Right about the time Jeff Smith held the football in his hands with 0:00 remaining on the game clock, as fans stood paralyzed by a rapidly growing sense of horror and Steve Addazio flung his headset into the turf at Alumni Stadium with enough force to make Rob Gronkowski blush, Dabo Swinney walked off a sun-drenched field at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium as the proud coach of the ACC’s undisputed top dog.
As Boston College (3-3, 0-3 ACC) heads to Clemson, S.C. for a Saturday night matchup of teams heading in diametrically opposed directions, Addazio must prepare his reeling Eagles for a matchup with the fifth-ranked Tigers (5-0, 3-0 ACC), a team he believes will be the most talented team BC will face this year. While not really a profound statement, Addazio may actually be understating Clemson’s 2015 brilliance. In fact, Football Outsiders’ FEI Ratings, a system that is based on opponent-adjusted drive efficiency and only considers games that pit two FBS teams against one another, ranks Clemson as the number one team in the nation. For context, BC, which bolstered its record with two victories against lowly FCS opponents, is ranked just 69th by the FEI Ratings.
Entering the season, Clemson was a common choice among pundits to make the second College Football Playoff. The experts foresaw a dominant offense, led by dynamic sophomore QB Deshaun Watson and star receiver Mike Williams, carrying a good defense. In reality, the 2015 season has not played out as expected for Clemson. While the offense has been good, it has not reached elite levels, slowed by a neck injury to Williams. The defense, expected to struggle at times after losing seven starters from the 2014 unit, has been the Tigers’ most dominant unit in 2015.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables has constructed a defense that compensates for its lack of experience—Clemson’s defense registered fewer career starts coming into this season than all but three Power Five teams—with sheer athleticism and formidable depth, especially along the defensive line. Led by juniors Shaq Lawson, the replacement for 2015 NFL first round pick Vic Beasley, and Carlos Watkins, Clemson spends most of the game in the opposing backfield. Venables’ defense averages 9.6 tackles for a loss per game, good for second best in the FBS. The majority of these tackles come against the run, where Clemson excels, allowing just 2.74 yards per carry, seventh nationally. Clemson has been even better recently, holding Georgia Tech, a team whose run-heavy play selection closely aligns with BC’s game plan, to a measly 71 yards on 42 carries.
Stuffing the run on early downs allows Clemson to force opponents into third and long situations, where its experienced secondary, led by star cornerback Mackensie Alexander, can end drives before they really get started. Clemson ranks third in the FBS, allowing opponents to convert just 20 percent of their third down opportunities. Even among all the unexpected success, Clemson does have a potentially significant weakness. While allowing just 46 percent of passes to be completed, the Clemson secondary appears vulnerable to longer throws. The Tigers are one of only five FBS teams to allow over 15 yards per completion.
On Saturday, look for Clemson to focus on early penetration into the BC backfield. Expect at least eight defenders in the box constantly, as Venables looks to put BC’s inexperienced passing game into as many third and long plays as possible. Given Clemson’s tendency to allow some longer passes, expect one or two defenders to remain deep in the secondary, so as not to give BC any easy, long plays that could give them scoring chances. A significant number of three and outs, along with at least one interception, should be attainable goals for the Clemson defense against such a depleted offense.
Offensively, Clemson continues to run the up-tempo, spread offense that Swinney installed upon taking the head coaching job during the 2008 season. Watson rarely, if ever, takes a snap from under center. Expected to have a fantastic season, the dual-threat Heisman hopeful has been more solid than spectacular so far. Watson has completed over 70 percent of his passes in four of his five games. He has thrown 11 touchdown passes but has already thrown five interceptions, more than twice his 2014 total. In addition, Watson averages just 7.67 yards per attempt, over three yards per attempt lower than his 2014 number. Most of this is a function of the offense Swinney has been running since the loss of Williams, an explosive vertical threat.
Most of Clemson’s throws are high percentage, with a fair amount of slants, screens, and short crossing routes. The idea is to keep the defense in constant motion with the quick throws, eventually causing the coverage breakdowns needed to score a long touchdown. Clemson also likes to get its playmakers into open space, particularly its young dynamic receivers Ray-Ray McCloud and Artavis Scott. The strategy has been effective, as the Tigers have converted over 45 percent of their third down plays.
Clemson’s offense has received a huge boost from its running game, a surprise since the team features an offensive line with five new starters. Watson contributes to this as a threat in read option plays. Especially in close games, Swinney will turn to his QB for key plays in the run game. Even more so than Watson, running back Wayne Gallman has been the most important player for the Clemson offense this season. With 536 rushing yards and an average of 6.0 yards per carry, Gallman has been the workhorse for the Tigers. Along with some explosiveness, Gallman runs with great physicality. Excluding stats from last week, Gallman averages 3.54 yards after contact per rush, seventh among all FBS running backs.
Against a physical BC front seven, the nation’s best run defense, expect Gallman to have to fight through tackles all evening. Clemson will keep feeding him the ball, sprinkling in doses of Watson on the ground, in an effort to tire out the BC defense. In addition, expect plenty of short throws, both on the perimeter and in the middle of the field, looking to set up receivers in one-on-one matchups with BC linebackers stuck in coverage. Don’t expect many high risk plays from the Clemson offense, as it knows a conservative game plan will likely produce enough points to beat the Eagles. The last thing Clemson wants is to give the BC offense a short field off turnovers. Barring a monumental upset, Clemson should emerge victorious, furthering the Tigers’ ascent in the polls while simultaneously embroiling BC in deeper turmoil.
Featured Image by Richard Shiro / AP Photo