Time to take on the rival Tigers in Williams-Brice Stadium. As always, on the line will be 365 days of bragging rights, to say nothing of potential bowl standing and chances to finish in the top ten. Here are my thoughts on the game.
Three Keys to Victory
3. Have a Clean Game on Special Teams. Carolina's special teams have been a weak link over the course of the season, but they've been moderately improved since the Tennessee game. That needs to continue to be the case in what will likely be a tight game against the Tigers. Landon Ard needs to kick the ball out the back of the end zone for touchbacks. Tyler Hull needs to avoid shanks. We need to take touchbacks when CU kicks into the end zone. We need to avoid turnovers, fair catches on the three, etc., in the punt return game. A big play in the return game would be nice, but really, we just need to avoid screwing things up there. Elliott Fry needs to continue to kick well. Sounds simple, right? Sadly, it hasn't been, but we've generally played well on special teams in this game the past few years. Hopefully, that will continue to be the case Saturday.
2. Establish the Run. Clemson has a much-improved defensive front that's led by ends Vic Beasley and Shaq Lawson and linebacker Stephone Anthony. It may seem shocking considering the negative perception of the Clemson defense after a couple of years of poor play, but the Tigers lead the nation in tackles for loss and are eighteenth in the nation in points against. The Tigers would likely be better in the latter category if not for the fact that they tend to give up lots of points late in blowout wins after they take their foot off the gas. This is a solid defense. What really worries me about CU's defense is how disruptive Beasley and Lawson can be rushing the passer. They're likely more vulnerable against the run if we can regain the kind of dynamism running the football we showed early in the season. Our line has blocked the run well this year and is capable of doing so against Clemson. Mike Davis needs to be at his best, and Connor Shaw needs to be a threat running the ball on the read-option keeper. Some well-timed screens might also soften Clemson up. If we can do these things, we should be able to keep the Clemson pass rush honest. If we're able to give Connor time when we want to pass, there should be plays to be made against the Tigers' secondary, which is clearly the weak link in an otherwise good group.
1. Get After Tajh Boyd. The past two years, Carolina has more or less shut down Tajh Boyd other than in the first few drives of last year's game. Carolina's success has largely been built on being able to put pressure on Boyd. When Boyd has a nice pocket and time to throw, he is a very dangerous QB. However, he's proven to make a lot of mistakes when under pressure from the pass rush, and Carolina has been able to put tons of pressure on Boyd. This year, I feel that our defensive front continues to have an advantage over Clemson's protection, but likely not to the same extent as in past years. I'm also worried that because of our issues at linebacker, Clemson will have more success in the short passing game, which would help Boyd by helping Clemson avoid having to call predictable downfield passing play that leave Boyd vulnerable against the rush. This game is going to show us whether our defense has truly improved to any significant degree over the course of the season. If the linebackers and corners defend the short pass well, I think we'll likely be able to generate some sacks and maybe some turnovers. If not, we might have to win a shootout.
Obviously, Carolina has controlled this series in recent years, not only winning, but winning in dominant fashion. We haven't won in any truly outlandish blowouts, but all four wins in the streak have been by multiple scores, and while the game was close fairly late last year, I felt during the fourth quarter like it was inevitable that we would win based on the kind of game it had become--another affair where we were moving the chains steadily on offense and dominating defensively. If you can do that, you're going to win the ball game. This year, Clemson's defense is much improved, but our offense is also improved. If we regain early season form tomorrow, which seems very possible given that we'll be as healthy as we've been in weeks, we should be able to again score in that 27-34 range where we've been the past four years against the Tigers. On the other side of the ball, our defense regressed this year but has improved marginally in the second half of the season, whereas Clemson's offense--if still prolific at times because it's capable of generating big plays with the Boyd-Watkins duo--hasn't been quite as good as it was the past two years. We'll of course need to be crossing our fingers each time the return units take the field, but if we get at least a neutral performance from special teams, I'm calling a 34-27 Gamecocks victory. I have Clemson scoring a few more than they have the past four years, as I'm concerned about our ability to consistently generate the kind of pressure we need against Boyd and about our back seven's ability to defend the short passes and avoid giving up the big play. If the game were in Tigertown, I might be a little worried. However, I expect our defense to do just enough and for Shaw to generate enough points on offense for Carolina to send the Tigers home unhappy again.
Go 'Cocks! Beat Clemson!