Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets vs. Clemson Tigers: Complete Game Preview

Greg Wallace@gc_wallaceFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2013

Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets vs. Clemson Tigers: Complete Game Preview

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    Sammy Watkins has emerged as one of the nation's top receivers in 2013.
    Sammy Watkins has emerged as one of the nation's top receivers in 2013.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Last week’s results

     

    No. 8 Clemson (8-1, 6-1 ACC) was off; Tigers beat Virginia 59-10 Nov. 2.

    Georgia Tech (6-3, 5-2 ACC) was off; Yellow Jackets beat Pitt 21-10 Nov.2.

     

    Can Clemson handle Georgia Tech’s flexbone option offense

    In 2008, Dabo Swinney’s first game as Clemson interim coach came against Georgia Tech. The Tigers lost 24-14, and since then the Yellow Jackets have been a consistent nemesis.

    Swinney is just 2-4 against Tech and Paul Johnson, including a 39-34 loss in the 2009 ACC title game. Both of Swinney’s wins over Johnson have come in Clemson, a plus for the Tigers this week.

    Since Johnson took over at Tech in 2008, the Jackets have averaged 304.8 yards rushing per game, best in the FBS. This season, they average 311.2 yards per game, third in the FBS.

    A year ago, the Jackets rolled up 483 yards of total offense (339 on the ground) and led 31-30 with 13 minutes left before Clemson scored the game’s final 17 points in a 47-31 win.

    Swinney said his defense must be disciplined against the flexbone.

    “Sometimes guys want to make plays,” he said. “This is a game where it’s not about making plays. It’s about doing your job. As soon as you don’t, you pay for it. You can’t get bored about doing your job. It might cost you the game.

    “A defensive tackle doesn’t make many plays in a game like this, he’s tackling the dive, tackling the dive, tackling the dive, doing his job so others can do their job and make plays. For them, it’s the ability to keep the ball. If they’re out-executing you, the big plays come off that.”

    Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables says the Jackets “always have an answer” for opposing defenses. He says teams don’t run exotic defenses against the option; just using the 4-3 or the 3-4 is exotic enough. The key is consistency.

    “There’s some simplicity in it. There’s more intricacy in it than you think,” he said. “They’re not running the same dive scheme. The fullback’s getting it, they’re piping it, keeping it tight. They’re changing the schemes in what they’re doing, they’re having some complexity, with the simple plays it looks like they’re running. You have to be, the first thing they’d like to see you do three, four, five crazy things, radical things, that’s what they’d love to see you do. So you have to wear them out with precision and discipline.”

     

    Can Clemson score on Georgia Tech’s defense

    The Yellow Jackets have been very stingy under first-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof. Tech allows 18.8 points per game (third in the ACC) and 329.6 yards per game (also third in the ACC). The Jackets are 12th nationally in total defense, 14th in scoring defense and 10th in rushing defense.

    Meanwhile, Clemson averages 39.8 points per game (15th nationally) and 507.4 yards per game (11th nationally).

    Senior defensive end Jeremiah Attoachu was a preseason first-team All-ACC selection and his 25 career sacks rank fourth among current FBS players. Cornerback Jemea Thomas leads Tech with 58 tackles and is regarded as one of the league’s top secondary players.

    “This is one of the better groups we’ll see all year, collectively,” Swinney said. “It’s a big challenge for us offensively. It starts with the guys up front. They have an excellent front. We need to do a better job avoiding negative plays and eliminating the negatives. That we can control.”

    To be successful Thursday, the Tigers must make the most of their opportunities with the ball.

     

    What will Clemson's first Thursday home game since 2002 be like

    Memorial Stadium has built a reputation as one of college football’s most intimidating environments, but it’ll be interesting to see what it looks like on Thursday night.

    Clemson has not played a home Thursday night game since 2002, citing concerns over how the influx of 80,000 fans would affect campus life. Campus officials are canceling Thursday afternoon classes, but normally raucous tailgaters will not be allowed into lots until 2 p.m., five and a half hours before kickoff. Swinney admits he’d rather play a Saturday game and have a true bye week, but he called on fans to be loud Thursday night. Will Clemson’s usual night game atmosphere prevail? We’ll see.

    Time: 7:30 p.m. ET Thursday

    Place: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.

    TV: ESPN

    Radio: Clemson and Georgia Tech radio networks (regional), ESPN Radio (national)

    Spread: Clemson -10 via VegasInsider.com

    *Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.

Clemson Keys to Victory

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    Clemson's defense must be at the top of its game against Georgia Tech.
    Clemson's defense must be at the top of its game against Georgia Tech.Tyler Smith/Getty Images

    Limit the flexbone’s damage

     

    Let’s face it. Georgia Tech is going to get its rushing yardage. The Yellow Jackets run, run, run and run some more, averaging 311.4 rushing yards per game.

    Clemson wants to contain the flexbone, but it also wants to avoid giving up big plays that can change the game’s momentum. That has been a problem this season: the Tigers have allowed nine plays of 50-plus yards this season, or one per game.

    However, Clemson limited the damage against Virginia. The Cavaliers’ longest plays were a pair of 27-yard gains. If the Tigers can build on that momentum this week, it’ll be a huge plus.

    Be efficient with the ball

     

    Georgia Tech is fourth nationally in time of possession, which limits opportunities for opposing offenses. That’s a big problem for Clemson, which runs a hurry-up, no-huddle offense that averages 39.8 points per game. The less the Tigers have the ball, the less they’re able to score. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has noted that his offense must cut down on “negative plays.” He pointed out a pair of plays at Virginia that lost a total of 40 yards.

    The Tigers can’t afford to be careless with the ball against an offense that grinds out possessions on the ground and chews clock. In addition, Clemson has allowed 23 sacks in nine games, 12th in the ACC.

     

    Force turnovers

    A year ago, Tech led 31-30 with 13 minutes to play. Its next two possessions ended in a safety and a blocked field goal, and the Tigers rolled to a 47-31 win. Clemson has improved its turnover frequency, forcing 23 through nine games as opposed to 16 a year ago.

    For an offense that holds onto the ball as long as Tech does, there is nothing worse than an empty possession. It’s demoralizing to lose the ball, especially to an offense that can score as fast as Clemson can with Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins. The pair has hooked up for two of the 12 90-yard plays in the FBS this season.

     

Georgia Tech Keys to Victory

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    Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee is a dual offensive threat.
    Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee is a dual offensive threat.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Control the ball

    Through nine games, Georgia Tech’s offense has nine touchdown drives of 80-plus yards; Tech opponents have two. The Jackets have nine touchdown drives of five-plus minutes; opponents have two. It is no coincidence that Tech holds the ball for an average of 33:55 per game, fourth-best in the FBS.

    Clemson’s offense holds the ball for only 28:42, fourth-lowest in the ACC. The Jackets must take advantage of their opportunities with the ball and cash in scores whenever they get the chance. They are converting 87.5 percent of their red-zone possessions into scores, fourth-best in the ACC.

     

    Make an impact through the air

    Quarterback Vad Lee averages only 111.8 yards per game through the air, but when he connects, he makes a difference. He has seven completions of 40-plus yards. Opponents are so focused on stopping Tech’s option that its receivers often have one-on-one coverage. Clemson has allowed six pass plays of at least 50 yards this season, so its secondary is vulnerable to the big pass.

     

    Contain Sammy Watkins

    Clemson’s star junior receiver has re-established himself as one of the ACC and the nation’s top receiving threats following a down 2012 season. He has consecutive 160-yard receiving games, rolling up 332 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 22 receptions over Clemson’s last two games. If he and Tajh Boyd connect for big plays, Tech could be in for a long night in Death Valley.

     

Clemson Players to Watch

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    Tajh Boyd needs a big game against Georgia Tech Thursday night.
    Tajh Boyd needs a big game against Georgia Tech Thursday night.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Senior QB Tajh Boyd

    Two years ago, Boyd played poorly at Georgia Tech, throwing for 295 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in a loss that ruined Clemson’s 8-0 season and led disgruntled followers to egg his front door. Last year, Boyd threw two more picks against Tech, but threw for 367 yards and two touchdowns in a 47-31 win. Following a bye week, the senior star is coming off one of his best games of the season, throwing for 377 yards, three touchdowns and an interception in less than three quarters at Virginia. He’ll need to be careful with the ball again this week:  Standout Tech corner Jemea Thomas has eight career interceptions.

     

    Junior WR Sammy Watkins

    Watkins is playing like one of the best wide receivers in America, with 66 receptions for 982 yards and seven touchdowns through nine games. He was particularly impressive in Clemson’s wins at Maryland and Virginia, making 22 receptions for 332 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Watkins should get attention from Jemea Thomas, and if he can get past Thomas for big gains, it bodes well for Clemson’s chances.

     

    Senior LB Spencer Shuey

    Shuey broke into Clemson’s starting lineup last season after spelling starting middle linebacker Stephone Anthony and planting Orwin Smith for a fourth-quarter safety that turned the tide in Clemson’s 47-31 win. He has moved to “Will” linebacker this season but has been all over the field with 83 tackles, second on Clemson’s roster. Clemson will need another big game from him against Tech’s flexbone offense.

     

Georgia Tech Players to Watch

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    Georgia Tech end Jeremiah Attaochu is one of the ACC's top pass rushers.
    Georgia Tech end Jeremiah Attaochu is one of the ACC's top pass rushers.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Sophomore QB Vad Lee

    Like all quarterbacks in Paul Johnson’s offense, Lee is a dual threat who can move the ball passing and running. He averages 111.8 yards passing per game but has six passes of 40-plus yards, with eight touchdowns against six interceptions. In addition, he averages 43.8 yards rushing per game with six rushing scores. He is already fifth among Tech quarterbacks all-time in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Clemson must respect his presence in the option game.

     

    Senior DE Jeremiah Attaochu

    Attaochu is a prolific pass rusher. His 25 career sacks rank fourth among current FBS players and fourth on Tech’s all-time sack list. He has thrived after making an offseason transition from linebacker to end, and he’ll be a handful for Clemson All-ACC senior left tackle Brandon Thomas.

     

    Senior CB Jemea Thomas

    Thomas has eight career interceptions, and their timing is remarkable. Seven of Thomas’ eight picks have come in the fourth quarter, including four in which Tech led by two touchdowns or less. Two years ago in Atlanta, he picked off Tajh Boyd twice in the fourth quarter of a 31-17 win that ruined Clemson’s 8-0 start.

What They Are Saying

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    Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is only 2-4 against Georgia Tech as a head coach.
    Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is only 2-4 against Georgia Tech as a head coach.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

     

    “It matters big-time how we play, how we finish. This is when people really separate, in November. Everyone jockeys in September and October for good position. We’ve competed very consistently. Not many teams have started in the Top 10 and stayed in the Top 10. Our team hung in there and we’ve had a really good season to this point. We’re going to be judged on how we finish. That’s what November is about, putting our best foot forward.” – Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, on finishing strong and pushing for a Bowl Championship Series berth.

    “The scouting report stays the same with them year to year with what they do and why they do it. They make it tough. It’s different than what you see (on a weekly basis). Hopefully extra time and preparation gets us better fundamentally, because it still comes down to us being physical and executing and staying on your feet, putting your eyes where they belong and playing responsible football.” – Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, on the unique challenge of preparing for Georgia Tech’s option game.

    "I think sometimes we make too much out of a first-year system, or this system or that system. Basically what we're doing defensively we did the last six games of last year anyway. I think the terminology and communication with each other playing helps some, but it's not like we're doing a whole lot of different things than we did a year ago. It might be a wee bit simpler, and they've played a lot more. We've got several guys on defense who've played a lot of snaps now, and when there's six or seven seniors, those guys have all been playing for three or four years.” – Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, on his team’s defensive improvement under new coordinator Ted Roof.

     

Prediction

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    Clemson has too many big-play athletes for Georgia Tech to pull an upset.
    Clemson has too many big-play athletes for Georgia Tech to pull an upset.Tyler Smith/Getty Images

    Clemson and Georgia Tech are cross-division rivals, but they’ve developed quite a rivalry while separated by 120 miles of Interstate 85. The Yellow Jackets beat Clemson in a 39-34 shootout for the 2009 ACC title and ruined the Tigers’ 8-0 season at Grant Field two years later. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is just 2-4 against Tech coach Paul Johnson and the flexbone option offense. Tech has developed a stingy defense under first-year defensive coordinator Ted Roof, but the Tigers’ offense is humming, averaging 39.8 points per game. Clemson can’t win an ACC title this fall, but with three more wins, it should clinch a BCS bowl berth. Expect Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins to connect for a big play or two which will be the difference in a tight game. Clemson 34, Georgia Tech 24.