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Reconnaissance Mission: Q&A with Shakin the Southland

We haven't done so as much this year, but, as some of you remember, we often do Q&A's with opponents' blogs as part of of preview series for each week's game. This being rivalry week and thus the season's biggest game, it's only fitting that we got together with the fine SBN Clemson blog Shakin the Southland. Those of you who have read STS know that they do a great job; their authors know as much about football tactics and strategy as anyone you'll find on the web. You'll find plenty of Carolina hating over there, too, but that's only fitting for this great rivalry. So, without further ado, let's take a look at what they have to say. STS's answers are in bold. My answers to their questions are here.

1. Although it's only become a glaring problem over the last few games, Clemson's offensive line has been its major offensive weakness this year. What is wrong with the line--injuries, all-around poor personnel, coaching, or something else? Any chance they get it together this weekend?

It's a combination of everything.  We haven't done a good job of opening up holes in the A gaps all year, outside of the game at Maryland.  This limits what Chad Morris would like to do offensively.  Ideally Morris would love to pound the rock up the middle to open up some intermediate and deep routes in the passing game.  Instead, it seems we are running up the middle for 1 or 2 yards to simply attempt to keep the defense honest.  The pass blocking was horrid our first two games, seemed to get better when we got on a roll, but now seems to have regressed again. 
At the start of the year the coaching staff felt comfortable with 6 guys (5 starters and backup center Mason Cloy).  I'd say there is a personnel issue when you only feel comfortable with 6 guys, all of which are Juniors and Seniors.  I still hold a grudge with our ex-OL coach Brad Scott, who coached these guys into mediocrity.  I don't see the fierceness and the nastiness in this bunch that wants to go out there and move the line of scrimmage.  Hopefully Caldwell will be able to mold some of the younger guys into a better unit than we have right now.
2. Andre Ellington, when healthy, was one of the best-looking tailbacks around last year. This year, though, he doesn't seem to be the same player. What seems to be the problem?
I think part of it is on Andre and part of it is on the OL, which we just discussed.  He suffered through a turf toe injury last year, which ultimately cut his season short.  He missed spring ball and was limited some during the fall.  As a result, he came into the season out of shape.  He compounded that with a hamstring injury that seems to have taken away his explosiveness.  It seems like he could use a good bit of time off to heal, but with Clemson's inexperience behind him at the running back spot he hasn't been afforded that luxury.

Continue reading after the jump.

3. Sammy Watkins has been one of the country's most phenomenal players and is a shoe-in for all sorts of freshman honors. Talk about what he means to the team, and whether he'll be a difference-maker if he returns this week.
Sammy has been better than anyone could've expected.  He is the guy that makes this offense go, and without him last week the offense seemed lost.  He's the best route runner, has the best hands, and is the fastest wide receiver we have.  No doubt having him on the field opens things up for Nuke Hopkins and Dwayne Allen.  Early in the season we used Watkins a decent amount on jet sweeps.  That seems to have disappeared from the playbook.  If healthy enough this week, I'd like to see them implement that a little bit more.  I don't think we'll be able to run up the middle against USC, but perhaps we can stretch them out wide.

4. CU's defense has struggled a bit in recent weeks, particularly against run-first, zone-read-based offenses with mobile QBs. Why is that the case, and how do you see CU's defense doing against Connor Shaw?
Clemson has struggled all year defensively, but it is getting a lot more attention now that we are losing.  Our linebackers have been bad all year, unable to get off blocks and slow to diagnose plays.  We're starting to see more of 5-star freshman Stephone Anthony at middle linebacker instead of Corico Hawkins, but he isn't quite ready to be the dominant force this defense needs.  Steele has gone with a lot of nickel packages due to both the offenses we've played and the lack of trust in his linebackers. 

The LBs aren't the only group to blame here though, as the DL hasn't done a good job of setting the edge and the DBs haven't done a good job of getting off blocks or making tackles.  The entire defense looks to throw a shoulder into their man rather than sticking their facemask in their chest and wrapping up.  It's been a very frustrating year defensively and Kevin Steele is taking a lot of well deserved criticism.

5. Clemson has clearly exceeded expectations on the year, winning the Atlantic Division in a year when most expected only incremental improvement. However, it's currently on a bit of a slide coming into the rivalry game. How much does this game mean to Clemson's season as a whole? Let's say Clemson wins the ACCCG. Can the season still be a success with a loss to Carolina? Why or why not?

This game is huge.  HUGE.  There are many factors that come into play here, both for the program, fans, and media.  This program needs to shake the stigma that they collapse every year and can't be taken seriously.  10 wins have eluded this program for 20 years, so getting there against our biggest rival would be enormous.  A win over a quality SEC opponent on the road is sure to garner some positive limelight from the media, which certainly helps in recruiting.   
Dabo cannot afford to lose 3 in a row to USC.  2 in a row caused an uproar, but 3 in a row would cause seismic reactions.
Lastly, a win helps build some momentum going into the ACC championship.  Clemson isn't good enough to turn it on/off just like that.  Therefore, we need to regain some of our lost swagger or else we'll be in trouble facing the Va Tech/UVA winner.

6. Give us a prediction. How will the game go down, and who wins?

All that talk about how big this game is, yet I'm not optimistic Clemson can turn it around.  We seem lost right now.  If Phillip Price and Sammy Watkins are able to go and are close to 100% that would certainly help.  I think the offense will be able to move the ball again, mainly through the air, and put up some points on USC's defense.  I just don't trust our defense enough to get the necessary stops.  I think USC will kill us on the ground, just as everyone else has.  The fact that it is a night game in Columbia doesn't help ease the pressure off of these players either.
I've got USC winning by 10....31-21.