WHAT WE ARE HEARING: PREVIEW & PREDICTION FOR NO.25 CLEMSON AT SYRACUSE
- 2021-10-15 15:54:36
Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!
The Tigers had a much-needed respite last week after a practically unprecedented rash of injuries over the first half of the season. Not to mention the extra time for the coaches to self-scout and figure out how to fix the sputtering offense. All four of the Tigers’ FBS games so far have been heart-stopping, one-score games! It’s the first time since 2005 that at least 4 of their first 5 games have been decided by one-score. I’m sure many of you remember the start to that season when James Davis was a freshman, with thrilling wins over A&M and Maryland, as well as the epic triple-overtime loss against top-10 Miami. I was in the stands for those home games against the Aggies and Canes, and they still seem like yesterday. The loss to Miami might be the only time the Tigers lost a game, and I felt okay about it.
The Boston College game a couple weeks ago was more of what we’ve seen all season, with the offense unable to get into any sort of rhythm and get some separation, relying on another stellar performance from the defense to save the game. Fortunately, the defense did just that. Just like the Georgia Tech game, even after it looked like the defense had come up with the game-clinching stop, the offense forced the defense to do it twice. Against Tech, it was a safety that gave Tech one last chance. Against BC, the Tigers went three-and-out, leaving 2 minutes for the Eagles to get in the end zone for the win. Even so, the defense rose to the occasion like they almost invariably do. We’ve seen it countless times in recent years under Brent Venables—twice this season, the BC game last year, the UNC and Ohio State games in 2019, the A&M game in 2018, the NC State game in 2016 and the Notre Dame game in 2015. Whenever the defense had to get a stop with the game on the line, they’ve almost always done so. The big exception this season was the double-overtime loss at NC State in which the defense allowed back-to-back touchdowns after allowing just 14 points in regulation, but the only reason for that was that they were completely gassed by that point after being on the field for 40 out of 60 minutes in regulation and defending over 100 plays! Baylon Spector played 96 plays. 96! That is insane, folks. I can’t remember a defensive player ever playing that many. It’s rare as heck for an offense to even run 96 plays in a game, let alone for a defender to play that many snaps! I guess maybe someone in the infamous seven-overtime game between A&M and LSU a few years ago might have matched or exceeded that, but it is extremely rare. Of course Skalski was knocked out of that game early with a shoulder stinger, Bryan Bresee tore his ACL and Tyler Davis was already out, so those are more reasons for the anomalous failure by the defense in overtime.
But against BC, the defense came through like we’re used to seeing. After BC moved the ball inside the red zone, quarterback Denis Grosel fumbled the snap, and KJ Henry pounced on the football to seal the win. Give an assist to the Death Valley crowd, which probably influenced the fumble and certainly impacted the game on numerous occasions. It was really the first time we’ve seen that this season because the sellout crowd for the Georgia Tech game dwindled to about 20,000 after the weather delay at the end of the first half.
Just like the Georgia Tech and NC State games, the Tigers’ offense got off to a good start, scoring a touchdown on their second possession, but after that, it was the usual litany of missed throws, dropped passes, penalties and other gaffs that stalled drive after drive. Making matters worse, freshman Will Taylor left the game in the first quarter with a torn ACL, Davis Allen was ejected in the first quarter for targeting on special teams, and both Justyn Ross and Braden Galloway were knocked out in the first half with head injuries. That’s their best receiver and top two tight ends out for the entire second half! Davis Allen’s absence also hurt the Tigers in special teams, as his replacement, Sage Ennis, missed his blocking assignment which caused a blocked punt deep in the Tigers’ territory. The sudden-change defense, however, rose to the occasion as usual and forced a three-and-out to prevent the blocked punt from giving BC points. Still, those offensive injuries made it even tougher for the Tigers to score touchdowns and separate from BC on the scoreboard. The bright side is that BT Potter was finally able to contribute outside of kickoffs. He had just 2 field goal attempts in the first 4 games but stepped up when the Tigers needed him, going 4-4 against the Eagles.
A win is a win, of course, and the Tigers are now 29-7 in one-score games since 2011, by far the best percentage in the nation over that span! The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time with so many players out with injuries or playing hurt, and it gave the coaches a chance to reevaluate their approach on offense and play-calling. It’s been a tough start to the season from a schedule standpoint. That BC team was 4-0 and playing with a lot of confidence. NC State has one of the best defenses in the nation, as does Georgia, and even Tech showed what it was capable of the week after losing to the Tigers, blowing out Sam Howell and UNC. The schedule doesn’t get a whole lot easier this week, as Syracuse might be the most improved team in the nation this season. Don’t be fooled by the 3-3 record because they lost at FSU on a last-second field goal and in overtime last week against No.19 Wake after leading most of the game and multiple times by a couple scores. Cuse has a good defense and an elite running offense. I’ll get more in-depth shortly, but suffice to say, it won’t be easy for the Tigers to walk out of the Carrier Dome with their first road win of the season on Friday night! They almost have to, though, if they are going to accomplish their goals of winning the division and the ACC for the 7th straight year. NC State is still undefeated in conference with the head-to-head win over the Tigers, so a second loss for the Tigers would be tough to overcome. However, keep your eye on the Wolfpack on Saturday night. They play at Boston College, and the Eagles could help the Tigers out by handing State a loss. State has a couple more challenges later at Miami, at Wake and UNC, and the Tigers get Wake at home in November, so the Tigers are still very likely to win the division if they can win out, but that all starts on Friday night at Cuse.
Be sure to check out my hour-long preview show with Gary HERE, and click the same link a couple hours before kickoff for a final player availability report. On to the matchup….
Clemson leads the all-time series with Syracuse 7-2, dating back to the 1996 Gator Bowl, when Donovan McNabb and the Orangemen blew out the Tigers 41-0. Syracuse’s only other win came on Friday the 13th in October of 2017 when the Tigers were without their starting quarterback and kicker. The Tigers missed two easy field goals in that game and lost 27-24. That was the only October game the Tigers have lost in the playoff era, since 2014. They are 27-1 in October over that span….The Tigers have won 3 straight meetings, including 47-21 last year….Clemson is 25-20-5 all-time in regular season Friday games….Clemson (82-9) is two wins behind Alabama (84-6) for the most since 2015. The Tigers (124) trail only Alabama (132) for the most wins since 2011. They have 7 more than Ohio State. Clemson leads the nation in Power Five wins (87) since 2013. Alabama has 84 and Ohio State has 80 over that span....Clemson has beaten at least 12 Power Five opponents in 4 of the last 6 seasons. In college football history, that feat has only been achieved 4 other times. Alabama, LSU, Georgia and FSU each accomplished it once….The Tigers have won 10 or more games for 10 straight seasons, the third-longest streak in history behind FSU (14) and Alabama (13), which is also an active streak…The Tigers’ streak of 6 straight outright conference titles is tied with Oklahoma’s active streak for the third-longest in history. Oklahoma won 12 in the 40’s and 50’s and BYU won the WAC 7 straight times in the 70’s and 80’s. However, Clemson is the only program to have won 6 straight conference championship games….Clemson has finished in the top-4 of the AP Poll in 6 consecutive seasons, tied with Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma teams for the fourth-longest streak in history. FSU did so 13 straight seasons under the late great Bobby Bowden, while USC and Miami have each done so 7 straight seasons….Dabo Swinney has the best active win percentage in the nation at .807. Nick Saban is second at .798….Dabo’s 143 wins are already tied with Steve Spurrier for 6th-most by a coach in his first 15 seasons, but Dabo is only in his 13th full season. He could quite conceivably top Urban Meyer’s record of 165 wins in his first 15 seasons….Dabo is tied for fourth-most games as an ACC head coach….Clemson has been ranked No.1 in the AP Poll in each of the last 6 seasons, which is the third-longest streak of all time behind Alabama (14) and Miami (7). Alabama’s streak is also active….Clemson had by far the longest active streak ranked in the top 5 of the AP Poll at 57 straight weeks before dropping to No.6 because of a pick-six in the opener against now No.2 Georgia. Alabama was second at 21, followed by Georgia and Oklahoma with just 4 each. If Clemson had remained in the AP top 5 until the end of the regular season, it would have surpassed Alabama’s all-time record of 68. Clemson’s current streak of 97 straight weeks in the AP top 10 is tied with Alabama for the longest streak in history behind Miami (137)…Since 2011, Clemson has finished with an equal or higher ranking than its preseason ranking every year except for 2019 and 2020, the only two years the Tigers have been ranked No.1 preseason. The Tigers were ranked No.2 and No.3 in the 2021 preseason polls…
This is a critical year for Head Coach Dino Babers because Cuse has really struggled over the past couple seasons, and as I mentioned earlier, they are literally a couple last-second plays from being 5-1 with a win over a top-20 Wake team, and their other loss was a 17-7 game against Rutgers in the opener. In the past, Dino’s offenses have always been ultra high-tempo and pass oriented, but it’s a lot different this season. Cuse is only running about 65 plays per game and is very run-heavy now, and that’s all due to their personnel. Cuse has arguably the best back in the ACC in Sean Tucker (#34), who many say is the best Syracuse running back since Jim Brown. The 5’10, 210-pound redshirt freshman averaged 4.6 yards per carry with no touchdowns last season, but he has burst onto the scene in 2021. His 131.83 rush yards per game is second in the nation, and he averages 5.9 yards per carry with 9 touchdowns already. He also has 2 TD catches on just 12 receptions. Tucker is a slippery back who bounces off would-be tacklers with his low center of gravity and exceptional balance. He reminds me a little of K-State and NFL great Darren Sproles, but Tucker is slightly bigger. He’s the kind of back that you absolutely must wrap up and preferably gang tackle because if you don’t he will shake loose and pop a long run.
As if Tucker weren’t enough of a hand full, new starting quarterback Garrett Shrader is running wild. Veteran QB Tommy DeVito was the starter for the first couple games of the season, including their 17-7 loss to Rutgers in the opener, but Shrader has been the starter for the last four games and has had them very close to winning all four. He carried the ball a whopping 29 times for 178 yards and a touchdown against Wake last week, averaging 6.1 yards per carry, and that is net of sacks! In their previous game at FSU, which they also lost in last-second heartbreaking fashion, he averaged 8.6 yards per carry for 137 yards and 3 TD’s! At 6’4 and 230 pounds, the sophomore Charlotte native is an absolute load to tackle, and he’s also fast and elusive. He has DJ Uiagalelei’s size but can run around and away from defenders. In my opinion, the Tigers haven’t faced a running quarterback this dangerous in quite some time, and they’ve played against some good ones! The Tigers must have a spy on Shrader at all times because he can take off and run for big yards at any time. Shrader transferred to Syracuse from Mississippi State, where he sat out last season after starting 4 games as a true freshman in 2019 for Mike Leach. The good news for the Tigers is that Shrader is a better runner than a passer. He’s completed just 57.5% of his passes with 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. The most passing yards he’s had in a game was 190 against Albany. Part of that can be attributed to the other bright side for the Tigers: Syracuse doesn’t seem to have a big-play threat in the passing game. In the past, they’ve always had one or two NFL caliber receivers that were home-run threats in the passing game, but that seems to be lacking on this team, and that’s why we’ve seen the shift in Dino’s offensive strategy with more reliance on the run game. It also means Cause is somewhat one-dimensional, although the fact that they can run with either the running back or quarterback means they are not truly one-dimensional. Still, I expect Brent Venables to load the box and force Syracuse to prove that it can move the ball through the air. And the Tigers have the secondary to afford them that strategy.
As for special teams, as usual, the Tigers are facing a program record-holder in place kicker Andre Szmyt, who seems to have been there for 10 years. He is surprisingly only 7-10 this season, going 1-4 over 40 yards. His long this season is 48 yards and career long is 54 yards way back in 2018. However, for once the Tigers aren’t facing an All-American punter, which has seemed to be the case in every game for years! Punter James Williams had a horrendous game against Wake last week, averaging 31 yards on his 6 punts with a long of 37. He absolutely shanked a couple of them, including a 10-yarder! Of course, now that I’ve pointed that out, he’ll probably have a career game against the Tigers and pin them inside the 5 a couple times.
The Tigers are still without several key players, such as both their starting defensive tackles, starting RB Will Shipley and Will Taylor, but they should be in pretty good shape otherwise after the bye week. Frank Ladson may be the only other starter to miss the game due to a hamstring. I’ll have a final player availability report about two hours before kickoff, and you can view that HERE. With both starting defensive tackles, Tyler Davis and Bryan Bresee out, backups Ruke Orhorhoro and Tre Williams have really come through. Reuben Etinosa and freshman Payton Page have been backing them up, with DE Justin Foster rotating inside a little, but they haven’t had to play a whole lot because Ruke and Tre have been so effective. Darnell Jefferies, an experienced veteran, hasn’t even played a snap in the last 3 games because he hasn’t been needed. Dabo told me on Tuesday that talented redshirt freshman DeMonte Capehart practiced for the first time this week, so we might see him rotated into the mix, depending on how the game goes. He missed all of camp with after having his knee scoped. It sure would be nice to develop a little depth at tackle though! At defensive end, Xavier Thomas had the best game of his career against Boston College. I talked about him all spring and summer, saying that I thought he could finally have that breakout season we’ve been waiting for since he was a Freshman All-American in 2018, and he’s been consistently great all season. After a miserable, illness-ridden 2020 that caused him to consider retirement, Xavier has completely transformed himself physically and mentally. He’s like a different person now and is a big reason the Tigers have arguably the best defense in the nation this season despite missing several starters.
As for the offense, we’re still waiting for the game when we’ll see all of these talents play to their potential and stop tripping over their own feet. Either DJ will miss an easy throw for a first down, or he’ll make a perfect throw and the receiver will drop it, or there is a false start by an offensive lineman or running back, or a bad snap…you name it, and the Tigers have found a way to get in their own way of scoring points. All you have to do is look at the fourth quarter against BC, when DJ made a perfect outside-shoulder throw to Ngata at the goal line, and Ngata dropped it. That would have put the Tigers up two scores, and BC never would have had a chance to win the game at the end. Could this be the game in which we FINALLY see what this offense is capable of when they execute and play a mistake-free game? I truly have no idea, folks. I thought that game would be against NC State, which is why I predicted they’d score 38 points, and I was obviously wrong. What’s even more bewildering is that Dabo keeps telling us that these mistakes never occur at practice. It’s only in the games. I’m encouraged by the fact that they did put up over 400 yards of offense against BC, so that is improvement. They just weren’t able to finish drives with touchdowns instead of field goals. And again, having all the offensive players out in the second half didn’t help. I will say this: if the Tigers are ever going to take some shots down field—something we haven’t seen all season—it has to be in this game. Syracuse has a weak secondary, and Wake exposed that several times last week with numerous big plays in the passing game. Some of them were just 50/50 jump balls, and Hartman trusted his big receivers to make a play or draw a pass interference call. DJ has a cannon for an arm, and the Tigers have 6’4 and 6’5 receivers all over the place. It’s time for them to take the top off a defense! If nothing else, at least it will keep the defense honest and open things up for the run game and the intermediate throws. And let’s face it: can the offense do worse than it has so far, with no shots down field?
I’m interested to see what the crowd will be like for this Friday night game in the dome. It was a very sparse crowd last week despite the fact that they were playing an undefeated Wake team ranked No.19. My hunch is that it will be a bigger crowd than that with Clemson town, and that place can get real loud when it’s packed. The Tigers have done a good job of scoring touchdowns early in the first quarter this season, but it’s imperative that they not only do so again but continue scoring and create some early separation on the scoreboard—something they haven’t done in any of their FBS games this season. If they allow Cuse to hang around, the crowd will get louder and louder, and we will be faced with yet another nail-biter. The Tigers’ defense must force several three-and-outs to get Cuse’s offense off the field and give DJ and the Tigers’ offense some opportunities and field position. One of the big reasons for the offensive struggles is that their possessions have been so limited. It’s tough to get in an offensive rhythm when you’re on the sideline for most of the game and have only 8 possessions in a game! The offense was on the field for just 20 of the 60 regulation minutes at NC State. If Cuse methodically moves the ball down the field with that running game, it will eat up all the clock and limit the Tigers’ possessions. They need three-and-outs, and as I mentioned earlier, I think Venables will load the box to stop the run game and get those three-and-outs.
The other major thing I’ll be looking for is no injuries, no ejections for targeting, etc. We haven’t seen the Tigers make it through an entire game unscathed all season, and that’s been one of the big reasons for all the close games. The odds-makers have the Tigers favored by 14 points despite the fact that both teams have had nothing but one-score games all season. If the Tigers can get through the game with no more injuries, I like their chances to cover and get that first road win. I’m not going to hold my breath for an offensive explosion on Friday night, but coming off the bye, I think the Tigers will show some offensive improvement, and the defense will continue to dominate. Chalk up the Tigers’ first road win of the season!
The Prowl toward a 7th consecutive ACC Title continues….
CLEMSON 27 Syracuse 10
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