Clemson star quarterback Tajh Boyd is seeking greater consistency against Wake Forest.
Last week’s results:
No. 3 Clemson (3-0, 1-0 ACC) beat NC State 26-14.
Wake Forest (2-2, 0-1 ACC) beat Army 25-11.
Most important storylines of the week:
Can Clemson’s offense find its groove?: A year ago, Clemson’s offense ranked sixth nationally in scoring offense (41 ppg) and ninth in total offense (512.9 ypg). The offense was expected to reach similar heights this season with fifth-year senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Tajh Boyd at the controls, but it’s currently operating a notch below those levels.
Through three games, Clemson averaged 38.7 ppg (34th nationally) and 464.7 yards of total offense (45th nationally). Offensive coordinator Chad Morris said this week that Boyd was “pressing” in the offense and needed to relax and calm down. He said Boyd played much better later at N.C. State, leading a pair of late touchdown drives to put the game out of reach.
Boyd has struggled to find a game-breaking receiver with DeAndre Hopkins in the NFL; former All-American Sammy Watkins has 19 catches but averages only 12.7 yards per catch. Junior Charone Peake is done for the season with a torn ACL, and while fellow junior Martavis Bryant caught a pair of touchdowns last week, his playing time will be curtailed for what Dabo Swinney called an “inappropriate” gesture following a score.
“This week is about understanding what we’re trying to do, what they’re trying to do and taking advantage of opportunities when we have them,” Boyd said. “We have to keep working. We’re on the right path. It’s like a freight train. Once we get going, there isn’t going to be any stopping, any slowing down.”
Can the Tigers line find some continuity?: Entering this season, Clemson’s offensive line was projected as a strength; the only loss from a solid 2012 group was center Dalton Freeman, a two-time Rimington Award finalist. But while Freeman’s replacement, sophomore Ryan Norton, has been solid, the line has spent little time together. Following a season-opening win over then-No. 5 Georgia, the first string played only 22 snaps in a rout of South Carolina State.
Last week, junior right tackle Gifford Timothy was pulled with what was diagnosed as a concussion. He is questionable for this week. If he can’t go, sophomore Shaq Anthony would receive his third career start. The line needs all the time it can get together; Clemson averages 183 yards rushing per game, 62nd nationally.
Can Clemson contain Nikita Whitlock?: Wake Forest’s senior nose guard is one of the ACC’s best defensive linemen. He is coming off a standout performance at Army, where he made 14 tackles including three for loss. He shared ACC defensive lineman of the week honors with Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley.
Whitlock is an excellent run-stuffer and has a motor that never stops. Swinney won’t be sad to see him go.
“It all starts for them with Whitlock up front,” Swinney said. “I thought he was gone. I couldn’t believe he was still on the roster. I don’t think that guy will ever get out of this league.”
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET, Saturday
Place: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.
Radio: Clemson and Wake Forest radio networks (regional); ESPN (national)
Spread: Clemson -28.5 via VegasInsider.com
Junior wide receiver Sammy Watkins will be leaned upon heavily against Wake Forest.
Solve the Demon Deacons offensive puzzle
Wake Forest has a grab-bag offense, using an option, spread and power run game. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables knows his unit will see a variety of looks from Wake, just as he did a year ago in a 42-13 victory. He’ll prepare the Tigers defense for just about anything, but a big key will be getting pressure on quarterback Tanner Price with junior defensive end Vic Beasley (five sacks in three games) and forcing rushed decisions.
Make the big play
A year ago, the Tigers offense had 21 plays of 40 or more yards in 13 games. Through three games, Clemson has one: Sammy Watkins’ 77-yard catch-and-run touchdown against Georgia. With DeAndre Hopkins in the NFL, opposing defenses have keyed on taking away the big play and forcing Tajh Boyd to check down to shorter routes. He took several deep shots against NC State, but overthrew both Watkins and Martavis Bryant. If Boyd can connect on a big play or two, it could energize Memorial Stadium and demoralize Wake Forest’s defense. That won’t be easy: Wake ranks eighth nationally in pass defense, allowing 143 ypg.
Contain Michael Campanaro
Wake Forest senior receiver Michael Campanaro is one of the ACC’s top receivers. Twice in his career, he has caught 16 passes in a game, tying the league’s single-game reception record. The second time came two weeks ago in a home loss to Louisiana-Monroe. Campanaro is elusive with excellent hands, and he’s multitalented, too. Two years ago, he returned a punt 50 yards for a touchdown in Wake’s 31-28 loss at Clemson. He’ll be a handful for the Tigers’ improved secondary.
Wake Forest nose guard Nikita Whitlock is one of the ACC's top defensive linemen.
Control the clock
Clemson is least dangerous when its offense isn’t on the field. Over the last three years, only one team has beaten the Tigers in Memorial Stadium. Last November, South Carolina held the ball for over 40 minutes in a 27-17 win. Clemson had only 19 second-half offensive snaps. Wake Forest’s option offense can chew up the clock, although the Deacons are sixth in the ACC in time of possession with 29:47 minutes per game.
Pressure Tajh Boyd
With starting right tackle Gifford Timothy questionable while recovering from a concussion, sophomore Shaq Anthony would be in line to make his third career start for Clemson. When Timothy left at N.C. State, Anthony spelled him but senior left tackle Brandon Thomas also shifted to the right side with sophomore Isaiah Battle filling in at left tackle. That won’t be possible Saturday as Battle will serve a suspension for punching a Wolfpack player. Clemson has allowed seven sacks as a team this season, 13th in the ACC. The Tigers could be vulnerable again Saturday.
Don’t make mistakes
Memorial Stadium will be full and enthusiastic for homecoming. Clemson has shown it has an opportunistic defense; three weeks ago against South Carolina State, Tiger corners returned a pair of passes for touchdowns, a school first. If Wake commits turnovers, this game could get out of hand quickly. The Deacons must play smart to keep this one close in the second half.
Clemson junior end Vic Beasley has developed into one of the ACC's top pass rushers.
Senior QB Tajh Boyd
The Heisman Trophy candidate has six touchdowns against no interceptions through three games, averaging 227 passing yards per game. However, his passing efficiency (148.0) and completion percentage (62.7) are down from 2012 (165.6 and 67.7, respectively) and he admitted he was pressing and out of rhythm against NC State. It’s important for his confidence, if not his Heisman campaign, to have a big game Saturday.
Junior DE Vic Beasley
Beasley began his college career as a tight end but has found a home at defensive end, his third position. He has five sacks, half a sack behind the national lead. He is an athletic pass rusher who is a handful for any offensive tackle he lines up across from.
Freshman WR Germone Hopper
Hopper earned the trust of the coaching staff in preseason and has made his mark in a thin wide receiver corps. He had six catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns against South Carolina State, and added four receptions for 25 yards at NC State. He has excellent hands and isn’t afraid to take a hit from a defender.
Senior wideout Michael Campanaro is one of the ACC's top pass-catching threats.
Senior WR Michael Campanaro
Campanaro is one of the ACC’s top receivers. He leads all active ACC receivers with 187 career receptions, and also has 2,057 career receiving yards, which is second to Sammy Watkins among ACC wideouts. He is 14th on the ACC’s all-time receptions list and would crack the top 10 with six receptions Saturday.
Senior NG Nikita Whitlock
Whitlock is one of the ACC’s most aggressive, tough defensive linemen. His 38 career tackles for loss lead the ACC’s active players; he has eight tackles for loss and three sacks this season. He’ll be a handful for Clemson’s offensive line Saturday.
Senior QB Tanner Price
While working in an option/spread system, Price has served as a dual threat this season. He has 852 yards passing (completing 55.2 percent of his passes) with five touchdowns against two interceptions, adding 86 yards and a touchdown on 40 rush attempts. He’ll give Clemson’s defense a variety of looks Saturday.
Dabo Swinney loves how his team has developed through three games.
“I will take 11 more wins like we just had, right now. It’s great when you play great defense. It’s like in basketball. It is just not always going to go in the bucket for you but if you play great defense then you keep yourself in the game. Our defense is getting better. We are much better after three games than we were last year after three games. We are not where we need to be but our guys are hungry. They want it. They are practicing the right way. The coaches are doing a tremendous job.” – Dabo Swinney, on Clemson’s defensive play three games in.
“In this offense, the position I’m in, rhythm is everything. To continue on the course we’re on, I can’t press. It’s one of the things coach Swinney stressed to me. I’m not focused on individual outside awards. I’m trying to have fun and lead.” – Tajh Boyd, on getting a good offensive rhythm.
“This is still a group of guys, however you look at it, take seven new starters from a year ago, a group that’s still trying to find itself. But you really like the way you’ve been challenged the first few games and for the most part we’ve answered the bell when it counts the most. It’s a young season. Our guys have got a great attitude and it’s an intelligent group of guys.” – Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, on his unit’s progress from 2012 to 2013.
Clemson dominated Wake Forest 42-13 in 2012. Expect a similar result Saturday.
Two years ago, Clemson needed a late rally and Chandler Catanzaro’s final-play field goal to outlast Wake Forest 31-28 and clinch the ACC Atlantic Division title. Few expect such a tight battle this time around. This Wake team is 2-2 with losses at Boston College and at home to Louisiana-Monroe. Wake coach Jim Grobe has 16 freshmen on his two-deep, including eight true freshmen led by starting center Cory Helms. That number is shocking, given Grobe’s propensity to redshirt freshmen and stockpile talent. Clemson is focused on playing a sharper offensive game and continuing to improve defensively. The Tigers should give an amped-up Homecoming crowd plenty to cheer about. Clemson 45, Wake Forest 17.