think it is a good thing. The Syracuse game gave them a little taste of what they will see at Wake, so that’s better than going from the Georgia Tech offense to Wake. However, Wake will be even more of a challenge than Cuse in the sense that they snap the ball even faster and don’t substitute as often. When the offense substitutes players, the rules allow the defense time to make its substitutions before the officials allow the offense to snap the ball. But when the offense doesn’t substitute, as will be the often be the case with Wake, they can snap the ball as soon as they get to the line of scrimmage. So you’re taking your chances if you try to sub on defense in those situations, and if you don’t sub, fatigue takes its toll on the players you’ve got on the field. Venables has been rotating a lot of guys all season, so the defense will need to create some three-and-outs to avoid long drives or fatigue could be an issue in the 4th quarter.
Running that warp-speed Wake offense is QB Sam Hartman. The 6’1, 190-pound true freshman has been impressive so far, given his youth and inexperience. Most expected redshirt junior Kendall Hinton (#2) to be the starting QB this season. Hinton is a dual threat guy who started most of the 2015 season as a true freshman before redshirting in 2016 and backing up John Wolford last year. Hinton was suspended for the first 3 games this season, and Hartman won the starting job. Hinton got into the game late against Rice last week and threw an interception in one of his 3 pass attempts. They have moved him over to WR, which seems like a good fit for him. He could be like another Greg Dortch once he gets the nuances of the position down. Hinton actually had a 23-yard touchdown run in the Notre Dame loss. Hartman has had his freshman moments and already has 5 interceptions this season, but he had a great game last week, completing 15 pf 17 passes for 241 yards, 4 touchdowns—all to Dortch—and no interceptions. He completed his last 12 throws in the game. On the season, Hartman has completed 57.9% of his passes for 1,185 yards and 10 touchdowns. He is not the type of QB who looks to run often, but he does have 208 rushing yards this season, averaging 3.5 net yards per carry with one touchdown. He is good at escaping pressure, similar to Syracuse QB Eric Dungey.
At running back, Wake has a two-headed monster in Colburn (#22) and Carney (#36) running behind 4 returning starters on the offensive line. Matt Colburn is a 5’10, 200-pound senior from Irmo, SC, so you know he’s had this game on the schedule circled. Cade Carney is a 5’11, 215-pound junior averaging 5.4 yards per carry, which is what Colburn averaged last season. Colburn is averaging 4.0 yards per carry so far this season and has 2 touchdowns. Carney leads the team in rushing yards and touchdowns with 4. Wake is #17 in rush offense at 244.4 yards per game, which is actually less than what they rushed for (259) against a good Notre Dame defense. They are #29 in scoring offense, exactly one spot ahead of the Tigers, averaging 38.2 points per game.
Wake’s kicker, Nick Sciba, is the second straight true freshman kicker the Tigers will have faced, but Syracuse’s kicker certainly hasn’t looked like a freshman this season. He was 3-3 against the Tigers last week in Death Valley and has to be a leader for the Groza Award, now 13-14 with a 50-yarder this season! Sciba is a mere 8-11 with a long of 39 yards, but that is still respectable for a true freshman. The Deacs’ punter has one of my favorite names in the game: Dom Maggio. Even if you’re not a Yankees fan, I think you could appreciate that name—especially now that the MLB playoffs have arrived! Maggio is a solid veteran punter, averaging 41.8 yards per punt with a long of 55, but don’t be surprised if he has the game of his life, as all punters seem to against the Tigers. Against A&M, Tech and Syracuse, all 3 punters had their best games of the season against the Tigers, looking like Ray Guy each one. That punter for Syracuse, for example, was averaging about 37 yards per punt going into the Clemson game. Against the Tigers, he averaged 48.6 yards on his 7 punts, and they were all a mile in the air! I’ve never seen a hang time like that from a college punter, and he single-handedly gave Syracuse its only 7 points of the second half because the elevation, giving Amari Rodgers fits all day, caused him to fumble the punt at the Tigers’ 10 yard line.
On Wednesday evening, we had our weekly post-practice interview with Dabo (WATCH HERE), and one of the takeaways was that the team was focused, locked in and it was one of the best weeks of practice Dabo has seen. I thought to myself, “What a relief it will be for the team to be able to focus solely on the upcoming opponent, with no off-the-field drama like they had last week during the Kelly Bryant saga. Lo and behold, just minutes after our interview with Dabo, the news breaks that former Clemson RB C.J. Fuller has died. Fuller was the Tigers’ starting running back entering the 2017 season before being passed by Feaster and Etienne on the depth chart. He left the team last February and was arrested in late March for armed robbery, along with fellow former Tiger Jadar Johnson and a former teammate from Easley High School. So in less than 8 months of leaving the team, Fuller, a Clemson graduate, was arrested and died. The cause of death has not been released yet. We have been told it was a seizure, but the coroner has stated that an autopsy will have to be performed to establish cause of death, and that will take 6 to 8 weeks. It’s a sad ending for a young man who was well-liked by many and in the prime of his youth. It seems like yesterday I was watching him make that phenomenal touchdown catch on a wheel route in the 31-0 rout of Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. He also had a big kick return against Alabama in the Tigers’ National Championship win in Tampa. All we can do now is pray for the family and loved ones he has left behind, but as we shift focus to concerns of less import, one can only speculate how this tragic news will affect Fuller’s former teammates and friends on the team. That running back group, in particular, was as tight as could be last year. How heavy this weighs on the minds of Choice, Feaster and Etienne remains to be seen. Hopefully the Tigers will be able to compartmentalize their emotions, take care of business on Saturday and then use the bye week to reflect on things. Everyone reacts to death differently, though, so this is the biggest unknown going into the game. I can tell you that before the news broke, all the players on the team were looking at this game as an opportunity to sprint into the bye week as opposed to last year, when they lost at Syracuse before the bye. Let’s hope they can maintain that mentality in spite of all they’re going through emotionally. It’s hard to imagine a tougher two weeks than the Tigers have dealt with off the field!
On the field, the defense continues to live up to the hype. The Tigers are #4 in total defense (263.6 yards/game) and #10 in rushing defense (95.0 yards/game) despite playing 3 option teams, including Georgia Tech, which led the nation in rushing yards going into the game. They are #7 in sacks (17) despite having played 3 option teams and 2 very slippery quarterbacks—Mond and Dungey—in the other two games. They are #7 in tackles-for-loss (45) and #12 on 3rd down (28.95%). A.J. Terrell recorded the first interception of the season for the Tigers last week, and it was a big one. It really ignited the crowd and led to a field goal. The Tigers had dropped 4 or 5 interceptions they should have caught this season, including 3 at Texas A&M! The last one at A&M, of course, popped out of K’Von Wallace’s hands and landed right in the receiver’s hands for a touchdown, giving them a chance to tie the game. Mark Fields also dropped one of the easiest interceptions you will even see in Atlanta. So it was good to see the defense get that monkey of its back. Fumbles, however, haven’t been an issue. The Tigers are #5 in the nation in fumbles recovered, and they have created a turnover in 13 straight games.
Xavier Thomas has been getting better on a weekly basis and should see more playing time on Saturday. The Tigers introduced their “Indy” (or speed) package last week, with defensive ends Ferrell, Bryant and Thomas all on the field at the same time, along with Christian Wilkins, who played defensive end two years ago! When LB Kendall Joseph was asked about it the other day, he grinned ear-to-ear, saying, “That’s a thing of beauty, isn’t it?” Speaking of Kendall, he told me he felt 100% against Syracuse after missing the Georgia Tech game with an injured groin. Starting corner Trayvon Mullen rolled his ankle and left the Syracuse game, and with backup Mark Fields serving a one-game suspension for violating team rules, Venables had to turn to true freshman Kyler McMichael for much of the game, and he was equal to the task. Mark Fields will be back on Saturday, so it will be interesting to see if Mullen starts the game. Dabo has told us that he is fine and ready to go, but if there is any doubt at all in that ankle, I would think they’d like to play it safe and see if they can win without him. With the bye week coming up, that would give him 3 weeks to rest the ankle. On the other hand, with the number of plays Wake runs, this could be an all-hands-on-deck type of game.
On the offensive side, no one knew what to expect when Trevor Lawrence left the Syracuse game in the first half with an apparent concussion. As it turned out, the Tigers got lucky, and the hit wasn’t as bad as it looked. Dabo said that Trevor lobbied to come back into the game, and it ended up being more of a neck strain than a concussion. The Tigers are also lucky he didn’t injure his throwing shoulder on the play. Dabo told me Trevor did everything he would normally do at practice on Monday night and has looked good all week. That’s a huge relief, but it’s also good to know that the Tigers can rely on Chase Brice if needed and that he will have plenty of confidence after what he did last week. Incidentally, I asked Dabo if there will be an extra emphasis on Trevor sliding feet-first, especially given their lack of depth at the position. I wrote all week last week that it was a must, and sure enough, Trevor did just that on his first big run in the game, but he reverted to his old habits later, and it cost him. Hopefully he will learn from that and be more cognizant of his safety when scrambling. It’s simply not worth the risk for a couple extra yards. Live to play another down! You can bet you’ll see him sliding more regularly from now on. Dabo told us that Ben Batson got a lot of reps in practice, so they may not have to turn to Renfrow in an emergency—as much as I’d love to see Renfrow try to catch his own pass. If anyone could do it…Speaking of Renfrow, what a spectacular catch he made for 28 yards on 3rd and 8 last week! We’ve seen him do that so many times, I can’t even count. Sometimes he gets overlooked a little bit because of the explosive touchdown plays by guys like Higgins and Ross, but what a luxury it is to have a reliable, sure-handed guy like #13 out there—particularly when you’re breaking in a couple new quarterbacks! That catch Renfrow made led to a field goal, and I think it was a huge spark that Brice and even the crowd really needed. Brice had a couple good passes dropped by Higgins and Rodgers before that, so the diving catch by Renfrow on a throw that was off target was just what the doctor ordered at that point in the game.
Etienne, of course, was sensational and seems to just keep getting better. He has now rushed for over 100 yards in each of the last 3 games, breaking 200 yards last week for the first time, and he has 7 touchdowns in the last 3 games. He is #11 in yards per game (118.8) and #12 in yards per carry (8.14). By the way, freshman Lyn-J Dixon is #14 in yards per carry at 7.94. Feaster and Choice have also ben productive for the Tigers. Dabo told us back in August that he thought this could be the best running back group in the country, and we are beginning to see what he was so excited about. They have rushed for over 200 yards in 3 straight games now and are #20 in rushing offense. That is only going to get better when the staff begins to feel confident enough in playing Dixon more often. Add this rushing attack to the Tigers’ potential in the passing game when Trevor Lawrence really finds his footing with all those explosive weapons he has, and this could be—as I said pre-season—the best offense in the nation coupled with arguably the best defense in the nation. Already, Clemson is one of just two teams ranked in the top 16 for both total defense and total offense. The other is not Alabama. It’s Washington State! And I think we can assume Wazzou is not a playoff contender.
Starting right tackle Tremayne Anchrum rolled his ankle in practice early last week. He started the Syracuse game but quickly took himself out. Dabo said he should be good to go on Saturday. Backup WR and kickoff returner Cornell Powell missed the Syracuse game and will not make the trip to Wake due to an academic issue that is still pending. Dabo told me on Wednesday that Derion Kendrick and/or Lyn-J Dixon will get an opportunity on kickoffs this Saturday. He declined to say which one, however, and hopes they will only get one kickoff opportunity in the game! Each of them got an opportunity last week, but neither got the ball to the 25.
Finally, you can bet Amari Rodgers has been eagerly awaiting this game with bated breath. He had his only bad game of the season last week, dropping 3 punts and losing one big one at the end of the 3rd quarter that cost the Tigers 7 points and nearly the game. It was the only touchdown the Tigers allowed in the second half. He also dropped an easy catch from Chase Brice in the second half. The unusually high punts and hang time clearly affected him because he has been rock-solid on punts all season. In fact, he had a big punt return in just about every game of the season before last week. I would expect him to rebound nicely with a good game this week.
Again, one can only speculate as to how young men at this age will react to something as profound as the death of someone close. However, I think the leadership on this team is second to none, and that leadership is what saw them through the adversity of last week and again on Saturday, trailing at halftime for the first time this season and minus two quarterbacks. I think this team really turned a significant corner last week, and my gut tells me that they will be use their emotions and hurt as fuel on Saturday. This team will take care of business and then some against a Wake team that simply doesn’t have the personnel to compete with the Tigers for 4 quarters. The Tigers set a new program record for consecutive Saturday wins at 22, and the Tigers complete the first half of their season a purrfect 6-0 headed into a much-needed bye week.
The Prowl toward a 4th consecutive ACC Title, a 4th consecutive College Football Playoff and a 3rd National Title continues….
CLEMSON 62 Wake Forest 20
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