CLEMSON – One by one, they knew it was coming.
Starting early in the week, Clemson coaches and players fielded question after question about next week’s primetime showdown with No. 6 Florida State – and if it will be a distraction come Saturday.
And one by one, they answered via cliché: “one game at a time,” “next-game mentality” and some even said they weren’t sure who they played next week with the 3:30 home kickoff with Boston College (3-2, 1-1 ACC) on their mind.
The No. 3 Tigers’ quarterback didn’t go quite that far.
“Naturally everybody wants to talk about the Florida State game. Just being honest with you,” Tajh Boyd said, who carved up B.C. for 367 passing yards and three touchdowns last season. “But again, you have to remind them that another game is coming before that one. If you don’t take care of business in this game, it won’t even matter when you get to that game.”
What is on the docket in the divisional matchup? Definitely a clash in speed of the game.
Boston College ranks No. 120 out of 123 schools in offensive plays per game (61.4), while the Tigers (5-0, 3-0) pace the ACC and are No. 12 nationally (81.6 per).
“I’m sure they would love to be able to slow the game down and take some of the air out of it and work the clock…Keep us off the field,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’ve got to do a good job when we get the ball to maximize our opportunities and defensively get off the field.
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“Addazio’s got them going with great energy and confidence. We’ll see a little different group than we saw last year.”
That energy from the head coach down is certainly a change in Chestnut Hill under Steve Addazio, and while his team enters as a heavy underdog, he isn’t planning to just hang around.
“Our goal is not to stay in it. Our goal is to win it,” he said. “But what we need to do is we need to play the field position game. We need to control the ball. We need to get off the field on defense. This team is so explosive, Clemson. You guys know that. That's no great mystery.
“When the plays are able to be made, we've got to make those plays and play a very physical football game. We're not going to try to play a fast-paced game. We're going to try to play our game.”
Their game – offensively at least – has centered on three Eagles, all seniors.
Starting quarterback Chase Rettig has thrown every pass, while top receiver Alex Amidon makes up 45 percent of the receptions (32) and 48 percent of the yards (426). Rettig hands it off to the nation’s leading rusher, Andre Williams (768 yards), who’s posted 183 yards per game at Alumni Stadium this fall (four games) and has 35 more rush attempts than anybody else in the ACC.
Rettig commands an Eagles attack that’s caught fire the last two weeks, versus Florida State and Army.
He’s completed 31-of-42 passes for 400 yards and five touchdowns in the stretch, while Williams bested that with 48 carries for 412 yards – averaging a stunning 8.6 yards per carry.
That kind of success has raised some eyebrows in TigerTown this week, after surrendering 323 ground yards to Syracuse and over 200 earlier this season to Georgia. Much of the damage has come in big plays, giving up 10 of 20-plus yards and three of over 50.
Swinney says the problems are fixable though.
“The mistakes that we have made are very correctable,” he said. “On defense when you make a critical mistake then you usually pay for it. You have to give the other team credit for taking advantage of our mistakes. It is not a major concern right now.”
Williams was held to only 2.8 yards per carry and a score against the Tigers last season, but Amidon, however, lit up the Clemson secondary with eight catches for 193 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-31 losing effort.
“We didn’t play too good on the back end of that game,” junior Tigers cornerback Bashaud Breeland said. “We let a lot of plays get away from us and our eyes were in bad places. We let receivers get behind us a lot. It really wasn’t a good game as a secondary unit.”
Tigers can't look ahead
With the nation’s leading QB sack outfit in front of them, the Clemson secondary has shown marked improvement through five games, with a top-20 pass defense (17), and in turn, a top-20 scoring ‘D’ (16).
Under new DBs coach Mike Reed, the unit has accounted for seven picks, which has extended the Tigers’ streak to eight consecutive games with at least one interception. Breeland, who grabbed his second pick of the year in acrobatic fashion at Syracuse, says the hands-on teaching of Reed is making a difference.
“He came in and has really changed the culture in this secondary,” said Breeland. “His coaching techniques and drills that he do really help us play our game. He has the mentality that he won’t make us doing anything that he can’t do. You see a coach doing (a drill) and you’re like, ‘I can’t let my coach out do me.’”
The O’Rourke-McFadden Trophy is on the line Saturday, which Clemson has held four of its five years of existence. The Tigers have won by 20 points per game the last two meetings in Death Valley, after Boston College won the first two in Clemson as an ACC member. The series stretches back to the 1940 Cotton Bowl, where Clemson’s Banks McFadden and B.C.’s Charlie O’Rourke met as players in a 6-3 Tigers win.
The Tigers have reached 6-0 nine times in school history, but they are aiming for a mark they have reached only three times in the post-1981 era.