CLEMSON — By the time toe meets leather, they’ll know.
Clemson enters Saturday with a slim shot at its second consecutive ACC Atlantic Division title and another trip to the ACC title game. All the Tigers have to do is beat N.C. State and hope against hope that 31-point underdog Maryland –a team Clemson whipped 45-10 last week – can upset Florida State.
The Terrapins and Seminoles kick off at noon. With Clemson-N.C. State set for 3:30 p.m., the Tigers will take the field knowing exactly what they’re playing for.
Chances are, they’ll be playing to extend their shot at an at-large BCS bid and a potential Sugar Bowl trip, not squeezing oranges. That said, there are plenty of interesting storylines in Clemson-State, starting with the quarterbacks. How well both lines protect Tajh Boyd and Mike Glennon – and how much damage they can do to the respective secondaries – will go a long way towards deciding which team walks off early Saturday evening with its head held high and in possession of the Textile Bowl traveling trophy. Here are five things I’ll be watching Saturday:
1. How will Clemson protect Tajh Boyd?: A year ago, Boyd was sacked six times behind a beat-up offensive line missing senior left tackle Phillip Price, who was never the same after injuring his knee against Wake Forest. This season’s line has been improved, allowing 20 sacks in 10 games, including none last week against a powerful Maryland defensive line. The Wolfpack lead the ACC in sacks, with 30 – four players have at least 3.5 sacks. Junior left tackle Brandon Thomas has been more than solid in his first full season at the position, and he’ll need another strong effort Saturday to keep Boyd’s jersey clean.
2. Turnover trouble: Last year’s game spiraled out of control quicker than the news-team brawl in “Anchorman” thanks to a pair of Clemson turnovers inside its own 20. The Tigers led 3-0 after one quarter, but looked up shell-shocked at a 27-3 halftime deficit. Clemson had committed just eight turnovers through its first eight games, but that old bugaboo is rearing its ugly head again: over the last two games, the Tigers have committed seven turnovers. An improved defense has helped: when Maryland converted an Adam Humphries muffed punt into a touchdown last week, it marked the first time in 10 turnovers that a Clemson opponent had converted for points. We’re entering the season of giving, but such generosity, if continued, could kill hopes of a special season.
3. How will Clemson’s secondary handle Mike Glennon?: A beat-up secondary playing without key corners Martin Jenkins and Darius Robinson has been largely solid over the last five weeks. Since allowing 380 and 369 passing yards back-to-back to Florida State and Boston College, Clemson hasn’t allowed more than 257, and that was to Duke’s potent spread offense. Maryland’s 41 passing yards last week was a season-low, but also an anomaly, given the Terrapins’ quarterback, converted linebacker Shawn Petty. Glennon ranks second in the ACC in passing yards per game (291) and touchdowns (22), trailing Boyd in both categories. He has a pair of 400-yard passing games and is a true pocket passer. An improving defensive line needs to pressure Glennon and keep him off-balance, taking some pressure off the secondary.
4. Will Clemson test David Amerson?: Amerson was perhaps college football’s best cornerback a year ago, with an NCAA-best 13 interceptions. He has taken a step or two back this fall, and enters this week with only four picks. Part of that is opponents throwing away from his side of the field, and part of that is poor technique which has burned him for several long touchdowns. State will be like most teams Clemson has faced this season, using largely man coverage and daring Boyd to test its secondary. At some point, Amerson will be challenged: we’ll see how he responds.
5. Will the Tigers be focused?: This week, Dabo Swinney responded to a question about potential complacency by responding, “If it’s going to happen, it better happen soon.” His point? Clemson has shown consistent focus against inferior competition: N.C. State is only the fourth opponent who is currently bowl-eligible. Over the last three weeks, the Tigers have belted Wake Forest, Duke and Maryland by an average of 33.3 points. With a BCS bid and the opportunity to share the Atlantic Division title on the line, this group will have every reason to be invested against the Wolfpack.