CLEMSON — Monday morning, we reporters got an immediate idea what this week would be like from the mouth of Chad Morris.
Clemson’s second-year offensive coordinator was asked to break down Furman, Saturday’s opponent. He responded with an answer that covered the Paladins’ rich history and tradition, the scare they put into Florida in The Swamp last season, the scare Wofford put into Clemson…. but nothing about the 2012 Paladins.
It isn’t because Morris hasn’t watched game film. He knows what he’ll face Saturday afternoon. He was simply being politically correct: when you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.
No.11 Clemson averaged 39 points and 527 yards of total offense per game in the first two weeks. And that was without star sophomore wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who returns from a two-game suspension.
A week ago, the Tigers put a 52-27 whipping on a Ball State team that was bowl-eligible in 2011. This week, the line is 36 ½ points. Players and coaches can talk up Furman all they want – senior center Dalton Freeman said the Paladins “gave Samford a run for their money,” which you can take how you will – but this week is a glorified warmup for next week’s likely top-10 showdown of ACC Atlantic Division powers at Florida State.
Here are five things to watch when the Paladins visit Death Valley:
1. Sammy’s back: Watkins’ return will be the unquestioned highlight of the day – the returning first-team All-American and reigning national freshman of the year is a threat to score whenever he touches the ball. Quarterback Tajh Boyd said his favorite target has improved from 2011, a frightening thought for opposing cornerbacks. Sophomores Charone Peake and Adam Humphries filled in capably in Watkins’ spot, and Peake now returns to backing up junior DeAndre Hopkins, who has 19 receptions for 224 yards and four touchdowns in two games. With Watkins back in the fold, the receiver group will be deeper and an already explosive offense will be that much better.
He is expected to be involved early and often, and one would think he'd be itching to touch the ball and make something big happen following two weeks on the sideline.
2. Can they stop the run: Entering the season, a young defensive line was a concern, given that senior end Malliciah Goodman was the only upperclassman on the roster. The youngsters have had their moments, but Clemson is allowing 216 yards rushing per game, 98th-best nationally. Those we talked with this week seem to think it’s a matter which can easily be corrected with better fitting to gaps and small adjustments, but that number remains a concern. Furman Jerodis Williams has over 2,000 career rushing yards, but if he goes wild on this line, the worry will only intensify heading to Tallahassee.
3. Will they be focused?: Dabo Swinney talks about playing a “faceless, nameless opponent” and has repeatedly discussed “playing to a standard” and his team’s “formula for success.” They’re residue from the Kevin Steele era, and cliché-ish, but they do somewhat ring true this week. With eight consecutive ACC games following this week, Furman is the last major motivational hurdle for the Tigers’ coaching staff.
They passed the test last week, rolling to a 45-10 halftime lead over Ball State. If they can keep this group motivated for a Furman team coming off losses to Samford and Coastal Carolina, even Tony Robbins would be impressed.
4. Youth gone wild: Assuming this game unfolds like we all expect it to, the bench will be cleared quickly, giving young players a valuable chance to develop and show off their skills. Swinney was happy to give youth opportunity against Ball State, but not so happy with what they did with it – the Cardinals outscored Clemson 17-7 after halftime. He said early-season games like these walk a fine line between success and keeping players healthy. At some point, though, some of the youth will be counted upon this season. Giving them a positive experience to build on is important.
5. Staying healthy: Starting sophomore left guard David Beasley (knee) and starting senior “Will” linebacker Tig Willard (shoulder) are questionable for Furman with injuries suffered against Ball State. With trips to Florida State and Boston College up next, the Tigers can’t afford injuries to major cogs. Assuming Clemson builds a big lead, expect Swinney to substitute liberally. A Cole Stoudt mistake up 30 points is much more palatable than Boyd watching from the sidelines in Doak Campbell Stadium.