WHAT WE ARE HEARING: PREVIEW & PREDICTION FOR NO.1 CLEMSON vs. THE CITADEL
- 2020-09-18 17:00:44
Welcome to the Season Opener edition of What We Are Hearing!
As I expected, the No.1 Tigers were well-prepared and looked like a well-oiled machine in their opener last Saturday night in Winston-Salem. The backups were somewhat underwhelming, as they were outscored 13-3 in the second half, but the starting group and regular contributors were dominant on both sides of the ball as well as special teams. Trevor was much better than his 2019 debut, passing for 351 yards with 3 total TD’s and no interceptions in just over a half of play. He was named ACC QB of the Week and could have thrown for 600 yards if he played the entire game. Travis also picked up right where he left off, rushing for over 100 yards for a Clemson record 18th time in his career and adding a touchdown. You wouldn’t know that there were 4 new starters on the offensive line based on how they played, and as I’ve been talking about all summer, the tight ends were a major factor in the passing game. The two-deep also dominated on defense, racking up 6 sacks, including 2.5 by true freshmen Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee. The secondary was beat a few times, but the Tigers’ red zone defense was outstanding as usual and didn’t allow a touchdown until late in the game, thanks to a 4th and 14 pass interference call on freshman corner Fred Davis. For a more comprehensive look back at last week’s game, click HERE.
Dabo is now 12-1 in season openers, losing only at top-10 Georgia in 2014. The Tigers have won 23 straight September games, also dating back to 2014, and have also won 23 straight against ACC opponents. They have extended their Saturday win streak to 44 straight, which trails only 1950’s Oklahoma all-time. They also tied FSU for an ACC record with their 30th straight regular season win. Finally, the Tigers have won 13 straight true road games, a new school record and the longest active streak in the nation.
On to this week’s home opener against The Citadel, which lost its opener to Jeff Scott and the Bulls at USF 27-6 last week. You can bet that Dabo and company were on the phone with Jeff Scott on Sunday to get the skinny on The Citadel, who the Tigers haven’t played since 2017. The Tigers won that game 61-3 on Military Appreciation Day in Death Valley. Despite that outcome, The Citadel has a lot of pride for an FCS program and won’t be intimidated. The Bulldogs knocked off Georgia Tech in Atlanta last season, had a 10-10 halftime tie with Alabama in Tuscaloosa a couple years ago and beat the Gamecocks in Columbia back in 2015! So don’t expect The Citadel to roll over on Saturday, and they won’t have to contend with the usual 80,000 in Death Valley because there will only be 19,000 in attendance. However, it’s still the home opener for the No.1 Tigers, and they can’t wait to run down The Hill and get in front of their adoring fans on Saturday after playing in front of zero fans at Wake last week.
Speaking of which, we were given an informational tour of Death Valley by Associate AD Jeff Kallin on Tuesday, and you can read my report along with photos and videos HERE. The administration has worked tirelessly to meet the safety needs of fans, coaches and players, and they have done a tremendous job. The 19,000 fans will be spread out throughout the entire stadium, with assigned seat cushions and backs that are evenly spaced. It will probably look like more than 19,000 on television. The Tiger Band will be situated on The Hill for the first time, and the student section will be located in the upper deck, directly above its normal location. The ticket holders will be notified of their designated entry time and gate, and masks will be required at all times unless eating/drinking. Drinks will be served with lids and straws, and all food concessions will be pre-packaged. Parking spots will also be well-spaced, and tailgating in groups of more than 6-8 fans is prohibited.
As I noted last week, our coverage will look slightly different this season due to the pandemic precautions and media restrictions, but I will be in the press box at Death Valley on Saturday. I won’t be allowed to occupy my normal spot front and center at the bottom of The Hill to bring you the Most Exciting 25 Seconds because no media are allowed on the field this season aside from those televising the game, but I’ll do my best to bring it to you from the press box! I’ll be posting live play-by-play with in-game updates as usual, of course, and we’ll have post-game interviews with Dabo, coaches and players conducted via Zoom.
This is the 125th season of Clemson Football….The Tigers look to win at least 10 games for the 10th straight year under Dabo Swinney, joining Alabama and Florida State as the only programs ever to do so….Clemson is the only program to have won 5 consecutive outright ACC titles and the only program in the nation to win 5 consecutive conference championship games….If Clemson goes 14-0 this season (they play one less regular season game than normal), the senior class will tie last year’s group with the at 55-3, the best record of any senior class in history….At 70-5, Clemson has the best record in the nation over the last 5 years; 4 wins better than Alabama and 9 wins better than Ohio State. Clemson has the second-most wins since 2011, trailing Alabama by just one win….Clemson has the most wins versus Power Five opponents since 2013; 8 more than Ohio State and 9 more than Alabama….Dabo now has the nation’s best active win percentage at .807. Nick Saban’s is .788. Dabo also holds the best all-time ACC win percentage at .828. Bobby Bowden’s was .813….Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive weeks in the AP Top 10 at 78 weeks. That is the fifth-longest streak all-time, 1 weeks behind USC and 3 weeks behind Florida for 3rd all-time. Clemson has been ranked in the AP Top 5 for 41 consecutive weeks, by far the longest active streak and the tenth-longest streak all-time. The next-longest active streak is Georgia at 8 weeks. Ohio State had 14 consecutive weeks before their exclusion this week due to the Big Ten’s season postponement. If Clemson remains in the Top 5 all season, it will tie Miami for the second-longest streak all-time. If the Tigers remain in the Top 5 from now until the ACC Championship next season, they will pass Alabama for the longest such streak all-time….Clemson’s run of 5 straight top-5 finishes is tied for the sixth-longest streak all-time. One more, and the Tigers will tie Oklahoma; two more and they will tie three other schools for the second-longest. FSU has the record at 14 straight top-5 finishes…..Clemson is now 68-17-1 all-time versus Wake Forest, and the Tigers have won 12 straight in the series. Their last loss to the Deacons was on a Thursday night in 2008, after which Tommy Bowden was fired and Dabo Swinney was named Interim Head Coach….The only team Clemson has beaten more times than Wake is South Carolina….Clemson and Alabama are tied for the most consecutive 12-win seasons (5) since Penn in 1892. One more would move Clemson ahead of Alabama, which won 11 games last season….Clemson has won 23 straight home games dating back to 2016, the longest active streak in the nation. Only 9 fifth-year seniors on the 120-man Clemson roster have experienced a loss in Death Valley. The Tigers are an FBS-best 41-1 at home since 2014….Saturday will be the 78-year anniversary of the first game in Death Valley versus Presbyterian College in 1942….The Tigers are 32-5-1 all-time versus The Citadel, and the Tigers have won 17 straight in the series that dates back to 1909….Clemson is 95-17-8 all-time in home openers and has won 16 straight. David Pollack and Georgia were the last to beat Clemson in a home opener back in 2003….Saturday will be the latest Clemson home opener since 1985….
THE CITADEL SYNOPSIS
Although Paul Johnson has been retired since 2018, Brent Venables and the Tigers can’t seem to escape the triple-option offense. They faced it last season against Wofford and will see it again on Saturday. Fortunately, no one on the planet is more adept at smothering the triple-option than Venables. He has mastered it. In Paul Johnson’s final 4 years at Tech, the Jackets averaged 287 rushing yards per game. Against Venables and the Tigers, the Jackets only averaged 127 rush yards per game in those 4 years.
The Citadel has a veteran quarterback in Brandon Rainey, who was named Preseason All-American at the FCS level. He only threw the ball 62 times in 11 games in that option offense, passing for 1,114 yards and 13 touchdowns with 4 interceptions. He was the leading rusher with 900 net yards and 17 touchdowns, averaging 3.8 yards per carry. The Bulldogs return their second-leading rusher, 6’0, 203-pound junior RB Clay Harris (#5), who rushed for 699 yards and 2 touchdowns last season, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. They lost their second-leading back, who rushed for 516 yards and 6 TD’s on 6.3 yards per carry last season. They also lost two of their biggest play-makers who averaged 7.7 and 7.2 yards per carry. Again, The Citadel doesn’t pass much, but the two receivers to keep an eye on are 6’3, 200-pound junior Ryan McCarthy (#12) and 5’11, 190-pound redshirt sophomore Keefe White (#23), who equally split the Bulldogs’ 4 completions for 84 yards last week.
The Citadel struggled offensively at USF last week, scoring just 6 points and shut out in the second half. The Bulldogs rushed for 200 yards, but Rainey was just 4-18 for 84 yards and an interception through the air. Rainey carried the ball 20 times for 65 yards net. They also lost 2 fumbles, including a botched punt inside their own 10 yard line that resulted in a USF touchdown. Defensively, the Bulldogs were pretty good against the pass, limiting the Bulls to just 102 yards on 25 pass attempts, but they gave up 302 yards on the ground. That bodes well for Travis Etienne and company! Despite 3 turnovers, The Citadel held USF to just 20 points, as one of the Bulls’ touchdowns came on the botched punt. The Bulls also posted 3 sacks and 11 tackles-for-loss, which would satisfy and defensive coordinator. Senior middle linebacker Willie Eubanks III (#9) had one of the sacks and led the team with 12 tackles. Junior weak side linebacker Marquise Blount (#49) and 6’3, 245-pound sophomore DE Dewey Greene IV (#44) chipped in the other two sacks. Blount was second on the team in sacks and tackles-for-loss last season. The Bulldogs lost their leader in sacks and TFL’s from last season. Starting corners Destin Mack and Jay Howard each had 2 interceptions last season.
The Tigers were without several regulars last week due to injury or COVID—most notably starting corner Derion Kendrick, co-starter Mario Goodrich, starting DE Justin Foster, backup center Hunter Rayburn and sophomore RB’s Chez Mellusi and Michel Dukes. Backup RB Lyn-J Dixon was one of two players not to play last week, out of the 80 that made the trip to Wake. Dabo said that they brought Dixon for emergency purposes but wanted to give him one more week to recover from the sprained MCL he suffered in camp. He should be ready to go on Saturday, and I expect we will see several if not all of the others as well. The Tigers will be without starting DT Tyler Davis, however. He suffered a sprained MCL, very similar to Dixon’s injury, at Wake Forest and will be out at least the next 2-3 games. Backup DT Ruke Orhorhoro had to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his meniscus and may be out longer, depending on the damage. Other than that, the Tigers are in great shape and could play as many as 90-100 players on Saturday after playing 78 last week. It will be the Death Valley debut for Bryan Bresee, Myles Murphy, DJ Uiagalelei, EJ Williams, Ajou Ajou and all of those freshmen, and I could tell from our interviews this week that they and the rest of the team can’t wait to play in front of fans.
Like 2017, this one isn’t going to be pretty for the cadets in powder blue and gray. I expect the Tigers to execute at a high level offensively, just as they did last week, and run the score up early. Trevor barely played more than a half last week, and he and Travis might be done at halftime this week. If Travis scores a touchdown on Saturday, he will tie Tim Tebow and Kenneth Dixon for the most career games with a touchdown in FBS history! He will shatter that record by the end of the season.
I would like to see Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson make several catches and hopefully each score on Saturday. However, I disagree with those who say the Tigers need to establish one or two “go-to” wide receivers to replace Higgins and Ross. The receiver by committee approach worked just fine last week to the tune of 351 yards in little more than a half! And Trevor should have added a 40-yard touchdown pass that was dropped by Amari Rodgers. Trevor did a great job spreading the ball around, finding multiple receivers and three different tight ends. In my opinion, it makes this offense even tougher to stop when defenses have no clue who is going to get the ball. In other words, 5 or 6 “go-to” receivers is just fine! Personally, I’m excited to see more of Brannon Spector and EJ Williams. The former had a 16-yard catch last week and a 19-yard run on a reverse that almost scored. The latter made his first career catch, but it only went for 6 yards. We’ll see if either or both can break a big play in front of the home crowd on Saturday! It will also be interesting to see how many plays the Tigers run with their increased emphasis on tempo. Their usual target is 80 plays per game, and they ran 50 in the first half last week!
Defensively, we know veterans like Skalski know what to do against the triple-option and how to stop it. The key to keep an eye on is whether the freshmen and younger players will maintain discipline and play assignment football. It only takes one player out of position to give up a big play against this offense, so the Tigers will have to play great team defense. We’ve seen how talented Myles Murphy is as a pass rusher, but can he consistently set the edge against the option? I asked Brent Venables that very question the other day, and he seemed as curious to find out as I am. Most defensive ends and just about every pure speed pass rusher like Murphy dreads playing this type of offense because the quarterback rarely drops back to throw the ball, and it requires more mental discipline and concentration than raw athleticism. We’ll see how freshman phenoms Murphy and Bresee handle it!
The other thing I will be looking for is improvement by the backups on both sides of the ball. Both backup quarterbacks were unable to move the ball consistently, and the freshmen on defense made some costly penalties and gave up big plays. They gained valuable game experience, though, and I know Dabo is looking for improvement from that group. How will that second offensive line group do this week? True freshman DJ Uiagalelei was the first backup quarterback to get in last week. Will it be the same this week? What other freshmen besides Murphy and Bresee will make a splash?
Finally, the Tigers’ special teams were outstanding last week—especially for a first game with all they have been through in the off-season. Potter looked like a Groza contender, tying his career long of 52 yards with another 10-15 yards to spare, and Spiers was solid on punts. I have a gut feeling that Amari will break a long punt return this Saturday. Assuming DK is OK to play, you might see him on punt returns as well. Be sure and check The Valley around noon on Saturday for a final update on player availability!
The Tigers put another one to bed early, extending their nation-leading home win streak to 24 straight and set an ACC record with their 31st straight regular season win!
The Prowl toward a 6th consecutive ACC Title, 6th consecutive CFP appearance, 3rd consecutive National Championship appearance and 4th National Title continues……
CLEMSON 59 The Citadel 3
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