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FSU vs Clemson: Preview, keys to taming the Tigers

FSU heads to Clemson this weekend in search of its fourth win in as many games. The Seminoles (3-4, 2-2 ACC) have a chance to qualify for a bowl and it would be greatly enhanced with a win over the Tigers, who are a 10-point favorite.

It goes without saying that this has been a disappointing year for Clemson. The Tigers (4-3, 3-2) were considered by most football experts entering the season to be a lock to win the ACC and make an appearance in the college football playoff. Mathematically, both teams are still in the hunt for the Atlantic title but are likely playing for both bowl eligibility and bowl positioning. A game that didn’t look like an equal matchup in early September now looks like a game between two more equally matched opponents two months into the season.

Clemson on Offense

The main culprit for the Tigers’ struggles this year has been its offense, which has struggled to do just about anything well against any of its FBS foes this season. Granted the Tigers lost five offensive players to the NFL, including quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, who were both selected in the first-round. But this is a Clemson team that was simply supposed to be reloading on offense and it has done nothing but misfire so far in 2021.

The Numbers Game-Clemson “O” vs FSU “D”

Clemson Total Offense- 321.3 YPG (117th in NCAA) vs FSU Total Defense- 388.9 YPG (73rd) in NCAA)

Clemson  Rushing Offense- 145.1 YPG (85th) vs FSU Rushing Defense- 158.4 YPG (79th)

Clemson Passing Offense- 176.1 YPG (111th) vs FSU Passing Defense- 230.4 YPG (71st)

Clemson Scoring Offense- 20 PPG (115th) vs FSU Scoring Defense- 26.4 PPG (74th)

Clemson Third-Down Offense- 37.9% (85th) vs FSU Third-Down Defense- 39.4% (69th)

Clemson Sacks Allowed- 1.86 spg (48th) vs FSU Sacks Made- 2.71 spg (31st)

Clemson Run Plays Over 10 yards- 30 (95th) vs FSU Runs Allowed Over 10 yards- 40 (89th)

Clemson Pass Plays Over 20 yards- 15 (114th) vs FSU Passes Allowed Over 20 yards- 25 (86th)

If the numbers above didn’t convey the message to just how bad Clemson has been offensively, let me further illustrate the point: Dabo Swinney and Tony Elliott’s offense has not scored more than 19 points in regulation against any of its FBS opponents so far this season. The most it has scored against an ACC opponent so far this season was 21 points in their loss to NC State and seven of those points came in overtime.

I guess you could say the performance of the Tigers offense has been flatter than 10-year old case of Dr. Pepper with quarterback DJ Uiagalelei at controls of the offense. And much like when Coca-Cola bottling offered refunds on bottle returns, they might want one of their own after signing Uiagalelei to an NIL deal this offseason. The 6-foot-4 and 250-pound second-year sophomore has completed just 54 percent (109 of 199) of his passes while throwing for 1,102 yards. And he has thrown more interceptions (five) than he has touchdown passes (four) this season. He has certainly not lived up to the potential he showed last season when he completed 78 of 117 passes for 914 yards, five touchdowns with no interceptions in 10 appearances and two starts in 2020. You could argue that Uiagalelei has been more productive as a runner, where he is third on the team with 322 yards and leads the team with 67 rushing attempts.

It has been equally as hard for Clemson to replace Etienne as it has Lawrence. It has been running back by committee this season. Sophomore Kobe Pace (5-10, 210) and freshman Will Shipley (5-11, 205) have tried to pick up where Etienne left off but haven’t had the same success as the ACC’s all-time leading rusher. Pace has carried 59 times from 332 yards, and Shipley has gained 266 yards on 54 carries.

The Tigers did graduate two wide receivers from last year’s team who are now catching passes in the NFL but they did get back all-everything wideout Justyn Ross (6-4, 205), who missed last year due to a neck injury. He is clearly the team’s most reliable weapon they have on offense. Ross leads the team with 33 receptions and is second on the team with 341 yards. Junior Joseph Ngata (6-3, 220) leads the team with 352 receiving yards on 18 catches, which is second-best on the team. Junior tight end Davis Allen (6-6, 250) is third on the team in both receptions (15) and receiving yards (101).

Clemson’s offensive line play has also not been up to par and it may not get better anytime soon. Senior Matt Bockhurst, who has played in 47 career games and made 20 starts, was lost for the season after being injured last week against Pitt. Junior left tackle Jordan McFadden (6-2, 310) and right guard Will Putnam (6-4, 305) have started 19 and 18 games, respectively, but the other three lineman listed as starters have combined for just nine career starts. Continuity has been an issue for the offensive line as well as inexperience. Only three times this season have they started the same offensive line combination.

Clemson on Defense

As disappointing as the play of the offense has been Brent Venables’ defense has been anything but so far this season. Clemson’s defense has been dominant and the biggest reason the team has a winning record as the numbers below will indicate. Only two teams (Pitt and NC State) have scored more than 14 points against the Tigers. One of the reasons for this is that they aren’t allowing their opponents any success in the red zone. Clemson’s opponents have scored just 12 times in 20 trips inside the 20-yard line. They lead the nation in red-zone defense. Only five times have they allowed a touchdown from the red zone. They are also deep and aggressive on defense with 19 players who have registered at least one sack and one quarterback pressure. Thirteen players have recorded at least one sack and six players have intercepted at least one pass.

The Numbers Game-FSU “O” vs. Clemson’s “D”

FSU Total Offense- 413.4 YPG (60th) vs Clemson Total Defense- 336 YPG (37th)

FSU Rushing Offense-230.3 YPG (13th) vs Clemson Rush Defense- 120 YPG (29th)

FSU Passing Offense- 183.1 YPG (106th) vs Clemson Pass Defense- 216 YPG (51st)

FSU Scoring Offense- 31.3 PPG (46th) vs Clemson Scoring Defense- 14.6 PPG (3rd)

FSU Third-Down Offense- 43% (48th) vs Clemson Third-Down Defense- 37.1% (50th)

FSU Sacks Allowed- 2.57 spg (90th) vs Clemson Sacks Made- 2.4 spg (48th)

FSU Run Plays Over 10 yards- 56 (9th) vs Clemson Runs Allowed Over 10 yards- 19 (8th)

FSU Pass Plays Over 20 Yards- 17 (104th) vs Clemson Passes Allowed Over 20 yards- 17 (16th)

The Tigers’ front four is led by a couple of familiar names in defensive ends Xavier Thomas (6-2, 265) and Myles Murphy (6-5, 275), who have established a regular presence in opposing backfields. Thomas, a senior, has 16 tackles on the season, including 3.5 sacks and 12 quarterback pressure (leads the team in both categories). He is also second on the team with 4.5 tackles for a loss. Murphy, a sophomore, leads the team with 5.5 tackles for a loss and is second on the team with 2.5 sacks. Sophomore Ruke Orhorhoro (6-4, 295) has been more than solid in place of an injured Bryan Breese. Orhorhoro has 24 tackles, 4.5 TFL’s and one sack this season.

Middle linebacker James Skalski (6-0, 247) is the leader of the Clemson defense and its top tackler. The senior has 67 stops on the season. Another example of just how aggressive Venables is in play calling, Skalski is second on the team with nine quarterback pressure. The linebacker has been used to “spy” opposing quarterbacks, which could lead to a favorable matchup for FSU and Jordan Travis. Senior Baylon Spector (6-2, 235) has also been highly productive from his weakside linebacker spot. He is second on the team with 55 tackles including 2.5 TFLs.

Seniors Nolan Turner (6-1, 205) and Mario Goodrich (6-0, 190) are the leaders of the Clemson secondary. Turner is third on the team with 28 tackles. Goodrich has 31 tackles, which ranks fourth on the team and his five pass break ups are tied for first. Backup strong safety RJ Mickens (6-0, 205) leads the team with two interceptions.

Clemson on Special Teams

Senior BT Potter will handle the place-kicking for the Tigers, and senior Will Spiers will handle the punting duties.

Potter has had a very solid season. He has made 7 of his 8 attempts, including four kicks between 40 and 49 yards. His only miss this season is from beyond 50 yards.

Spiers has been very busy this season having punted 39 times and he is averaging 42.5 yards per attempt. Fourteen of his punts have resulted in opponents starting inside their own 20-yard line and 16 have resulted in fair catches. Opponents have attempted to return 16 of Clemson’s 42 punts this year.

Clemson has not been all that aggressive in the return game. They have attempted 12 kickoff returns on 22 opportunities and just 11 punt returns on 46 chances.

Osceola’s Keys to Taming the Tigers

  1. Clemson certainly can’t have much confidence on offense given the results this season. The FSU defense needs to have a lot of success early in the game in the form of three-and-outs and/or not allowing them to sustain drives. Pressuring the quarterbacks, disrupting the timing and forcing them to throw off platform will be crucial. Don’t let them build confidence.
  2. It is very difficult to move the ball up and down the field against the Clemson defense. FSU needs to create some short-field opportunities with turnovers and with special-teams play.
  3. Make your field goals. It’s been tough for opponents to find the end zone against Clemson. FSU must make the most of their scoring opportunities and have a very solid day if afforded the opportunity to put any points on the board.
  4. The Seminoles can not be one-dimensional on offense. They must find both consistency and big plays in the passing game. Clemson has shown no weakness so far this season against the run. FSU must find balance offensively.