NCAAF Team Report - Clemson - INSIDE SLANT
Clemson's season-opening victory against No. 5 Georgia introduced the Tigers as a team with serious national championship aspirations.
Now a September sweep could solidify the Tigers' position among the nation's elite, beginning with Saturday's game against FCS foe South Carolina State. Clemson also tackles N.C. State and Wake Forest in September, and should be heavily favored in both contests.
"We just won the opener, that's all," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We've got a long way to go."
True enough, but toppling Georgia was a big first step, and continued the momentum from last year's 11-2 season that culminated with a victory over LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
"We are light years ahead after one game this year than we were after one game last year," Swinney said. "Last year we were starting over on the offensive line and defensive line, but that team got better and better throughout the year. The challenge for this year's team is to improve the same way."
If they do, Clemson could wind up with a memorable season.
The 38-35 conquest of Georgia showed a lot of positives, with the primary surprise being the debut of running back Roderick "Hot Rod" McDowell, who rushed for 132 yards in the first start of his career.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd was his typical self, tossing three touchdown passes and running for two more, and receiver Sammy Watkins flashed back to his freshman form by catching seven balls for 127 yards.
Keyed by a maturing defensive front, the Tigers' defense also appeared to be improved, forcing five three-and-outs and allowing just two drives longer than eight plays.
But there were a few concerns, including six dropped passes -- a few of which occurred in crucial third-down situations -- a fumbled punt, and the yielding of nine plays that covered 20 or more yards.
Swinney's message to his team this week?
"There's plenty of room for improvement," he said.
Clemson, which became the first non-Southeastern Conference team to win back-to-back games against Top 10 SEC opponents with its win against Georgia, now owns seven victories against Top 25 teams in the last two seasons.
But those impressive numbers and the Tigers' high hopes could be dashed with a letdown against South Carolina State, so Swinney reminded his team that eight FCS schools claimed victories over FBS opponents last week.
"Play with low energy and turn it over and if you aren't dialed in on your execution, you get beat," Swinney said. "Everybody for us is a nameless, faceless opponent. It's about playing to a standard every week. We've got to remember that."
NCAAF Team Report - Clemson - NOTES, QUOTES
PLAYERS TO WATCH
--WR Martavis Bryant is being counted on to replace record-breaking receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who's now with the Houston Texans. Bryant was unimpressive in his first start last week, dropping two passes and catching none of the three aerials sent his way. He has shown flashes of big-play capability -- such as last year when he averaged 30.5 yards on his 10 catches -- but he's got to become more consistent to maintain his starting spot. He'll get a good chance this week against what should be an outmanned S.C. State secondary. "He's going to get better," offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "He's going to be fine. We're not worried about him."
--RB Zac Brooks was impressive in fall camp and it carried over into the first game. Brooks, who's just a sophomore, enjoyed a notable debut, carrying three times for 20 yards and hauling in a highlight-reel 31-yard touchdown pass on a wheel route against Georgia. If starter Roderick McDowell has a big first half, Brooks may get plenty of chances to showcase his skills in this game.
--DE Vic Beasley continued where he left off last season, recording two sacks in the Tigers' opener against Georgia. Beasley is a relentless rusher off the edge, and began showing glimpses of his potential last season when he led the team with eight sacks despite just playing 288 snaps. Expect him to be on the field considerably more in 2013. "He can be disruptive," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
--Sophomore punter Bradley Pinion already is proving to be a valuable weapon for the Tigers. In his first career start, Pinion had seven kickoffs, and all went for touchbacks. As a punter, he had seven punts for a 41.0-yard average. Only one of his punts was returned, for a total of four yards, and he downed three punts inside the 20. The bottom line? On 14 kicks by Pinion on the night, Georgia had a total of just four return yards.
SERIES HISTORY: Clemson leads 1-0, having defeated South Carolina State 54-0 in their only previous meeting during the 2008 season. Clemson has never lost to an FCS opponent in 26 games since the division was created by the NCAA in 1978.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If they're going to announce the Heisman this weekend, then he's got a good shot. I'll go ahead and get my tux for New York." -- Clemson coach Dabo Swinney when informed that quarterback Tajh Boyd was leading a straw poll among Heisman voters after Week 1.
NCAAF Team Report - Clemson - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Led by first-time starter Roderick McDowell, Clemson amassed 197 yards on the ground against Georgia, so one would expect the yards to be easy to come by against FCS opponent South Carolina State this week. McDowell showed a shiftiness reminiscent of former standout Andre Ellington and he appeared to be hungry after spending his first three seasons mired on the bench behind a trio of great backs. McDowell's back-up, sophomore Zac Brooks, was impressive in his debut as well, so the visiting Bulldogs may be in for a 1-2 punch out of the Clemson backfield.
Scouting the passing game: Despite his receivers dropping six passes, senior quarterback Tajh Boyd still threw for 270 yards and three touchdowns in the win against Georgia. His numbers may not go up considerably this week because he may only play for the first half, but his efficiency certainly should. Expect Clemson's "famous family" back-up tandem of Cole Stoudt (son of former NFL quarterback Cliff) and Chad Kelly (nephew of former NFL quarterback Jim) to see their first action of the season. Whoever is delivering the ball, expect plenty of passes to be directed toward Martavis Bryant, who's a rangy, talented target in need of a momentum boost. This game should provide it.
Scouting the run defense: Although Georgia's Todd Gurley had 154 yards against Clemson, the Tigers' run defense wasn't that bad. More than half (112) of the Bulldogs' rushing yards (222) came on two runs, and the Tigers really clamped down in the second half, allowing just 81 yards on the ground after halftime. Clemson's rapidly improving front line of Grady Jarrett, Carlos Watkins and Josh Watson form a disruptive trio and the Tigers' linebackers are becoming more confident in their abilities and comfortable in the system employed by second-year defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who's a linebacker guru. S.C. State should find yardage on the ground hard to come by.
Scouting the pass defense: The secondary surrendered several big plays against Georgia, but that might be expected when facing one of the nation's premier quarterbacks in Aaron Murray. By the same token, the secondary appeared considerably more comfortable than it did a year ago, perhaps due to the return of Martin Jenkins, Garry Peters and Darius Robinson, all of whom were injured for multiple games last season. The stabilizing forces in the secondary are safety Travis Blanks and corner Bashaud Breeland, both of whom could be emerging stars.
Scouting the special teams: It'd be hard to show much improvement on special teams, but the Tigers could pull it off against S.C. State. Punter Bradley Pinion averaged 41 yards per punt and booted all seven of his kickoffs for touchbacks last week while placekicker Chandler Catanzaro -- a preseason All-ACC selection -- converted his only field goal attempt. The only miscue last week was a mishandled punt by Sammy Watkins, who was replaced by the sure-handed Adam Humphries late in the game.
--RB Tyshon Dye is out with back pain. The freshman is not expected back for another four or five weeks and is likely to be redshirted.
--OL Joe Gore (knee) and DT Scott Pagano (ankle) are both out for the S.C. State game.
--DB Mackensie Alexander is questionable with a groin injury.
--TE Sam Cooper (knee) and TE Jordan Leggett (knee) are questionable, but Swinney expects both to play Saturday.
--DB Jayron Kearse and DB Martin Jenkins are both questionable with shoulder injuries.
--QB Chad Kelly, who suffered a torn ACL in the spring, is ready and could see playing time Saturday.