I was fortunate enough to get in touch with STS for a Q&A previewing this weekend's installment in the rivalry. Any of you who have checked out this blog know that these guys know their football. Below are their answers to my questions. My answers to their questions are forthcoming.
1. The Tigers boast one of the nation's most prolific offenses, ranking fourth in the country with well over 40 ppg. What are the keys to shutting down this offense, and how does it match up against South Carolina's defensive strengths?
Some of these answers are going to seem obvious, as they are the trick to shutting down any offense. But the first thing you have to do is make the offense one dimensional by shutting down the run game. Chad Morris has shown a tendency to get away from the run if sees that he isn't able to get much in that department.
The second thing you need to do is get pressure on Boyd. Virginia Tech used well timed blitzes to get to him. Florida State was able to get penetration with their defensive tackles. But if you can make him uncomfortable in the pocket he has shown a tendency to make a few questionable throws in a game. However, Boyd has done a very good job of escaping pressure at times and either a) tucking and running, or b) prolonging the play and making a big play downfield. So, while South Carolina will need to generate pressure, they also need to be weary not to leave their lanes or Boyd will take off.
2. On a related note, Tajh Boyd has played better this year, with a 170+ passer rating compared to last year's 140+. He seems to have avoided the late-season slump that hit him last year. What is Boyd doing better this time around? What's the key to slowing him down?
As I alluded to above, Boyd is much more agile this year than he was last year. He's made a lot of plays with his legs, including going for over 100 yards on the ground last week against NC State.
He's also a much more accurate passer. He's really worked on his footwork to get good balance, and the results are showing this year. His completion percentage has jumped 10% since last year and I think that's indicative of the progress he's made with his accuracy. He's still prone to a few boneheaded mistakes (i.e. - interceptions, fumbles, throwing the ball the wrong way), but not nearly as many as last year. Last year I think you could say that his 12 INTs he had were significantly less than the number he should've had. In the Wake Forest game alone there had to have been 6 dropped INTs. This year is a different story, though. He has 11 INTs, but an argument can be made that 4 or 5 of them are either on the WRs or end of the half hail marys.
3. While the Tigers offense seems to have improved from a year ago, the defense seems to have regressed, particularly the back four. Based on what you've seen of the two teams, do you think South Carolina can have lots of success throwing the ball against Clemson, as other teams have? How is Clemson's run defense doing in recent games?
The offense is definitely improved from last year, but I'm not so sure the defense has regressed. People, including Clemson fans, seem to forget just how horrific this defense was last year. According to Football Outsiders FEI+ rankings, Clemson's 2011 defense was 76th in the country. This year, Football Outsiders has Clemson's defense ranked 59th. Rankings wise, this year's unit is almost identical to last year's unit.
However, the way they go about their business is a little bit different. This year's unit is worse against the pass than last year, believe it or not. The reason for that is we lost our best CB, Sensabaugh, to graduation and we don't have anyone talented enough to adequately take his place. Darius Robinson tried, and failed, before being injured. Since then Gary Peters has stepped in and performed about how you'd expect a seldom talked about reserve to perform, which is poorly.
On a positive note, I think this year's defense is a little better against the run. You won't know that by looking at the early part of the schedule, but when Spencer Shuey was inserted in the startinng lineup at MLB things started to change. 3 of the last 4 weeks they've been very good at stopping the run. You could point to the opponents, Wake, Duke, and Maryland, and you wouldn't be wrong. But last year's team couldn't stop anyone, regardless of opponent. Now that I think about it, it's kind of sad that I get satisfaction out of Clemson being able to slow down Wake, Duke, and Maryland. But that's beside the point.
4. If you could have one South Carolina player other than Clowney or (a healthy) Lattimore, who would it be, and why?
The player would most certainly come from the defensive side of the ball. I'd take Clemson's starting QB/RB/WR (with Lattimore out) over South Carolina's. TE and OL seem pretty close to a wash. On the defensive side of the ball, Clemson is really struggling with their back 4. I don't think South Carolina has any lockdown corners by any stretch of the imagination, so I'm not too interested in using my one pick on either of those guys even if they are upgrades to what we currently have. That leads me to D.J. Swearinger. He would be an instant upgrade at the safety spot for Clemson and provide a hard hitting playmaker in a secondary that desparately needs playmaking.
5. How important is this game to the Clemson faithful? Obviously, it's important--it always is. But let's say we win again. Will Clemson fans continue to support Dabo Swinney is he continues to win lots of games in the ACC but lose to South Carolina?
It's huge. I can't speak for everyone, but I'd take an 11-1 Clemson with the only loss being to FSU over an 11-1 Clemson with the only loss being to South Carolina. That's how much breaking this ugly 3 game losing streak means to me. And I truly believe that many other Clemson fans feel the same way. We want to restore our tradition as the top dog in this rivalry and take the recent bragging rights away from Gamecock fans. Aside from the bragging rights, Clemson needs this game to have a chance at going to a BCS bowl.
Dabo will continue to have the support of the fans because he has won at least a share of the Atlantic division crown in 3 out of his 4 years, has two 10 win seasons, and 1 ACC championship. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy with those results. But I'm also not ignorant enough to look past the fact that the ACC has been historically weak during his tenure and that he hasn't beaten the Gamecocks since his interim tag was removed. Clemson has only played one very good team this year in FSU and they lost. This is Dabo's 2nd chance this year to show that he is able to knock off a very good team. He needs to get the job done this weekend.