Welcome to the Homecoming edition of What We Are Hearing!
The bye week came at a perfect time for the Tigers—exactly in the middle of the season and after a tumultuous couple of weeks with off-the-field distractions. Unlike last year—when the Tigers limped into the bye week, losing at Syracuse with an injured starting quarterback—the Tigers sprinted across the finish line with their most complete game of the season, annihilating Wake Forest on the road, 63-3. In the wake (pardon the pun) of former Clemson RB C.J. Fuller’s passing, the running backs exploded for 462 yards. Etienne, Choice and Dixon became the first Clemson trio in history to rush for over 125 yards in the same game. Those guys were as close to Fuller as anyone on the team, and Choice said after the game that he felt like C.J. was looking down on them. I was a little unsure how the Tigers would handle the news of Fuller’s death just a few days before the game, but my hunch was that they would put it together offensively, which is why I predicted a score of 62-20. I was just one point off on offense, but the defense played lights out as well, holding Wake to just 74 pass yards and 3 points.
The team went into the bye the right way and has regrouped for a championship run and one of the biggest remaining games on the regular season slate, an undefeated NC State team that has played the Tigers extremely tough for the last 3 straight years. This divisional rivalry, known for decades as the Textile Bowl, is the biggest game on the national slate this week, and it’s frankly a travesty that ESPN opted to instead feature Oregon at Washington State for College Gameday. Both of those teams have a loss, while the game in Clemson is the last matchup of undefeated Power Five teams left on the regular season schedule! It is a game of enormous importance both in the ACC and nationally. The winner—and even the loser if it’s Clemson—will have an excellent chance to make the College Football Playoff, while the winner of the Washington State game will have a miniscule chance to make the playoff. And the Pac-12 game isn’t even being televised by ESPN! But College Gameday has never been to Washington State, and they have been waving that flag at every place the show has been for years, so it’s a sympathy vote. Clemson has been featured on Gameday many times in recent years, including the Texas A&M game this season, but the show has not been to Clemson since the Louisville game in early October of 2016. And this is honestly the only game left on the schedule that would merit a visit from Gameday. Not to mention that the last 3 games between the Tigers and the Wolfpack have been thrillers!
The Tigers waxed the Pack 41-0 in Deshaun Watson’s second career start back in 2014, Dave Doeren’s first year as head coach. Since then, they have all been dog fights, as it were. It took a late interception at the goal line by K’Von Wallace to seal the game in Raleigh last year, 38-31, and the Tigers also benefited from their only punt return touchdown of the season from Ray-Ray McCloud. It was the only one of his career and could not have been bigger! Two years ago, of course, who could forget the thrilling game in Death Valley? The Tigers’ national championship season hung in the balance, as State missed a would-be game-winning field goal wide right, and the Tigers won in overtime on an Artavis Scott touchdown and Marcus Edmond interception. Many people forget that the Tigers had 4 turnovers in that game—5 if you count the turnover on downs. 3 of the turnovers were fumbles inside State’s red zone, and 2 of them were inside the 5-yard-line. Deshaun Watson also threw the only pick-six of his entire career that day! Simply put, the game should not have been close, but it was one of those days. However, the Tigers found a way to win as they invariably do. Since 2011, the Tigers are an astounding 24-4 in games decided by 8 points or less. That is the best such winning percentage in the nation over that period—even better than Alabama.
Speaking of Alabama, I really don’t understand why everyone on ESPN to a man is singing from the same hymnal on the Tide, saying that they are “unbeatable,” “the best team on the planet,” “the best team of all time” and “on another level than everyone else.” They are clearly oblivious to the data and the fact that Alabama has played one of the weakest schedules in the nation to this point. If Alabama is so clearly the best team in the nation and so clearly better than everyone else, then why are they not even in the top 10 for both total offense and total defense? The truth is, CLEMSON—not Bama—is the only team in the nation ranked in the top 10 for both total offense and total defense. The Tigers are #3 in total defense and #8 in total offense. Moreover, the Tigers’ strength of record is better than Alabama’s, so you can’t write that off to the Tigers playing lesser competition. Sorry, but in my opinion the so-called “experts” on ESPN have no clue what they are talking about when it comes to Alabama and Clemson. They act like Alabama’s defense is as good as it was last year, and now they have Tua and a great offense on top of it. That is simply wrong. Alabama had the #1 defense last year. This year, the Tide are ranked #16. They also have no clue how good this Clemson is and that—while being the only team ranked in the top 10 on both sides of the ball—they are getting better and just scratching the surface of their potential. Lyn-J Dixon, for example, had a breakout game at Wake a couple weeks ago, scoring 2 touchdowns and rushing for 163 yards on 10 carries. He also had a 41-yard reception. By the end of the season, he is going to be another huge weapon for the Tigers, who are already loaded with them. Freshman Justyn Ross is scoring a touchdown every 3 catches, and he is also just scratching the surface of his potential. Same for Xavier Thomas on defense. Braden Galloway could be a force at tight end by season’s end. And, most importantly, Trevor Lawrence is already playing great and will just continue to get better. On top of all that, they have already demonstrated that they can win with Chase Brice if something were to happen to Trevor. The good news is Clemson fans don’t have to worry about ESPN’s ignorance. With the College Football Playoff, gone are the days when an undefeated team can get robbed of an opportunity to play for a national championship. Well, unless you’re a Group of Five team like UCF. That’s why I’ve always been an advocate for an 8-team playoff. UCF was the only undefeated team in the nation last year and beat Auburn—the team that beat Alabama! They deserved a chance to prove they were the best team in the nation. And anyone who says unequivocally that there is no way UCF could have beaten Bama doesn’t know what he/she is talking about. If that were true, UCF would have lost to Auburn. But I digress. The point is, ESPN will finally come around and wake up to reality about both Alabama and Clemson soon. I believe there is a good chance Alabama will lose at LSU in a few weeks. Unfortunately, that is after the first release of the only rankings that matter. If it were a week earlier and Alabama were to lose, Clemson could have been #1 in the initial CFP rankings for the 3rd time in the last 4 years. As it stands, I believe the Tigers will be #2 when those rankings are released in a couple weeks.
Before I dive into this week’s game, I wanted to remind you that basketball season is right around the corner, with the first game on November 6 against The Citadel in Littlejohn! The Tigers are coming off one of their best seasons in history with a close loss to Kansas in the Sweet 16. The Tigers return one of the best back courts in the country with Marquise Reed and Shelton Mitchell, and one early poll has them ranked #17. In case you missed it, we had our annual Media Day last week, and you can watch interviews with Brad Brownell, Terrell McIntyre, Steve Smith and new Women’s Coach Amanda Butler HERE.
Also, this will be the Tigers' annual breast cancer awareness game. Coincidentally, it was also the NC State game 2 years ago. Let's hope the pink brings the Tigers good luck this time! You can donate to Dabo and Kathleen Swinney's breast cancer research foundation by texting DABO to 41444.
Now on to the good stuff….
Clemson leads the all-time series with NC State 57-28-1....NC State is third on the list of teams most beaten by Clemson, behind South Carolina and Wake Forest....Dabo Swinney is going for his fourth 7-0 start and his third in the last four years. Clemson had only started 7-0 three times in its history prior to Dabo. Frank Howard, Danny Ford and Tommy Bowden each did it once....The Tigers have beaten the Wolfpack in 13 of the last 14 meetings, winning the last 6 straight....This is just the sixth meeting in which both teams are ranked in the AP Top 25. Clemson is 2-3 in the previous five meetings....Clemson is 71-20-3 in Homecoming games and has won 8 straight....Clemson has won 11 straight games at home, dating back to a 56-7 win over South Carolina in 2016. It is the third-longest home win streak under Dabo. The record is 21 straight, from 2013 to 2016. The Tigers have won 32 of their last 33 games in Death Valley, losing only on a last-second field goal to Pittsburgh in 2016....Clemson has won 22 straight Saturday games, the longest streak in program history. The Tigers won 21 straight from 2014 to 2016….Clemson is 30-2 in its last 32 ACC games and 24-1 in its last 25 ACC Atlantic games....Dabo Swinney is 21-4 when his team is ranked lower than the previous week.... The Tigers have not allowed a first-half touchdown in 8 of their last 11 games….Hunter Renfrow has caught a pass in 34 straight games. He needs one touchdown to tie Jacoby Ford, Derrick Hamilton and Terrance Roulhac with 16 career TD's, 10th on the all-time Clemson list…Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 50 weeks. Next is Georgia at 19….Clemson is one of just 4 teams with 3 players that have at least 10 career sacks (Ferrell, Bryant and Wilkins). The others are Oregon, Boise State and Wyoming...Clelin Ferrell is tied for 3rd in active career sacks (21.5) and tied for 1st in the Power Five....
NC STATE SYNOPSIS
The Pack come to Death Valley with a 5-0 record thanks to their toughest early-season game against West Virginia being cancelled due to Hurricane Florence. I was disappointed that game was cancelled because it would have given a good indication of how good this NC State team is. The Pack is coming off a bye week, just like the Tigers, and their best wins have come at home in their last two games—a 28-23 win over Boston College two weeks ago and a 35-21 win over Virginia the week before.
State lost some big-time players on both sides of the ball. Offensively, they lost WR Jaylen Samuels and Nyheim Hines—both 1,000-yard players last year—but they haven’t missed a beat in the passing game, thanks to QB Ryan Finley. The 6’4, 212-pound veteran is in his 3rd year starting for the Pack after transferring from Boise State, following Offensive Coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz from Boise to Raleigh. Finley is probably the most underrated quarterback in the nation and will surely be playing on Sundays next year. Despite the loss of Samuels, the Pack is #6 nationally in passing offense at 335 yards per game. Finley still has a big target in 6’3, 214-pound junior WR Kelvin Harmon (#3). He had over 1,000 reception yards last season, and he’s leading the team this season with 33 catches for 534 yards and 2 touchdowns in just 5 games. The run game is another story—they have missed Hines so far. The Pack is ranked #95 in rushing offense at 144.8 yards per game. Senior RB Reggie Gallaspy (#25) is a powerful RB at 5’11 and 235 pounds, but he doesn’t have the speed Hines did. Gallaspy had 506 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns last season, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. This season, he has 324 yards and 7 touchdowns, averaging 3.6 yards per carry. The Pack also misses Jaylen Samuels in the run game. He rushed for 403 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. State has had backs in each of the last 3 battles with the Tigers. Before Hines, it was Matt Dayes, who is now in the NFL. That is one common denominator that is missing on this year’s team, and it will be interesting to see how much that affects the matchup this time. State also lost a pair of second-team All-ACC offensive linemen from last year, and that might be a contributing factor to their struggles in the run game as well.
Dabo on NC State’s offense: “Offensively, I think do a great job as far as how they structure everything, how they call it. Everything is built off the stretch. They put a lot of pressure on you with their stretch run game, creates a lot of distortion in your defensive line because guys are running and then if they get you cut on the backside, they've got a lot of cut-back alleys, so it puts a lot of pressure on you to fit everything up properly, especially the backside fits, and your linemen getting up off the ground if they do get cut, and then they do a lot of -- they do a good job with their formationing that can stress you coverage-wise.”
On the defensive side, this game features two very disparate fronts in terms of experience. The Tigers, of course, have one of the most decorated and heralded returning defensive lines in the history of college football. State, on the other hand, saw its entire starting line go to the NFL. As most are aware, the Pack lost #5 NFL Draft pick Bradley Chubb at defensive end. But they also lost a pair of third-round defensive tackles in B.J. Hill and Justin Jones and a fourth-round defensive end in Kentavius Street. In all, State lost 7 starters from last year’s defense. Despite the losses, they have been surprisingly stout on defense this season. They are ranked #16 in scoring defense, allowing 16.8 points per game, and #13 in rush defense, allowing 107.4 yards per game. They are much better than last year’s unit in both of those categories, but I think that is mostly attributable to their schedule so far. State is #35 in total defense (341.4 yards/game) and #84 in pass defense (234 yards/game). DT Larrell Murchison (#92) leads the team with 3.5 sacks, but they only average 2.6 sacks per game. Bandit defensive end James Smith-Williams (#39) and WILL linebacker Germaine Pratt (#3) each have a pair of sacks, and everyone else has less than two. They are also underwhelming in tackles-for-loss at 6.2 per game, which is #57 nationally. The Pack has produced 8 turnovers in 5 games, and 4 different players have an interception, including a pick-six by strong safety Jarius Morehead (#31). State runs a 4-2-5 defensive scheme. With Chubb having moved on to the NFL, perhaps there will be less shenanigans during the game, such as the towel-stealing fiasco last season. Head Coach Dave Doeren also accused Clemson of impropriety after last year’s game, alleging that the Tigers were illegally using laptops on the sideline. Incidentally, Dave Doeren and Brent Venables go way back. They were both born and raised in Kansas and coached against each other in the Big 12. When Venables was at Oklahoma, he actually helped Doeren land his first big job at Kansas by giving him an endorsement to Head Coach Mark Mangino. I asked both Venables and Doeren about their relationship over the years. You can see the Venables response HERE and Doeren’s response HERE.
On special teams, the Tigers will face a freshman place kicker for the 3rd straight game. The Syracuse freshman, however, is having a Groza Award season and was perfect against the Tigers. As for State, Christopher Dunn is 8-11 on the season with a long of 44 yards. He has not attempted one over 50 yards. He has had one attempt blocked. It seems like the Tigers face an All-American punter every week—or at least that’s how they always play against the Tigers. The punter for Syracuse kicked the ball as high as I’ve ever seen and forced Amari Rodgers to drop 3 punts, including one on the 10-yard line that almost cost the Tigers the game. State has a solid veteran in senior A.J. Cole, who averages 40.5 yards per punt with a season long of 55.
The Tigers’ run game is the best its been in years. Since struggling to run the ball at Texas A&M, the Tigers have ripped off 4 straight games with at least 200 rushing yards, culminating in the 471 yards at Wake Forest. They are currently the nation’s #4 rush offense, and the top 3 are all option teams: Georgia Tech, Navy and Army. And the Tigers out-rushed Tech on its own field. Sophomore Travis Etienne has looked like a serious Heisman contender in recent weeks. In the last 4 games since A&M, Etienne has rushed for an astonishing 654 yards with 10 touchdowns. Those 10 touchdowns have actually come over a span of 14 quarters since he didn’t play in the 4th at Wake. He is #5 nationally in yards per carry (9.17), #5 in yards per game (126.83) and #3 in touchdowns per game. He leads the nation in touchdowns over the last 4 games. Etienne is currently the Clemson career leader in yards per carry at 8.03, and we all know how many special backs have come through this program. He is just 5 yards short of his season rushing yard total from last season, and we’re less than half way through the season! At the pace Etienne is on, he will be Clemson’s first-ever 2,000-yard rusher. The Clemson season record is 1,527 yards by Wayne Gallman in 2015. Etienne is also on pace to break the Clemson season rushing touchdown record of 17 held by Gallman, James Davis and Lester Brown.
One thing I will have my eye on Saturday is when the coaches put true freshman Lyn-J Dixon into the game. Dabo and the coaches told us all August that Dixon had a fantastic camp and was actually ahead of where Etienne was at the same time last year. He had a breakout performance at Wake with 163 yards and 2 touchdowns on 10 carries and also had a reception for 41 yards. I asked Dabo after the game whether they were getting to a comfort level with Dixon that he could see some snaps in meaningful situations, similar to what we saw with Etienne this time last year. Dabo essentially said there is only one ball to go around, and the other 3 backs are all running well too. However, I think it’s going to be hard to keep Dixon off the field with the explosiveness he has shown in his limited playing time this season. He ripped off a 12-yard run and a 60-yard run in his first two career touches in the opener. The biggest thing keeping Dixon off the field right now is his pass protection, but Tony Elliott told me he is further ahead of where Etienne was as a freshman with his pass pro. I would be surprised if we don’t see Dixon get a couple snaps while the game is still close on Saturday. Dabo did tell me on Wednesday that they will use Dixon on kickoff returns, even though the depth chart lists only Adam Choice and Derion Kendrick. Cornell Powell, who started the season on kick returns, has missed the last two games due to academic issues, and Dabo told us on Tuesday that they intend to red shirt him. Finally, Tavien Feaster hurt his shoulder in the first half at Wake, but Dabo said he has looked fine all week and will be ready to go.
This game presents a couple intriguing matchups of strength-on-strength. As mentioned, Clemson is currently #4 in rushing offense, but I think that is partly attributable to the teams the Tigers have played in the last 4 games. They rushed for just 115 yards at Texas A&M but have gone over 200 in each of the last 4 games. If you look at those 4 opponents—Georgia Southern, Georgia Tech, Syracuse and Wake—they all have poor rush defenses. NC State’s defense is ranked #13 against the run, so this game should be a good barometer for how prolific the Tigers’ running game really is. On the other hand, NC State has not played a really good running team yet. Boston College would have been a great barometer for them, but All-ACC RB A.J. Dillon missed the game with an injury. So this game should reveal which team’s numbers are a little inflated—perhaps both are.
I believe this game is going to be decided on 3rd down. Brent Venables and the Clemson defense have owned 3rd down for years—both in conversion percentage and in forcing more three-and-outs than anyone in the nation, including Alabama. The Tigers are #8 on 3rd down defensively, and NC State is #1 in the nation on 3rd down offensively, thanks to Ryan Finley. The Pack’s offense isn’t explosive, but it’s death by a thousand cuts. They dink-and-dunk for 5 yards here and 6 yards there and keep moving the chains. So it will be paramount for the Tigers to continue to get stops on 3rd down and force State into some negative plays. The Tigers are #8 in the nation in sacks, but NC State is #3 in fewest sacks allowed. You might think that Finley would be ripe to be sacked because he’s a traditional pocket passer and not very mobile, but he does a great job getting the ball out quickly. It will be a big test for the Clemson secondary to play great in coverage and give the defensive line time to get home.
Crazy things always seem to happen in this game, and if they do all bets are off. The Tigers can’t afford to turn it over 5 times with a pick-six like they did in 2016. If they play a clean game, like I think they will, this game shouldn’t be close. They did just that in Death Valley back in 2014 when Deshaun Watson was a true freshman, and that was a 41-0 blowout. Now Trevor Lawrence is a true freshman, and you can bet the Wolf Pack will try to test him and stop the run. I think Lawrence answers the challenge and has his best game of the season. The Tigers make it 7 straight and 14 of the last 15 against the Pack, planting themselves firmly in the driver's seat for the Atlantic Division Title.
The Prowl toward a 4th consecutive ACC Title, a 4th consecutive College Football Playoff and a 3rd National Title continues…..
CLEMSON 41 NC State 17