CHESTNUT HILL, MA. – A trip which gives Clemson fans heartburn – clam chowder notwithstanding – got a bit dicier around 6 p.m. Thursday night.
Clemson officials made the surprising announcement that star sophomore wide receiver Sammy Watkins would not be traveling to Boston for the No.17 Tigers’ 3:30 p.m. Saturday game with Boston College due to a lingering abdominal virus.
His absence, coupled with that of fellow sophomore receiver Martavis Bryant, robs the offense of two talented deep threats and raises reasons for concern, given that Clemson has only one win in Alumni Stadium since the Eagles joined the ACC in 2005; the Tigers dropped from 10 to seven-point favorites Thursday.
Here are five things I’ll be watching for when Clemson and BC meet in an Atlantic Division showdown.
1. Can they survive without Sammy?: This is one area the offense has practice in. Watkins’ two-game season-opening suspension forced Chad Morris and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott to adapt, which led to junior DeAndre Hopkins taking a much bigger role. Hopkins set a program single-game record with 13 catches against Auburn and rolled up 22 catches for 224 yards and four scores in Watkins’ absence.
Sophomores and former Dorman teammates Charone Peake and Adam Humphries also impressed, combining for 19 catches in the two games. Despite the insistence that they’d be more involved going forward, Watkins’ return pushed them into the background. Neither was a factor at Florida State as Morris chose trusted hands over preventing fatigue. Both will need to make significant impacts, as will steady senior Jaron Brown. But no one can replace the explosive, multi-faceted impact that Watkins gives the offense.
2. Will the pass rush show up?: Clemson has only four sacks through four games, which ranks ninth in the ACC. Only two of them have come from defensive linemen – one apiece from sophomore defensive end Vic Beasley and sophomore defensive tackle DeShawn Williams. Senior end Malliciah Goodman, expected to helm a young defensive line, has been missing in action: at Florida State, he was often swallowed up by blockers and made no impact. Goodman and his younger cohorts must pressure Boston College junior quarterback Chase Rettig, who leads the league with 317 yards passing per game.
3. Will the cornerbacks rebound?: Clemson’s secondary wasn’t the only reason the defense allowed 667 total yards to Florida State, but it sure didn’t help. Junior cornerback Darius Robinson was repeatedly torched by E.J. Manuel and FSU receivers, and sophomore Bashaud Breeland also struggled at times. Versatile senior Xavier Brewer finished the game at corner, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him log significant action there Saturday. There are no quick fixes – sophomore Martin Jenkins’ season-ending groin injury has sapped depth – but smarter technical play, like turning heads to look for the ball, could help immensely against Rettig and a quick-tempo offense.
4. Shut the screen door: Boston College loves to throw quick-out screen passes, which could be a major red flag. Florida State repeatedly sucked in linebackers with play-action, only to dump to jitterbug-quick tailback Chris Thompson for big gains. Game film study – and the fact that Thompson is playing in Tampa this weekend – will help, but the Tigers’ linebackers simply must be more disciplined and smarter. When they have a chance to make a tackle, they need to take advantage, something that repeatedly didn’t happen in Tallahassee.
5. Will they have focus?: Clemson’s first top-10 showdown since 2000 was a season-shaping game in many ways; now, the Tigers must run the ACC table and hope Florida State slips up twice to have any shot at their second consecutive league championship. If FSU runs the table, a BCS bid isn’t out of the question, however; the season is far from over, a point junior quarterback Tajh Boyd stressed to teammates in a Monday players-only meeting.
First, the Tigers must show they’ve forgotten about the Doak Campbell meltdown that took them from a 28-14 third-quarter lead to a 49-31 fourth-quarter deficit in lightning-quick fashion which saw all three phases share culpability.
This program has let disappointment linger in the past, but that can’t happen if this team is serious about making 2012 a season worth remembering.