Welcome to the Senior Day edition of What We Are Hearing!
It’s also Military Appreciation Day, of course, so the team will be decked out in all Purple as they do for this one game every year to honor the military. Clemson, as most of you know, began as an all-male Agriculture and Military school, so this is always a special week in Tiger Town. My brother-in-law is a fighter pilot in the Air Force Reserves, and he was actually selected to fly one of the two F16’s over Death Valley before kickoff, but they canceled the fly-by when the game was scheduled at night. We’re very disappointed about that, but maybe he’ll get to do it next year. Ironically, we have been given home noon games all year long—even when it should have been a night game against NC State—and now, when I was sure it was going to be another nooner against Duke with a big point spread, they make it our first home night game.
The Tigers, of course, clinched the Atlantic Division Title for the 4th straight year—something FSU hasn’t even accomplished—when they dominated Boston College in frigid Chestnut Hill, 27-7. I predicted last week that they would win by 25, but they won by 20, thanks to a punt return touchdown by BC. The Tigers’ defense pitched a shutout for the first time this season, allowing just 113 total yards against A.J. Dillon and company. Dillon rushed for just 39 yards on 2.4 yards per carry, so in the last two meetings combined, the preseason All-American has rushed for just 97 yards against the Tigers.
The Tigers took home the O’Rourke-McFadden Trophy for the 8th straight year and the 10th time in 11 years under Dabo. Trevor Lawrence was named MVP by the Boston College Gridiron Club and got to wear the Clemson Leather Helmet. Everyone naturally speculated about how Trevor would play in the freezing temperatures and wind, having never taken a snap north of Virginia, but he responded the same way he has met every other challenge for the first time, passing with flying colors. Trevor set a career-high for completions, going 29-40 for 295 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for his first career touchdown on a perfectly faked handoff and bootleg left. He reminded us that he is still human, though, throwing his fourth interception of the season, his second in consecutive games. Dabo also named Trevor Co-Offensive MVP, along with Hunter Renfrow, who tied Artavis Scott’s Clemson record of 38 straight games with a reception. Renfrow actually led the Tigers in receptions with 8 for 80 yards—both season highs for him.
Heisman candidate Travis Etienne rushed for just 78 yards and failed to score a touchdown for the second time this season, but he still averaged 7.1 yards per carry. The Tigers ran only 71 offensive plays but still managed to put up 424 total yards. Amari Rodgers scored his first career punt return touchdown, and it was a big one that essentially sealed the game for the Tigers. Amari was Special Teams MVP along with Greg Huegel, who was 2-2 on field goals after not attempting one in the previous two games. That was a nice redemption for Rodgers after he muffed an earlier punt on a missed call by the officials. I asked Dabo about that missed interference call, and he was very upset with the officials for not making the obvious call on the field. I followed up with Dabo on Wednesday and asked him if he thought calls or missed calls such as that should be reviewable, and he absolutely thinks they should be. You can watch his response to that in our Wednesday post-practice interview HERE.
The Tigers’ offense wasn’t as sharp as it had been for the past 4 games. They were just 5 of 15 on 3rd down and even worse on 3rd down in the red zone. However, the defense just keeps getting better, not allowing a single point for the first time this season. Boston College averaged just 2 yards per play and ran just 57 plays with 5 three-and-outs. The Tigers sacked the quarterback 4 times and recorded their usual 10 tackles-for-loss. A.J. Terrell was named Defensive MVP, but Massachusetts native Christian Wilkins had another monster game in his hometown with 80 friends and family in attendance. He recorded 5 tackles, including one for loss, and perhaps had the biggest impact on the game when he knocked quarterback Anthony Brown out of the game in the first quarter on a QB pressure. It was a violent but clean hit, and both Dabo and Christian reached out to the quarterback after the game. Tanner Muse played one of his best games, recording a season-high 10 tackles. His previous high was 6. As well as the defense played, they ironically failed to create a turnover for the first time in 18 games. Kendall Joseph nearly came up with an interception, which would have been their sixth straight game with an INT.
Finally, the Tigers successfully ran their “Fridge” package for the third time this season, adding a new wrinkle once again. On the play’s debut at Florida State, Trevor Lawrence handed the ball to Christian Wilkins out of the I formation, with Big Dex as the lead blocker at fullback. Against Louisville, the handoff went to Dexter, and he powered his way into the end zone for his first career rush and TD. This time, they released tight end Milan Richard as Trevor faked the handoff and floated a perfect touch pass over the top to Milan, just over the linebacker’s outstretched hand. I asked Tony Elliott about the origin of the Fridge package, and he gave all the credit to Dabo. That play has got to be a nightmare for defensive coordinators to game plan against now that the Tigers have demonstrated the ability to throw off of it. I don’t know how it can be stopped because you have to commit everyone you’ve got to the line of scrimmage in order to stop nearly 700 pounds of ball carriers. It is a dilemma that I’m sure will occupy the mind of Nick Saban should we see a fourth consecutive showdown between Clemson and Alabama in the playoff.
With the win, the Tigers are 10-0 for just the fourth time in program history but the second time in the last four years under Dabo. Frank Howard and Danny Ford each accomplished the feat once. It is the Tigers’ 8th straight 10-win season, tying them with Miami and Virginia Tech for the fourth-longest streak all-time.
Before I dive into the Tigers’ final ACC game of the regular season, I want to remind you that basketball season is underway, and No.19 Clemson is 3-0, winning by an average of 18 points per game! The Tigers have picked up their play defensively, holding their last two opponents to under 60 points after allowing 80 points to each of their previous two opponents. Their next game is Wednesday against Akron in the Cayman Island Classic, where they will play 3 games in as many days. You can read my recap of Wednesday night’s win over Sam Houston State with post-game interviews HERE.
Also, after 4 straight days of rain in Tiger Town, the weather is looking beautiful for Saturday, but the ground is still very soggy. In an effort to expedite the drying process, Clemson employed the use of a helicopter over the intramural fields (see photo above). For the latest updates and tailgate lot info, please click HERE.
On to this week’s matchup…..
Clemson is 36-16-1 all-time against Duke…The last meeting was in 2012 at Duke, and Clemson won 56-20…With last week’s win, the Tigers are 12-7 all-time in games featured on ESPN College Gameday and 2-0 this season…A win Saturday would give Wilkins, Bryant, Hyatt, Renfrow, Huegel and the rest of the senior class their 51st win, setting a new school and ACC record. Last year’s senior class set the record with 50 wins. Clemson would be just the second school ever to win 51 games over a four-year span, joining Alabama, which accomplished the feat twice and holds the record at 53 games….Dabo is 10-0 for the second time in the last four years. It had previously only been done twice: by Frank Howard in 1948 and Danny Ford in 1981….Clemson is 19-1 in its last 20 true road games….Clemson has won a school-record 26 consecutive Saturday games. That is the longest such streak in the nation….Clemson is 28-1 in last 29 ACC Atlantic games….Clemson is 32-2 in its last 34 ACC games…. Clelin Ferrell’s 24 career sacks is 7th on the Clemson all-time list and 3rd among active players in the Power Five. He is tied for 9th in the Power Five with 8.5 sacks this season....The Clemson defense failed to create a turnover last week for the first time in 18 games. It had 7 interceptions in the 5 games previous to Boston College after no interceptions in the first 4....Sophomore Travis Etienne is already tied with Sammy Watkins for #8 on the Clemson career touchdown list with 29…..The Tigers have not allowed a first-half touchdown in 12 of their last 15 games….Hunter Renfrow has caught a pass in 38 straight games, tying Artavis Scott’s Clemson record. 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 54 weeks. Next is Georgia at 23….Clemson has been ranked in the top 4 of the College Football Playoff Rankings for 21 consecutive weeks since the Tigers were #1 in the first release of 2015....
This will be the first meeting between the two teams since 2012, which was the first year for Brent Venables as Defensive Coordinator, and the Blue Devils come into Death Valley in the midst of one of their best seasons ever at 7-3 (3-3 ACC). They are fresh off the heels (pardon the pun) of a 42-35 win over the Tar Heels. The previous week, they won 20-12 at Miami in a torrential downpour. The week before that, they lost a shootout 54-45 at Pitt, which will likely be the Tigers’ opponent in the ACC Championship Game. Duke has been a bit of an enigma this season. They have impressive road wins—21-7 at Big Ten West Champ Northwestern, the aforementioned win at Miami and 28-14 at Georgia Tech—but they also lost to Virginia Tech 31-14 at home.
The one consistent thing about the Devils is their third-year starter at quarterback, Daniel Jones. The 6’5, 220-pound junior from Charlotte is a sure-fire NFL prospect, and although he has not seen an environment as intimidating as Death Valley at night, he will not likely be rattled. I asked David Cutcliffe about that very subject, and you can read or listen to his response HERE. Jones has been around long enough to ignore the crowd, and he has played in some big-time venues such as Lane Stadium last year and South Bend two years ago. Duke lost that game at Virginia Tech 24-3, but Jones went into South Bend as a freshman making his second start on the road and beat Notre Dame 38-35. That gives you a glimpse into the kind of moxie this quarterback has. Jones has completed 61% of his passes this season for 1,948 yards and 16 touchdowns against 6 interceptions. He missed games in September against Baylor and NC Central after breaking his clavicle in the Northwestern game, so his stats are a little deflated from what they would otherwise be. Jones is also very nimble for a quarterback of his size and has rushed for 327 yards with 2 touchdowns, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Keep in mind, that number is net of sacks, so that is an impressive average for any quarterback. Jones had one of his best games of the season last week in the win over North Carolina, going 31-54 for 361 yards and 3 touchdowns with one interception. He also rushed for a whopping 186 yards and a touchdown, averaging 12.6 yards per carry. They effort earned him ACC Quarterback of the Week honors. Trevor Lawrence was named ACC Rookie of the Week for the fourth time this season, so we’ll get to see two of the top three quarterbacks in the conference going head-to-head on Saturday night. Head Coach David Cutcliffe is widely renowned as one of the greatest quarterback coaches of all time, having coached the likes of both Manning brothers in college, and he has another protégé well on his way to the NFL. Duke’s offensive line has allowed 21 sacks this season, which is tied for #64 in the nation.
Jones’s two favorite targets are Johnathan Lloyd (#5) and T.J. Rahming (). Lloyd is a 6-0, 190-pound senior with 42 catches for a team-high 545 yards and 5 touchdowns this season. He had 5 catches for 65 yards in last week’s win. Rahming is a 5’10, 170-pound senior in the slot from Powder Springs, GA. He leads the team in receptions and touchdowns with 53 catches for 518 yards and 6 TD’s. Rahming completed a pass for a 22-yard touchdown earlier in the season, so look out for a trick play with him on Saturday. He had 9 catches for 98 yards last week. 6’1, 185-pound senior Chris Taylor (#82) also had a big game last week with 4 catches for 95 yards and a touchdown. 6’4, 255-pound senior Daniel Helm (#80) is their starting tight end. He only has 17 catches for 172 yards on the season, but he has come on of late, catching 6 passes for 64 yards in the last two games and a touchdown in each.
Deon Jackson (#25) is Duke’s leading rusher at 725 yards and 7 touchdowns, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. The 6’0, 220-pound sophomore is from Atlanta, so you know he has been looking forward to this game for the last couple years. He had 21 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown in his homecoming win at Georgia Tech earlier this season. Jackson also has 14 receptions for 180 yards this season and caught a touchdown at Pitt a few weeks ago. QB Daniel Jones is the second-leading rusher on the team, but they also have 6’1, 205-pound sophomore RB Brittain Brown (#22), who has rushed for 325 yards and 2 touchdowns, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. Brown is another Georgia native from Canton.
6’3, 225-pound redshirt freshman DE Chris Rumph II (#96) is a backup but leads the team with 3 sacks. If the name sounds familiar, it should. His father, Chris Rumph, was Defensive Ends Coach at Clemson for 4 years before leaving to coach at Alabama. The younger Rumph also leads the team with 7 tackles-for-loss and has a fumble recovery to his credit. Another of Duke’s standouts is LB Joe Giles-Harris (#44). The 6’2, 240-pound junior can run, and he’s second on the team with 6.5 tackles-for-loss. He also has a sack and a blocked kick this season. Cutcliffe lost his Defensive Coordinator of 8 years, Jim Knowles, to Oklahoma State, but Cutcliffe replaced him internally with Defensive Line Coach Ben Albert and Safeties Coach Matt Guerrieri, so the players are used to the system in place. They run a nickel defense with four down linemen.
Statistically, Duke is very average across the board. The Devils are #60 in rushing offense (174.2 yards/game), #54 in passing offense (245.6 yards/game), #56 in total offense (419.8 yards/game) and #49 in scoring offense (31.3 points/game). They are a respectable 42.76% on 3rd down, which is #37 in the nation, but they have not been good in the red zone. They have scored on just 81.58% of their trips in the red zone, which is #85 in the nation. Their touchdown percentage in the red zone is a little better at 63.16%, which ranks them #67.
On the other side of the ball, they are #107 in rush defense (212 yards/game), #32 in pass defense (193.7 yards/game) but are just #80 in sacks and #55 in tackles-for-loss. They are #71 in total defense (405.7 yards/game) and #48 in scoring defense (23.5 points/game). Duke is #54 in 3rd down defenses, allowing conversions 37.58% of the time. Despite the secondary being Duke’s strength on defense, the Devils are #125 in interceptions with just 3 on the season. They have recovered 8 fumbles.
Duke is also average on special teams. The Devils are #109 in punt returns and #65 in kickoff returns. Their punter, Austin Parker, averages 41.6 yards per punt. Collin Wareham is 7-10 on field goals this season with a long of 35 yards. He is 0-2 over 40 yards and has had one attempt blocked.
Despite their statistical mediocrity, the Devils still have one of the better records in the ACC at 7-3. That is because they know who they are, and they are a well-coached team. Duke is the third-least penalized team behind a couple other cerebral, well-coached schools: Navy and Northwestern, which Duke beat handily on the road. Duke averages just 4.1 penalties per game for 34.5 yards per game. Surprisingly, though, Duke is -.20 per game in the turnover margin. One of the reasons they have won in spite of themselves is their red zone defense, which is even better than Boston College’s. Duke is #9 in the Power Five, just 2 spots behind Clemson, allowing scores 74.07% of the time. However, they allow a high percentage of touchdowns inside the red zone at 59.26%, which is #58 in the nation.
DAVID CUTCLIFFE AND DANIEL JONES PRESS CONFERENCE HERE
The Tigers have turned a big corner, having secured their 4th consecutive ACC Championship Game berth. It was the first time since the opener that the Tigers have accomplished one of their team goals, and I could sense the relief and satisfaction in talking to the players this week. However, we all know this team has bigger fish to fry than another ACC Championship, and Dabo has said that this is probably the most focused team he’s ever had, thanks to the number of junior and senior leaders on the team.
Trevor Lawrence continues to improve on a weekly basis. He was off target on a couple deep passes last week and had the bad interception that he should not have thrown, but you can expect to see improvement in that area this week. He also needs to work on his sliding. You can tell he hadn’t done much of that in high school, and he began his slide short of the line to make for the second time at Boston College. After he did that the first time earlier in the season, he admitted that he didn’t even know the rule states that the ball is down when the quarterback begins a sliding motion. He repeated the mistake at Boston College, which cost the Tigers a first down again, and I don’t think we’ll see him make that mistake a third time. Other than nit-picking at the finer points of quarterbacking, Trevor Lawrence has been superb—especially for a true freshman. The coaches continue to rave about his football intelligence quotient and ability to change protections at the line of scrimmage. His fake on the bootleg for his first rushing touchdown was a thing of beauty, as was the touch pass to Milan Richard on the Fridge fake.
Hunter Renfrow was named one of three finalists for the Burlsworth Trophy this week. The award honors players who began their careers as walk-ons, and I can’t think of one that has done more on the field than Renfrow other than perhaps Baker Mayfield, whose off-the-field exploits were far inferior to Renfrow’s. Certainly, no other former walk-on has made a bigger impact on the College Football Playoff than Renfrow with his 4 touchdown catches against Alabama, including the one that won National Championship. Tony Elliott is also a former walk-on WR who played for Dabo at Clemson, and he talked about what a special player Renfrow is. You can watch that interview from Monday HERE.
Renfrow wasn’t the only one to make the cut for a national award this week. Christian Wilkins was named one of five finalists for the Nagurski Award, honoring the nation’s best defensive player, and he was also named one of 8 semifinalists for the Outland Trophy, honoring the nation’s best interior lineman, along with fellow senior All-American Mitch Hyatt. Heisman Candidate Travis Etienne was named a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award for the nation’s best running back, and as mentioned last week, Trevor Lawrence is a semifinalist for the Davey O’Brien Award for best quarterback. Not even Deshaun was named a semifinalist for that award as a freshman, but he went on to be the fourth player to win the award twice!
Sophomore Travis Etienne dropped from 5th to 8th on ESPN’s Heisman rankings after rushing for just 78 yards and no touchdowns last week. However, he could easily jump back up in the rankings with a few big games against Duke, South Carolina and in the ACC Championship Game. A few players ahead of him will likely not even get to play in a conference championship game. Etienne did break the 1,000-yard mark last week, and he is still #1 in the Power Five for rushing touchdowns with 15. He is also #5 in the Power Five for yards per carry at 8.47. Incidentally, freshman Lyn-J Dixon is #2 in the nation for yards per carry at 10.8. He is one of just two players with over 10 yards per carry. Etienne needs 452 yards to break Wayne Gallman’s single-season Clemson rushing record of 1,527 set in 2015. He needs 3 touchdowns to pass James Davis and Lester Brown for the Clemson single-season rushing TD record.
Unlike Duke, the Tigers are among the nation’s best in just about every statistical category. They are #3 in rush defense (82.3 yards/game), #9 in pass defense (171.3 yards/game), #2 in total defense (253.6 yards/game) and #1 in scoring defense (12.7 points/game). The are also tied with Alabama for #3 in sacks (36), and they are #2 in tackles-for-loss (99). They are #6 in 3rd down defense (26.58%) and #11 in red zone defense (73.91%). They have allowed touchdowns on just 47.83% of opportunities in the red zone, and they have not allowed a first-half touchdown in 12 of their last 15 games.
The Tigers are #11 in rush offense (251.7 yards/game), #2 in yards per carry (6.73), #28 in pass offense (274.9 yards/game), #9 in total offense (526.6 yards/game) and #5 in scoring offense (45.7 yards/game). They are #28 in 3rd down offense (44.62%) and #13 in red zone offense (91.84%). They are #9 in red zone touchdown efficiency at 75.51% and #22 in sacks allowed (13).
The Tigers are in great shape physically. Mitch Hyatt suffered a shoulder stinger at Boston College but should be ready set the record for most starts in school history. The Tigers have played a record number of players this season with all the blowout wins, and that has allowed them to avoid injuries. Several of the starters like Wilkins and Big Dex have said that they feel better now than they ever have at this point in the season.
DABO PC, MONDAY & TUESDAY CLEMSON PLAYER/COACH INTERVIEWS HERE
CFP RANKINGS TELECONFERENCE WITH CHAIRMAN ROB MULLENS HERE
This late in the season, the statistics don’t lie, and on paper the Tigers should be headed for another blowout win. They have outscored their opponents 267-43 over the last 5 games, and that includes a couple of ranked teams! That’s an average score of about 53-12. Not even Alabama has been as dominant as the Tigers this season, and I see no change in that this week. It will be an electric atmosphere in Death Valley for Senior Night and Military Appreciation Day—the first night game in Death Valley since Georgia Tech in the middle of last season. I expect Travis Etienne to have a big game and burst right back into the Heisman picture against a poor Duke rush defense. He will at least tie the Clemson single-season rushing TD record and may break it. The rest of the backs should have a field day as well, like we saw against Wake Forest and Louisville. Look for Hunter Renfrow to score his second touchdown of the season and first since the Georgia Tech game in Atlanta. That would tie him with Jacoby Ford, Derrick Hamilton and Terrance Roulhac for 10th on the all-time list. With his first catch, he will break Artavis Scott’s Clemson record for consecutive games with a reception. The biggest questions I have for this game are: what is Christian Wilkins going to do atop The Hill for his second Senior Day curtain call, and what wrinkle on the Fridge package will we see this time? The Tigers go undefeated in ACC regular season play for the first time since 2015 in their Purple splendor and set their sites on the Gamecocks.
The Prowl toward a 4th consecutive ACC Title, a 4th consecutive College Football Playoff and a 3rd National Title continues……
CLEMSON 62 Duke 10