It's back to ACC action for the Jackets this week as we head to Death Valley to face a Clemson team that's been up & down so far this season. Both teams have yet to play their best game this year and a conference loss on Saturday pretty much eliminates one team from any chance of playing in Charlotte on the first weekend in December. While Clemson has been inconsistent this year (much like Tech), they are arguably as talented as any team we have faced. We'll have to value the football & play our best game of the season if we hope to leave Memorial Stadium with a win. As always, we'll start with our opponent:
Make no mistake, Mr. Ellington is a baller.....
If you've watched Clemson play offensively this year they seem to be a team without a clear offensive identity; built to run but strangely reluctant to do so (at least until last week against Maryland.) The Tigers line up in a 1 back, three wide set as their base formation with one TE. They will go to a power I at times & this formation would serve them well on Saturday.
After flirting with Major League Baseball this summer, junior Kyle Parker returned to play QB for the Tigers. Parker has been inconsistent so far this season & much of that may be attributable to a vicious "spear" he took to the lower back against Auburn earlier in the campaign. Parker at this point has turned into more of a game manager than playmaker, maybe because of injury, but he's a serviceable ACC QB on what should be a run-first offense. (Side Bar: we met Kyle's Mom at the ACC Championship game last year & she's a nice lady......and, well, hot.......so hello from the guys in the parking lot next to your van at Raymond James Stadium, Mrs. Parker).
And the reason they should run the football? # 23, sophomore running back Andre Ellington. Ellington is an electric back, capable of tough inside the tackles running or long, break-away gains. Many may be shocked but I genuinely believe that Ellington may be a better running back than C.J Spiller. Maybe not a better player overall, but a better running back. Ellington is a match-up problem for any defense and will be tough for the Jackets to contain on Saturday. After VPISU's Ryan Williams (assuming he's healthy), Ellington is the best back we'll face this season. Supplementing Ellington in the Tiger backfield is junior Jamie Harper. While Harper looks the part of a big bruiser (6'0", 230) he's really more of a finesse back, preferring to tiptoe around instead of hitting the hole with conviction. Harper does have nice hands out of the backfield which will be something for Tech to be watchful of. If we're lucky, offensive coordinator Billy Napier will continue to split the carries between Ellington & Harper almost equally, limiting Ellington's effectiveness.
Clemson does boast a huge offensive line as the unit averages almost 310 pounds per man across the front. The unit is led by senior tackle Chris Hairston, who so far this year has been the Tiger's best blocker. Sophomore Mason Cloy & junior Antoine McClain man the guard spots capably for the Tigers.
You'd think a team that lines up with three WR's as a base set would have a lot of talent there but that's not really the case for Clemson. The Tiger's best receiver is clearly TE Dwayne Allen, who will pose a very difficult match-up for us all game long. We'll have to account for Allen on every play if we want to slow down the Clemson offense.
The reality of the situation is that Clemson's offense has been very average so far this season. Much of that can be attributed to the play calling of OC Billy Napier, who seems reluctant to play to his strength, the running game. If Napier decides to feature the running attack on Saturday, Clemson is a match-up nightmare for the Jackets. We've been susceptible to the power ISO game & zone read runs all year, two things that Clemson does very well. Throw in the fact that they have a very good tight end that can exploit the middle if our linebackers get sucked up & and two backs that can catch the ball out of the backfield and we simply don't match up well against the Clemson offense. But Napier's play calling can be strange, almost as if he's trying to prove a point to himself at times. Let's hope he keeps that up.
Brandon Thompson at one point looked like he'd be wearing white & gold.....
There's a load of talent on defense for Clemson & while some people think the secondary is their strongest unit to me it all starts up front with what may be the ACC's best defensive line. Led by junior Da'Quan Bowers at defensive end, the Tigers line is huge & athletic. Bowers has been nearly unblock-able this year and presents the kind of threat on the edge that Iowa's Adrian Clayborn did for the Jackets in the Orange Bowl. But where the Tigers really excel is at defensive tackle with Jarvis Jenkins & Brandon Thompson. Because they do the dirty work & don't get tons of tackles, people often overlook the two but they will be a huge factor this Saturday. Thompson was the "one that got away" from Chan Gailey & he's lived up the the billing so far in this his junior campaign. Quick & disruptive, both he & Jenkins are difficult to handle at the point of attack and able to destroy an offense's rhythm with their strength & ability to penetrate.
If there's a weakness on defense for Clemson it's at linebacker, where they are pretty green. There's talent on the unit but they consistently take bad angles & miss tackles, something we've seen at times from our linebackers this year. Look for CPJ to try & exploit the Clemson linebackers as the focal point of our attack Saturday.
Clemson boasts a returning All-American in the secondary in safety DeAndre McDaniel and the rest of the group is solid. Senior corner Marcus Gilchrist is a three year veteran who has seen the spread option before and won't be surprised by our attack. This group is solid & McDaniel will spend much of Saturday in the box against us.
Clemson DC Kevin Steele favors a 4-3 under (the strength of the defense is to the weak side) but I really expect him to walk McDaniel up into the box & play an eight man front against Tech. In the ACC Championship, he ran his DE's right at the A-back, leaving a huge lane for Nesbitt to run through. I don't expect he'll repeat that tactic but will instead dare Tech to throw over the top. We'll need to loosen then up around the line of scrimmage if we hope to get anything going in the run game.
To say we'll need to execute against a stout Clemson defense is an understatement. If we blow assignments or put the ball on the ground, you can all but forget about a victory on Saturday. Dropped balls will kill us. In short, if we're to beat teams as talented as Clemson, we must execute. The first order of business on Saturday offensively is to block Clemson's mammoth defensive tackles. We've all seen what penetration can do to our offense (see LSU & Iowa if you need a reminder) and it will be paramount that Bedford, Jackson, & Uzzi keep the Clemson defensive tackles off of Nesbitt & allow him some room to operate. The return of Phil Smith should help our offensive tackle play which has been subpar so far this year.
It's pretty clear that when we block on the perimeter we're tough to deal with. Problem is, we don't always bock well on the edge. The wide receivers & A-backs will have to get guys on the edge to the ground if we want to move the ball consistently against Clemson.
Finally, we will have to throw the ball Saturday to win. It's not about the number of throws but about passing efficiency; we've got to be successful when we throw the ball, both in terms of percentage & yards gained. If we can pass efficiently & keep eight guys out of the box, we can score.
TJ Barnes need to play big in the middle on Saturday
Did I mention how poorly we match up defensively with Clemson? Not to belabor the point but their offensive strengths are our defensive weaknesses. That's a bad equation. Luckily, the defense has steadily improved over the course of the year as we anticipated they would. But if we're going to slow the Clemson running game down we've got to gamble. We did against Virginia and it paid off & much the same game plan is needed against Clemson. We've got to initiate & be the aggressor. Blitz. Blitz again. Run blitz. Corner blitz. Stunts. Twists. Bring the house. Send them from crazy angles. Overload one side. Send in a donkey. Whatever it takes.......we have to gamble if we want to stop them on Saturday. Sure, it's likely we'll get burned on a long play at least once. I'm willing to take that chance in favor of simply being pounded into submission by power ISO plays & zone read runs. Defensively, we have to make this game about numbers; if we elect to go one-vs-one we're in trouble; we've got to get free defenders to the ball. If you really want to know how the game is going for us on defense watch the triangle of the nose tackle & two ILB's. If they can stand their ground & shed blocks we've got a chance. If they are getting moved all over, it will be a long afternoon.
One other note is watch the corners on the run force. We have to set the edge & contain Ellington. Kyle Parker is also prone to mistakes under pressure. If we can get some heat on him he'll likely toss a couple balls our way which will obviously help the cause.
Yes Clemson, Scott Blair is our secret weapon.......
There may be no fan base in America more scared of a kicker than Clemson fans are of Scott Blair. Hopefully that continues on Saturday. Hopefully our punting woes are behind us because any special teams mistake will prove costly. One interesting note is that Clemson excels at returning kicks while we are very good defensing kick-offs. It will be interesting to see who wins this battle.
Three Keys for Clemson
1) Power Football: line up & pound the rock. Play the power game & use their size advantage to pummel Tech. Power ISo & zone reads.....
2) Exploit the Middle: Dwayne Allen is Clemson's best pass catcher. Our linebackers will be cheating up against the run & vulnerable to the play action fake. A big hole for Tech here....
3) Defensive Penetration: we've all seen how it can disrupt the timing of the spread option (LSU, Iowa). If Thompson & Jenkins can clog the middle Tech will be hard pressed to move the ball.
Georgia Tech Keys:
1) Passing Efficiency: we have to be successful throwing the ball if we want to loosen the Clemson defense up. It's not the number of completions that matter but how effective we are when we do pass.
2) Sell Out Against the Run: make Parker & his ragtag group of receivers beat us. We can't match up one-vs.-one so we need to bring reinforcements. Gamble & try and make plays.
3) Keep the Beasts at Bay: the offensive line has t block the Clemson front four. A stalemate may be good enough but if we consistently get blown up, particularly the center of the line, we're in trouble.
How It Plays Out
Expect the defense to struggle early against the power Clemson running game. The Tigers pound Ellington & Harper & use Allen over the middle. We give up plenty of yards but make a few key stops to limit them to field goals instead of touchdowns. Offensively, we finally get the "dropsy's" under control & make a few plays in the passing game. In the end, we have CPJ & they have Dabo: big advantage Tech. CPJ goes to his bag of tricks & some razzle dazzle does the trick. All week I've said I was going to pick Clemson but Dabo has to show me he can beat us before I do that. "To be the man, you gotta beat the man.....WOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!"
Why yes, that is white & gold on the Nature Boy.......
Tech 27 Clemson 25