WHAT WE ARE HEARING: PREVIEW & PREDICTION FOR NO.1 CLEMSON at SYRACUSE
- 2019-09-14 13:56:29
Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!
The Defending Champs cleared their biggest hurdle of the regular season schedule with their resounding win over No.11/12 Texas A&M, leading 24-3 with less than 10 seconds left in the game. The defense was superb with the exception of that final Aggie drive after the game was well in hand. Next up is perhaps the second-biggest hurdle on the schedule, the Tigers’ first road game of the season at Syracuse, where they suffered their last regular season loss nearly two years ago. You’ve no doubt heard countless commentators on television saying that Syracuse has given the Tigers trouble over the years. Well, in reality it’s been two years, and the only reason they’ve given the Tigers problems is that Cuse has knocked their starting quarterback out before halftime in both games. The last time the Tigers didn’t have their quarterback knocked out, in 2016, they beat Syracuse 54-0! In fact, the Tigers still would have beaten Syracuse in 2017 without their starting QB if starting kicker Greg Huegel hadn’t also been injured days before. Backup kicker Alex Spence missed two relatively easy field goals, and the Tigers lost by 3 points. No one on television wants to qualify their statements to reflect reality, but I will. Syracuse hasn’t given Clemson any more trouble than any other ACC team would if the Tigers had to play with a second or third-string quarterback and a backup kicker. Let’s just hope whatever Voodoo dolls Dino Babers has been using for the last two years don’t work for a third time!
With last week’s win over Texas A&M, Clemson has won 9 of its last 10 games versus SEC teams….The Tigers are going for a school-record 18th straight win. The current 17-game streak is the longest active one in the nation and ties the program record from 2014-15….Clemson has won 19 straight games in the month of September. The Tigers have not lost a game before October since 2014, an overtime loss in Tallahassee….Clemson has had a positive turnover margin for 5 straight games, the longest streak since 2013. If the Tigers make it 6 straight, it will be the longest streak since 189-90….Clemson is 26-3 in its last 29 night games. Two of the three losses were to Alabama, and the third was at Syracuse without a starting QB or starting kicker…Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 62 straight weeks. Georgia is 3rd at 31 weeks… Clemson has won 17 straight in Death Valley going back to the last-second loss to Pitt in 2016. Prior to that, the Tigers won 21 straight, so the Tigers have won 38 of their last 39 home games, losing only on a last-second field goal….With the A&M win, Clemson has won 20 straight regular season non-conference games….Clemson is 10-2 all-time as the No.1 ranked team….Clemson has won 32 of its last 35 games away from home and 19 of its last 20 true road games….Clemson has won its last 31 straight Saturday games, the longest streak in the nation….Clemson has won 4 straight road openers, last losing at UGA in 2014….
The Orange were obviously humbled last week by unranked Maryland in a stunning 63-20 loss on the road. Syracuse was ranked in the preseason polls for the first time since 1998, and perhaps they thought Maryland would be an easy warmup for their biggest game of the season against No.1 Clemson. Most people have completely written Cuse off because of the blowout, but I guarantee the team that shows up against the Tigers will be much better than the one that was drilled by the Terps. It’s Cuse’s first home game of the season, and although there will likely be a bunch of empty seats, the team will be fired up to redeem itself and shock the nation like it did two years ago.
Starting at quarterback is 6’2, 212-pound sophomore Tommy DeVito, who was backup to Eric Dungy last season but played quite a bit. His start to the season has been inauspicious to say the least. He was 17/35 for 176 yards, no touchdowns and 2 interceptions in the opener against Liberty. He was much better in the Maryland game last week, going 28/39 for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns, but he had another pick as well.
The Orange have a couple good wide receivers, led by 6’1, 191-pound junior Trish Jackson (#86). He scored two of their three touchdowns at Maryland last week and had 7 receptions for 157 yards, including a sensational, acrobatic catch. The only other receiver with a touchdown this season is 5’8, 178-pound senior slot receiver Sean Riley (#1). They have another big-play WR in 6’2, 175-pound sophomore Taj Harris (#80), who is averaging 19.3 yards per catch.
5’11, 195-pound senior Moe Neal (#21) from Gatonia, NC is the starting running back. He’s rushed for 136 yards and one touchdown in their first two games, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. They also like to pass the ball to Neal out of the back field. He has 9 catches for 94 yards this season.
Syracuse has a tough, hard-nosed tight end in junior Chris Elmore (#5). Although he’s not as tall as your average TE at an even six feet, he weighs in at 295 pounds—about 25 to 30 pounds heavier than most tight ends. Dino told a story from practice about Elmore as a freshman, getting his nose bloodied by veteran LB Zaire Franklin, who was the first three-time captain for Syracuse since 1896 and is now with the Colts. Babers said Elmore jumped right back up and told him to run the play again. The team now calls Elmore “Rhino.” Incidentally, Zaire Franklin had a sack in that 2017 win over Clemson, the last regular season loss for the Tigers.
On defense, look out for sophomore corner Andre Cisco (#7). He already has an interception in each of his first two games this season after a stellar freshman campaign in which he picked off 7 passes. That was tied for most in the nation with Hamp Cheevers from Boston College. Cuse also has a couple of highly touted senior defensive ends in 6’3, 253-pound Kendall Coleman (#55) and 6’4, 260-pound Alton Robinson (#94). Coleman has 2 sacks already, and Robinson has half a sack.
The Orange return both their starting kicker and punter from last season. Redshirt sophomore Andre Szmyt has just one field goal attempt this season and made it from 45 yards. Redshirt senior Sterling Hofrichter is averaging 44.6 yards per punt this season—respectable but not nearly the field-flipping weapon that the Tigers faced last week in Ray Guy Award Winner Braden Mann.
The biggest question with the Cuse offense on Saturday night will be tempo. In the first two weeks, the Orange offense has not played at the warp speed we’re accustomed to seeing from Dino Babers. This could be due to Tommy DeVito being less adept to running the offense than Eric Dungy was, although DeVito played quite a bit last season at that tempo. It likely has more to do with the lack of continuity on the offensive line. Syracuse was without starting center Sam Heckel at Maryland last week, and while Babers wouldn’t rule him out completely for Saturday night, he said he most likely wouldn’t play. This means that the Orange will once again have to play musical chairs on the offensive line, moving redshirt junior left tackle Airon Servais (#68) to center, redshirt freshman right tackle Carlos Vettorello (#52) to the left side and redshirt senior backup Ryan Alexander (#64) to right tackle. One thing is certain: the last thing a coach wants to have to do is move pieces around on the offensive line with a Brent Venables defense coming after the quarterback in a variety of ways.
Watch Head Coach Dino Babers discuss Clemson in his Monday press conference below! He was very complimentary of the Tigers, saying this is probably one of the best teams of an era. He also closed by talking about what a special back Travis Etienne is, comparing him to Syracuse legend Jim Brown.
Turn back the clock a year before the Syracuse game last season, and it was a totally different vibe around the Tigers in the week leading to the game. Dabo had just named Trevor Lawrence the starting quarterback on Monday, and by Wednesday Kelly Bryant was out the door. Although they wouldn’t admit it, that had to be one heck of a distraction for the entire team. Then, sure enough, Trevor Lawrence gets knocked out of the first half, and the Tigers have to turn to a backup QB for the second straight year against the Orange. However, Travis Etienne, Chase Brice and the defense answered the challenge and willed their way to the win, preserving the only perfect 15-0 season in the history of college football as we know it. It’s only been a year, but the vibe of the team could not be more diametrically opposed. The Tigers are supremely confident and focused with no distractions, coming off a resounding win over a top-15 team.
The Tigers are in great shape from an injury standpoint (knock on wood), and slot receiver Amari Rodgers made his 2019 debut last week, well ahead of schedule, having torn his ACL just six months ago. Dabo told us that for now he will likely stick with Derion Kendrick on punt returns and ease Amari back into the receiver rotation. Hopefully DK won’t have any issues with catching punts in his first game at the Carrier Dome. I played basketball in that place when I was in high school, and I can tell you it really plays games with your depth perception.
You had to be very impressed with the game Lyn-J Dixon had last week against the Aggies, rushing for 79 yards and a touchdown on 7.2 yards per carry. The Tigers aren’t as deep in the backfield as they were last year with Feaster and Choice, but if Etienne and Dixon can stay healthy all season, it will be a heck of a one-two punch with talented freshmen Mellusi and Dukes getting better as they go. Etienne had his best career game catching the ball last week with 4 receptions for yards. It’s something he struggled with in his first two seasons but really worked on during the off-season, and Dabo said it takes this offense to a whole other level when he is a regular option in the passing game. Especially when it’s rough sledding between the tackles, the staff can now get him the ball in space, which will prevent defenses from loading the box. Etienne as a pass-catcher is just one more wrinkle to drive defensive coordinators crazy this season and something that has been lacking the last couple years.
Defensively, I’m looking forward to seeing how the defensive line handles the up-tempo Syracuse offense. The Tigers weren’t ready for it two years ago, and Eric Dungy ran the offense to perfection with the help of a couple really good receivers. Dungy was also dropping dimes left and right that night, but the Orange still only scored 27 points. The Tigers were much better against the Cuse offense last season, holding the Orange to just 311 total yards and 23 points. I will be curious to see how much Xavier Kelly plays on Saturday night. Surprisingly, he didn’t play a single snap against Texas A&M after playing well in the opener and recovering a fumble. One might think that he missed the game for disciplinary reasons, but Dabo said it was because of their defensive scheme for Texas A&M. I’m not sure why that wouldn’t include Kelly, but we’ll see if he gets significant playing time again at Syracuse. With the Syracuse tempo and the fact that it can get very warm in the Carrier Dome, one would think a steady rotation on the defensive line would behoove the Tigers. Keep an eye on Tanner Muse as well! He scored a touchdown in each of his first two games against Syracuse, with a pick-six in 2016 and a fumble return in 2017.
In talking to the players last week before the Texas A&M game, I got the distinct impression that they had unfinished business with the Aggies—particularly on the defensive side. In fact, K’Von Wallace said as much explicitly last week, and they responded by holding the Aggies to just 3 points until the final 6 seconds. I get the feeling they feel the same about Syracuse after hearing over and over how they “struggle” against Cuse. I think they want to go up to the Carrier Dome and remove all doubt after playing minus a starting quarterback in each of the last two meetings.
If the Tigers don’t suffer a major injury for the third straight year at quarterback, this game shouldn’t be close. It might not be the rout some Clemson fans are expecting due to Syracuse’s performance at Maryland last week, but the Tigers have far too much firepower for the Orange to keep pace. I still believe Syracuse will show up and play inspired early in the game, but I think Brent Venables will have his defense ready to redeem itself from the loss two years ago. The play of new starting linebackers James Skalski and Chad Smith will be critical, as will the play of true freshman defensive tackle Tyler Davis. Syracuse has forced a turnover in 16 straight games, which is the fourth-longest streak in the nation. Trevor Lawrence has uncharacteristically thrown 3 interceptions already—almost equaling his total last season—but hopefully he will be able to avoid any on Saturday night. He’ll need to have Andre Cisco on his radar!
Unlike 2017, I think the Tigers will jump out to an early lead to take the Carrier Dome crowd out of the game and keep their feet on the Orange’s necks throughout. The Tigers’ 20-point win streak ended last week thanks to an Aggie touchdown on 4th down with 6 seconds left, leaving them just one game short of the all-time record. They will start a new 20-point win streak on Saturday night and set a new school record with 18 straight wins. Sorry, Dino, no dancing in the locker room this year.
The Prowl toward a 5th consecutive ACC Title, a 5th consecutive College Football Playoff appearance and a 4th National Title continues…..
CLEMSON 48 Syracuse 17
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