What Improvements Must Clemson Make Before Rivalry Showdown with South Carolina?

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What Improvements Must Clemson Make Before Rivalry Showdown with South Carolina?
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Clemson must protect Tajh Boyd to have a real chance of winning at South Carolina.

CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson enters its final off week of the 2013 regular season in an enviable position.

The Tigers moved up to No. 7 in this week’s Bowl Championship Series standings, and they could potentially move up two more spots this week without playing a game. No. 3 Oregon plays No. 5 Stanford Thursday night, and No. 6 Baylor plays No. 10 Oklahoma Thursday, as well. The Stanford-Oregon loser will likely fall in the polls, as would the Bears with a defeat.

Still, the Tigers have almost no chance to make the ACC title game and compete for the league’s automatic BCS bid. No. 3 Florida State (8-0, 6-0) will clinch the Atlantic Division title with a win over either Wake Forest or Syracuse by virtue of its earlier victory over the Tigers.

Clemson’s best path to a second BCS bid in three years is to win its final three games against Georgia Tech, The Citadel and South Carolina and grab an at-large spot. The Tigers will be favored at home against the Yellow Jackets and Bulldogs, but winning in Columbia in the regular season finale could be a daunting task.

The Gamecocks have beaten Clemson four consecutive times, tying their all-time longest winning streak in the heated rivalry.

Where does Clemson need to improve to take down its rival and push toward the BCS? Here are several key areas.

 

Get the running game going

Offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ hurry-up, no-huddle system is known for its high-flying passing game, but it is built around the premise of a physical running game. A year ago, Clemson averaged 191 yards on the ground per game, 36th nationally. This fall, they have met that average only twice, rushing for 197 against Georgia and 236 against Maryland. Not coincidentally, those are the only two times that senior tailback Rod McDowell has surpassed 100 yards in a game (going for 132 against Georgia and 161 against Maryland).

Tyler Smith/Getty Images
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is 1-4 all-time against South Carolina as Clemson's head coach.

At times, the offensive line has struggled to open holes for the run game. While the Tigers are 13th nationally in total offense at 507 yards per game, they are 61st in rushing offense, averaging 174.3 yards per game. A year ago, South Carolina controlled the ball in the second half, running 40 plays after halftime to Clemson’s 19 while turning a 14-10 halftime deficit into a 27-17 victory. To compete in Columbia, Clemson needs to hold onto the ball and generate drives with its running game.

 

Protect Tajh Boyd

Senior quarterback Tajh Boyd has had two of the worst games of his career against South Carolina. In 2011, he completed 11-of-29 passes for 83 yards, a touchdown and an interception. And last fall, he completed just 11-of-24 for 183 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.

South Carolina star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was virtually unblockable last November, piling up a Memorial Stadium record 4.5 sacks. Both of Boyd’s interceptions can also be traced to Clowney putting immense pressure on Boyd.

Clowney dominated senior left tackle Brandon Thomas last season, but Thomas is on a pace to repeat his first-team All-ACC selection of 2012. However, the line has struggled with stability. Juniors David Beasley and Kalon Davis have split time at left guard; Beasley has started five games and Davis four. It’s virtually the same thing at right tackle, where junior Gifford Timothy has started six games and sophomore Shaq Anthony three.

Tyler Smith/Getty Images
Clemson and Rod McDowell must thrive on the ground in Columbia.

Clemson has allowed 23 sacks as a team, which ranks 93rd nationally. Clowney will be primarily matched up against Thomas, but he moves all across the line. The Tigers must improve their protection as a whole if they hope to hold Clowney in check.

 

Cut down on the big plays

Overall, Clemson’s defense is improved from a year ago. The Tigers are allowing 20.6 points per game, 23rd best nationally. And their 364.4 yard per game average ranks 32nd nationally in total defense. Last year, they allowed 24.8 points per game (48th nationally) and 396.2 yards per game (63rd nationally).

But big plays remain a concern. Clemson has given up 20 plays of 30 or more yards in nine games, and nine plays of 50-plus yards. The Tigers are allowing 223.7 passing yards per game, 51st nationally.

Williams-Brice Stadium can be a foreboding place for visitors, and giving up big plays won’t make life any easier for the Tigers.

 

Improve the red-zone offense

Saturday, Clemson was much improved in the red zone, scoring touchdowns on its first three opportunities at Virginia. It was a much different feeling than a week earlier at Maryland, when the first four red-zone chances resulted in three field goals.

A year ago, the Tigers were first nationally in red-zone scoring, converting 95 percent of their chances.

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And even with Saturday’s improved effort, Clemson has only scored on 83.7 percent of its red-zone chances, which ranks 61st nationally. Saturday, the Tigers converted four of five chances, with the only miss an Ammon Lakip field goal in the third quarter. Lakip is the Tigers’ backup kicker, and Clemson led 42-10 at the time.

A year ago, 43 of Clemson’s 56 red-zone scores were touchdowns, a 76.7 percent clip. This fall, 28 of the 41 red-zone scores have been touchdowns, a 68.2 percent clip. The Tigers will need to be more efficient inside the 20 more consistently and capitalize on all possible opportunities to find success in Columbia.

Connect with Greg on Twitter @gc_wallace

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