Please forgive the abbreviated version this week, but we've had a lot of unusual issues to deal with in addition to the 15 hours of driving up to Syracuse. I will update the WWAH in stages as I'm riding up to Syracuse over the next few hours, so please check back or refresh this page periodically this afternoon! Without further ado, I'll go through the grades from the 28-14 Wake Forest win before I get started on tonight's Cuse game.
The Tigers roared to a great start, scoring touchdown on their first 2 possessions, but they had trouble putting scoring frives together after that. It was similar to what we saw in the Boston College game, when the Tigers moved the ball but only scored 7 points in the first 3 quarters. It should be noted that Wake is a pretty good defensive team--particularly versus the pass. And they led the nation in tackles for loss entering the game, so they weren't shabby against the run either.
Kelly Bryant, of course, left the game in the 3rd quarter with a sprained ankle after the Tigers went up 21-0. Before that, he was having a pretty good game other than the interception and fumble on a sack. He was 21-29 for 200 yards with a touchdown through the air, snd he 39 net yards rushing. Kelly is currently #18 in the nation for completion percentage. The interception was really the first bad one he has had this season. He has had 3 come on tipped balls and another after his arm was hit on the release. In this case, he didn't account for the linebacker dropping in coverage. I asked Kelly about it after the game, and he said the defender baited him a little bit, and he made a poor decision. Fortunately, he has had many so far, and even Deshaun wasn't impervious to those last season.
If there could be a positive to Kelly leaving the game injured, it was that we got to see true freshman Hunter Johnson perform under pressure with live bullets. Albeit at home with a 21-0 lead, Hunter looked poised and lef the offense right down the field for a TD on his first possession. He did completed a couple passes to fellow frosh Tee Higgins (both players the Tigers swiped from the Tennessee Volunteers) and did an outstanding job selling the play action on the dump to TE Cannon Smith for the touchdown. I've maintained from the beginning that if Kelly struggled or got hurt, Hunter would be the guy, despite the fact that Dabo has played Cooper first. Dabouas always been loyal to the upperclassmen, even to a detriment. But I think it's safe to say Hunter won the audition and is now your #2 QB. He has all the tools and will continue to get better and better as he learns the offense and the game slows down for him. Kelly is obviously the most gifted runner of the 3, and Zerrick has a stronger arm, but Hunter is an amalgam of the two. We were supposed to get Hunter after the game for an interview, but we were told he showered and then left before he was told. Chalk that up to part of the learning process!
The running game continued to be a strength. They averaged 4.0 yards per carry--4.5 if you don't count the losses on sacks. Feaster and Etienne comtinue to be the featured tandem, with the freshman getting 15 carries--his most to date. Travis scored his 5th TD in 5 games played, averaging 4.5 yards per carry for 67 yards, and Feaster averaged 4.9 on 11 carries. Adam Choice chipped in 26 yards on 7 carries and scored a short-yardage touchdown--his 4th of the season. Meanwhile, Fuller,who was the starter at the beginning of the season, has been on the decline since his second fumble of the season at the beginning of the BC game. However, I believe Fuller will make some big plays as the season goes on. He had proven to be a unique weapon in the passing game on wheel routes.
In the passing game, the triad of Renfrow, Cain and McCloud led the way as usual, but the Tigers really spread the ball around to its collection of wide receivers and tight ends. In all, 11 different players caught passes. Renfrow had 6 catches for 61 yards, Cain had 4 for 38, including the touchdown on a perfectly thrown ball by Kelly, and Ray-Ray had 5 for 38. Freshman superstar in the making Tee Higgins had his best game with 3 catches for 38 yards. It was also good to see sophomores Cornell Powell and make a couple catches each.
The offensive line did a good job in both run blocking and pass protection, allowing just one sack, although Ejiofor had another one gift-wrapped that he inexplicaly missed. Unfortunately, the sole sack resulted in a fumble on 1st down.
Overall, the Tigers totaled 453 yards and once again had great balance, rushing for 190 and passing for 263. They were right on target at 89 plays run to Wake's 65 and possessed the ball for 10 minutes longer. The offense continued its excellence on late downs, converting 9 of 19 on 3rd and 3 of 3 on 4th. They also continued their red zone efficiency, going 3-3 with 3 touchdowns. The Tigers have one of the best red zone offenses in the nation this season, and that was a real weakness at times last year with several red zone turnovers against Louisville, NC State and Pittsburgh.
The biggest negative last week was the two turnovers--both by Kelly Bryant. Not a terrible performance by the offense, but they are capable of so much more. I gave them some leeway for losing Kelly early in the 2nd half. Perhaps they would have scored a couple more touchdowns with him in the game. However, they need to protect the footballl better!
Just like the Boston College game when the offense scored one point less than they did last week, the nation's #1 defense made it a moot point. The Tigers had Wake shut out until halfway through the 4th quarter. Wake only managed 16 first downs and 336 total yards. 92 of their 133 rushing yards came from their quarterback, who the Tigers did not expect to play and were not prepared for. The decision to pull the veteran Wolford came in pregame warmups when his shoulder was hurting.
Outside of the runs by the QB and a fee chunk plays, the defense was stifling, forcing 6 three-and-outs. The Tigers continued their dominance on 3rd down, allowing just 4 of 16 conversions. Wake was 2 of 3 on 4th down. The Tigers only managed 3 sacks and 8 tackles for loss , but Hinton is a very athletic quarterback. The good news is that Xavier Kellyrecorded his first sack, and had one as well! The 3rd was by , a salty veteran in his redshirt sophomore year.
The defense did not get a perfect grade because there were a couple coverage busts, including one for a touchdown. You'd like to see them finish the shutout with just 9 minutes left. It was also disappointing that they didn't create a turnover after racking up 5 in their previous 2 games.
Special teams were outstanding for the most part, and I liked the way Spiers rebounded from his shank in Blacksburg that set the Hokies up for their only touchdown until the closing minutes. He averaged 37.6 net yards on his 5 punts, landing 3 inside the 20. The one that Powell saved from going into the end zone was a thing of beauty. Of course, Spiers and Powell teamed up for another big play shortly later when Spiers threw a laser to Powell on the sideline to convert a fake punt. I believe it was the Tigers' first fake punt since the huge completion from Andy Teasdall to Christian Wilkins against Oklahoma in the Playoff two years ago. Spiers played QB in high school as well as baseball, as the son of MLB star Bill Spiers.
Ray-Ray probably had his best day on punt returns, totaling 58 yards on 4 returns. Tee Higgins got in for the Tigers' only kickoff return, but it only went for 3 yards. The Tigers' coverage unit did a good job on Dortch, a dangerous return man. He only averaged 21.7 yards on his 3 kick returns and 15 yards on his 3 punt returns.
Spence did a good job on kickoffs, averaging 64.2 yards on his 4 kicks with 2 touchbacks. The only real negative of the game was the 42-yard FG he bounced off the upright. Otherwise it would have been an A for special teams. Spence is now 1-3 in his career on field goals.
Finally, Jamie Skalski got to take a kickoff, and he kicked it to the 5-yard line. Not bad for a linebacker! Ironically, Spence had to change his number from 47 to 41 when he took over as starting kicker because Skalski is 47 and plays regularly on the coverage unit. If he can find a few more yards in his leg, it sure would be nice to have an extra head hunter on the coverage unit. Kind of like what they had with Spencer Benton several years ago! Skalski had gotten work on kickofs back in August camp, but this was his first kick in a game.
This is just the 6th meeting between the two schools. Donavan McNabb led Syracuse to a 41-0 win in the first meeting at the 1995 season Gator Bowl. Clemson was ranked #23 entering the game, while Syracuse was unranked. The Orangemen jumped to #17 following the game. Clemson has dominated in all the other meetings since Syracuse joined the ACC in 2013, winning all 4 meetings by double digits including a 59-0 win last year....This will be just the 5th game in the state of New York for the Clemson program. In addition to the two recent wins at Syracuse, the Tigers lost to Army in 1937 and tied Fordham in 1952....With its 31-17 win in Blacksburg, Clemson became the 1st school in history to beat 3 top-15 opponents in the month of September....Clemson has won a school-record 12 straight true road games and with a win Friday would tie Oklahoma for the nation's longest active streak....Clemson has the nation's longest active win streak at 11 games. USF is second at 10 games. Clemson has only had 4 longer win streaks in its previous 119 years. 4 more wins will tie for the second-longest in school history.....Clemson has won a school record 10 straight ACC road games, last losing at GT in 2014....Clemson has won 49 of its last 50 games against unranked teams....Clemson is 37-2 over the last 39 games...Clemson has won 20 straight games versus ACC Atlantic teams....Clemson is 13-0 at night over the last 2 years with 7 wins coming against top-20 teams. 10 of the 13 games were away from home. This will be Clemson's 14th consecutive game away from home at night, including the post-season since 2015....Clemson has won 15 straight games in the month of October....Clemson has won 51 straight games when holding its opponent to less than 23 points, dating to 2010.....Clemson has the longest active streak in the top 5 of the AP Poll at 31 weeks. Alabama is 2nd at 29 weeks. Penn State is 3rd at 6 weeks. Clemson is also tied with Alabama for the longest active streak in the top 10 at 34 weeks. Washington is 3rd at 22 weeks....
The Orange come into the game at 3-3, beating Pitt 27-24 at home last week. They lost by 8 at NC State and by 9 at LSU at night in their previous 2 games, so they are much-improved in Head Coach Dino Babers's 2nd season. I am fairly confident the Tigers won't steamroll them 54-0 like last season. Offensively, Dino runs the "veer and shoot," a sort of modified option offense similar to what Mike Leach tore up the Big 12 with all those years when he was at Texas Tech. They will spread you out, making you play sideline to sideline, and they go at a lightning fast tempo--even faster than Clemson.
6'4, 222-pound junior QB Eric Dungey leads the attack. Syracuse is very pass-heavy--so much so that even most of their designed "run plays" are short passes. Consequently, Dungey has completed 64.4% of his passes this season, third-best in the nation. He averages 47 passes and 300 yards per game and has 9 touchdown passes against 4 interceptions. He has also rushed 80 times for 325 yards and 8 scores. That is over 100 yards more than their leading running back!
Cuse has the nation's #1 and #3 pass catchers in Ishmael (#3) and Philips (#5)--again, in large part because of the offense they run. They have 3 touchdowns and 2 touchdowns on the season, respectively. The tandem averages over 200 yards per game combined. The Clemson secondary has been great all season, but this might be its biggest challenge so far.
As you'll see below, Syracuse is improved defensively, but not one of the better units the Tigers will have faced. They are, however, #6 in 3rd down defense, which is somewhat surprising. It might have more to do with the inept offenses they have faced, such as LSU, Pitt, Central Michigan and someone called Central Connecticut State. Cuse only has 6 sacks all season compared to 22 for the Tigers.
In special teams, Cuse has a reliable senior kicker who is 10-12 on field goals this season. He doesn't have the strongest lef, though, and they have been known to use their punter for long attempts over 45 yards.
Syracuse is #13 in pass offense (325.0 yards per game), #86 in rush offense (141.83 yards/game), #32 in total offense (466.8 yards/game) and #53 in scoring offense (32.0 points/game). They are #70 in pass defense (226.2 yards/game), #46 in rush defense (131.5 yards/game), #46 in total defense (357.7 yards/game) and #54 in scoring defense (24.3 points/game).
Obviously, the big storyline of the week has been the status of Kelly Bryant after spraining his ankle in the 3rd quarter of the Wake game. His spirits were good after the game. When asked how he felt, his response was, "We're 6-0! I feel great!" However, he was wearing a large boot on his left foot, and I have to admit I thought it was unlikely he would play just 6 days later on the road. It must not have been too serious, though, because Dabo said he has taken every rep in practice this week and is ready to roll. Perhaps he is a quick healer, but I am interested to see if his mobility is in any way impaired because of the ankle. His elusiveness is such a big part of the offense--not just in the running game but also his ability to create completions off the run and keep the defense honest. I think we will all be somewhat incredulous until we see him try to take off running that first time. If he is less than 100% running capacity, it's a distinct advantage for Cuse because I'm not quite sure yet that Kelly is capable of beating defenses solely from the pocket as a one-dimensional quarterback.
That being said, it's good to know the Tigers have Hunter Johnson waiting in the wings. I believe they can win with Hunter, their running game and that defense as long as Hunter doesn't pull a Cole Stoudt and throw multiple pick-sixes.
Speaking of the defense, both Clelin Ferrell and Christian Wilkins told me the other day that they were angry they let the shutout of Wake get away and allowed the Deacs to score 14 unanswered at the end of the game. I think they will be playing with an edge tonight! Wilkins grew up in Massachusetts, just a few hours from Syracuse, and he told me he will have several relatives and friends in the stands, so that will be a little extra incentive for him!
The Tigers are now #5 in scoring defense, one spot behind Alabama (11.3 point/game), #8 in total defense (264.3 yards/game), #14 in rush defense (98.83 yards/game) and #15 in pass defense (165.5 yards/game).
Offensively, the Tigers have enjoyed balance like it has seldom seen. The offense is currently averaging over 200 yards in both passing and rushing, and that has only been accomplished by 2 Clemson teams! One was the 2015 team and the other was the Woody Dantzler 2000 team. Remarkably, the Tigers' differential in pass yards and rush yards is only 22 yards for the season! That is the best balance in the nation. In fact, only 2 other teams have at least 230 yards rushing and passing: Ohio State and Oregon. And the Tigers have faced much better defenses than either of those teams in Auburn and Virginia Tech.
As for the pulse of the team, every player I talked to this week got a big smile when I asked them about the bye wrek coming up. You can tell they all see the light at the end of the tunnel and are using that as motivation to get them through this last challenge of the first half of the season on short rest. To a man, they all said that they want to finish strong and sprint to the finish line. Very encouraging to hear!
Just as the Tigers were able to wear down Alabama's vaunted defense in the National Championship Game with 99 plays of offense, Syracuse will use its ultra fast tempo in the hopes of following the same paradigm. Of course, that only works if Cuse is able to make first downs and stay on the field. Cuse is #50 on 3rd down, converting 41.74% of their attempts. However, Babers is supremely confident in his offense and has gone for it on 4th down more than any other team this season, so expect at least 2 or 3 attempts on 4th down tonight. They are ranked #46 in that department, converting 13 of 21 attempts, so that gambling nature could either burn the Orange or keep them warm.
The biggest matchup to watch will be the Cuse passing game, #13 in the nation, against the Clemson defense, #15 against the pass. Just about everything else is a mismatch. I can't wait to see Fields, Mullen and Carter go up against Ishmael and Philips!
As I mentioned earlier, the Cuse defense is #6 in the nation on 3rd down, and the Clemson offense is #11, so something's gotta give there.
In a game like this, a 23-point dog like Syracuse has to get some breaks if it's going to pull off the upset. Those usually come in the form of turnovers and penalties. Turnover margin has been the Tigers' bugaboo for the past couple years, but both teams are -1 for the season, so Cuse will need some luck to go their way. As far as penalties, Cuse is #81 in that category at 60.2 yards per game. The Tigers are #24 (40.7 yards per game).
Another key will be whether Cuse can get after Kelly Bryant. They don't have the greatest of pass rushes with only 6 sacks on the season, but let's see how Kelly's ankle looks.
Finally, can the Tigers get off to a fast start offensively and
take the Carrier Dome crowd out of it? They have scored on 4 of their 6 opening
possessions, including both road games, and that will be critical tonight. The
longer Cuse can stay in the game, the more confident they and their fans will
get, and they are desperate for a program-building win. The last time the
Tigers were up there 2 years ago, it looked like a blowout early, but it turned
into a real dog fight. The Tigers will need to put them down early si they
can't get back up!
?In the final analysis, the Tigers just have too much on both sides of the ball, and I think they are itching for another nationally televised blowout on the road. They have won 12 straight true road games. Make it lucky number 13 on Friday the 13th. The Tigers improve to 7-0 headed into the bye week, setting themselves up for a #1 ranking in the first CFP rankings in 2 weeks.
The Prowl toward a record 17th ACC Title, an unprecedented 3rd straight National Championship Game and a repeat National Title continues....
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