Boyd is undefeated at Death Valley
CLEMSON — 22 years have passed since Clemson posted back-to-back 10-win seasons, but the Tigers appear well on track to change that this season. At 8-1 entering the regular season’s final three games – all at home – that could happen as early as next week against N.C. State. Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. game against Maryland will be a major step in that direction, as the Tigers are heavy favorites over a beat-up roster.
Clemson last accomplished the feat in 1987-90, the final three seasons of the Danny Ford era and the first year of Ken Hatfield’s ill-fated stint. Dabo Swinney is creating a consistent model that is avoiding letdowns and meltdowns which have haunted the program since Ford’s era ended.
Here are five things I’ll be watching as Clemson takes on the Terrapins for homecoming:
1. How will Maryland move the ball: Maryland has endured a run of injuries that would make Job raise an eyebrow. The Terrapins have lost four quarterbacks to season-ending injuries – three to torn ACLs. Last week, they started freshman Shawn Petty, a converted linebacker, at quarterback. He completed nine of 18 passes for 115 yards and a touchdown, as well as two fumbles and an interception in a 33-13 loss to Georgia Tech, adding 24 yards on 17 carries.
In addition, the Terps will also be without freshman receiver Stefon Diggs and freshman tailback Wes Brown, their leading receiver and rusher.
Last week, Maryland used a heavy diet of option, screen passes and zone read, and the skill players’ absence will likely only exacerbate that game plan. Clemson has struggled in the past against the option and zone read, but the Terps’ skill level is lower than that of, say, Georgia Tech. Over the last three weeks, the Tigers’ defense has steadily improved, and this should be an opportunity to extend that trend.
2. Can DeAndre Hopkins’ record chase continue?: Last week, junior receiver DeAndre Hopkins continued his record-breaking season with four catches for 128 yards and three touchdowns at Duke. He set Clemson single-season and career records for touchdowns (13 and 22, respectively). Now, he’s just 82 yards from becoming the Tigers’ all-time receiving yards leader; he’s 30 yards behind his late uncle, Terry Smith, and 81 yards behind Aaron Kelly. Hopkins is averaging 115.2 receiving yards per game, so there’s an excellent chance he’ll surpass the record at home. And if not this week, then certainly next week against N.C. State or Nov. 24 against South Carolina.
3. Will Maryland keep the pressure on?: Florida State found success against the Tigers’ hurry-up, no-huddle offense by using a steady diet of press man coverage and rushing four. Other teams picked up on the strategy, but they don’t possess the Seminoles’ talent. In the last two weeks, Tajh Boyd has 10 touchdowns against three interceptions while averaging 386 passing yards per game, consistently hitting deep passes. Against Duke, Boyd was 8-for-11 for 285 yards in attempts of 21-plus yards.
Maryland’s defense is one of the best Clemson will play this season, led by senior defensive tackle Joe Vellano; the Terps are 11th nationally in total defense. They’re tied with N.C. State for the ACC lead in sacks, and will bring pressure. Can Boyd solve it and continue to make impact deep plays?
4. Is Andre Ellington healthy? The senior tailback has endured his share of leg injuries, so the level of concern surrounding his hamstring tweak at Duke was understandable. Ellington left after ripping off a 26-yard gain on the game’s first offensive play and didn’t return, although Dabo Swinney said he could have returned if necessary. Ellington has practiced this week and will play Saturday, but hamstring injuries can be notoriously tricky; he’ll be watched closely.
5. Can Clemson keep up the intensity: The Tigers have done a remarkable job of not playing down to lesser opponents this season; their smallest margin of victory came in the opener against Auburn, a 26-19 victory. Since then, the smallest margin was a 45-31 win at Boston College, with four wins of at least 25 points. “Playing to a standard” will be tested against the Terrapins, who were 31-point underdogs even before Diggs and Brown were ruled out. But with a homecoming crowd and school-record home win streak on the line, here’s guessing Swinney will find reasons for motivation.