NCAAF Team Report - Clemson - INSIDE SLANT
As Clemson prepares to embark on the final third of its schedule, it does so with guarded optimism. The Tigers remain highly ranked -- eighth in the latest BCS standings -- but their hopes for an Atlantic Coast Conference title become dimmer with each impressive victory by Florida State.
The Tigers (7-1, 5-1) are in good shape for a strong finish, but they are well aware that the unbeaten Seminoles are in the driver's seat heading into the season's home stretch.
Adding to the Tigers' frustration is the fact that they've been plagued by turnovers of late. Clemson committed just two turnovers in its first four games, but has 11 turnovers in the four games since.
It's an issue the Tigers hope to get corrected by the time they play at Virginia (2-6, 0-4) on Saturday. Turnovers, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, can be catching.
"My experience has been that it gets contagious," Swinney said. "It's like a virus. It kind of has to run its course."
While turnovers have become an issue, the Tigers answered questions about their rushing attack last week as Roderick McDowell rushed for 161 yards to key a ground game that amassed a season-high 236 yards.
An effective ground game is imperative to the Tigers' passing success, taking pressure off quarterback Tajh Boyd and allowing him to capitalize on mismatches in the secondary created by playmaker Sammy Watkins and company.
Boyd and the Tigers' offensive success is predicated on an up-tempo pace, and that promises to keep the statisticians busy this week in Charlottesville, Va. Clemson ranks fifth nationally with 84.3 snaps per game, while Virginia is seventh with 83.6 snaps per game.
"They play fast, they throw it around a lot," Swinney said. "Their record is not what they'd like it to be, but they're not far away. They've played the toughest schedule in the country, and they're a talented team."
The Tigers will have an open date after facing the Cavaliers, then get ready for a Thursday-night game against Georgia Tech.
"It's the same old deal -- this week is our biggest game of the year," Swinney said. "We're looking forward to an open date and getting some guys healed up, but we have a big challenge in front of us.
"Hopefully we'll play our best football in November. That's when you want to be playing your best because everybody's jockeying for position. If you can play some good football in November, you have a chance to separate and have a really good season."
NCAAF Team Report - Clemson - NOTES, QUOTES
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
--RB Roderick "Hot Rod" McDowell is coming off career highs with 30 carries for 161 yards at Maryland and may be coming into his own in his first season as a starter. It was his first 100-yard game since the season opener, but more big games could be in his future as he's intent on giving Clemson a 1,000-yard rusher for a third consecutive year for the first time in school history. "It makes me hungry, it makes me want to leave a legacy of being an elite running back here," McDowell said. McDowell has 607 yards this season, but he could take another big step toward 1,000 against a Virginia run defense that surrenders a league-high 4.6 yards per attempt.
--CB Bashaud Breeland sat out the first half of last week's game at Maryland courtesy of a "targeting" penalty the previous week. Apparently, the purgatory only served as inspiration, as he came out for the second half and enjoyed a complete game's worth of impact -- a team-high seven tackles, a forced fumble and a pass broken up. The junior's play has been a big reason for the improvement shown by the Tigers' secondary this fall. "He's playing with a lot of confidence," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "He's playing physical, playing with more poise, and that makes a huge difference. It speaks for itself."
--TE Jordan Leggett may be the most athletically gifted player on the Clemson roster, as evidenced by his leaping, twisting five-yard touchdown reception last week at Maryland. Now if he could just overcome his self-professed laziness, he might have more of an impact. "I've always been lazy -- that's just me," Leggett said. "When it's game time I can flip the switch and help the team." Lazy or not, Leggett got the first start of his career last week and played a career-high 30 snaps. "You're going to see Jordan more," offensive coordinator Chad Morris said.
--Clemson QB Tajh Boyd on Tuesday was named one of 16 finalists for the Maxwell Award, while DE Vic Beasley was named one of 16 finalists for the Chuck Bednarik Award. Boyd, a senior who is Clemson's career leader in passing yardage and passing touchdowns, enters Saturday's game at Virginia just one touchdown shy of breaking the all-time ACC touchdown responsibility record (112) held by former N.C. State star Philip Rivers. Beasley, a junior, is tied for the national lead in sacks (10) and ranks second in tackles for loss (15).
SERIES HISTORY: Clemson leads the series, 37-8-1; Clemson won the first 29 games of the series, but the teams have split their last 10 meetings dating back to 1997.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I felt like a little kid and jumped up and told myself to act like I'd been there before. But then I was like, 'Hold up -- I haven't been here before.'" -- Clemson RB Roderick "Hot Rod" McDowell on scoring his first touchdown of the season last week at Maryland.
NCAAF Team Report - Clemson - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Scouting the running game: Senior Roderick "Hot Rod" McDowell certainly got untracked in the Tigers' 40-27 win at Maryland last week, rambling for a career-high 161 yards on 30 carries. His late-season surge could continue against Virginia, which ranks among the worst rushing defenses in the ACC. Clemson's offensive line appeared to get stronger as the game wore on, proving dominant in the fourth quarter at Maryland. It's a trend that coaches would love to see continue. "We're going to run the football," offensive coordinator Chad Morris said.
Scouting the passing game: Clemson's aerial attack got back on track last week at Maryland. QB Tajh Boyd bounced back in a big way, throwing for 304 yards to notch the 15th 300-yard game of his career. Junior WR Sammy Watkins caught a school-record 14 passes for 163 yards and now has four 100-yard games in his last five. Martavis Bryant showed up with four receptions for a career-high 88 yards and a score. The Tigers have so many weapons in the passing game that it may be difficult for Virginia to cover everyone adequately.
Scouting the run defense: Maryland's rushing attack was depleted by injury last week, but Clemson took no prisoners, holding the Terrapins to 82 yards on the ground. Led by a formidable front seven, the Tigers' run defense continues to show vast improvement. The parts along the frontline continue to be interchangeable, as evidenced by sophomore D.J. Reader getting his first start last week. The anchor in the middle is Grady Jarrett, but he has had plenty of talented company of late in the form of Josh Watson, DeShawn Williams and Roderick Byers. "We have experience and depth there now and that goes a long way," coach Dabo Swinney said.
Scouting the pass defense: Virginia QB David Watford played at Tajh Boyd's rival high school and considers the Clemson quarterback something of a mentor. But Boyd is two years older, and that experience is evident. Watford will be hard pressed to pick apart a Clemson secondary that has grown by leaps and bounds since being infused with young talent and returning a few players from injury. "We have more knowledge and our cornerback play has really improved, and that has allowed us to do more things," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. "We've also gotten pressure on the quarterback, which has helped our secondary. We're still a work in progress, but we're getting better in time for this stretch run."
Scouting the special teams: Chandler Catanzaro is quite a weapon for Clemson, as the senior kicker has made 34 of his last 36 field-goal attempts and is coming off a four-field goal game at Maryland. He also is the current FBS leader in career field goals with 63, so it would be difficult to improve on those numbers. The Tigers also are getting a big special-teams boost from punt returner Adam Humphries. Humphries, the team's second-leading receiver, is averaging 10 yards per punt return. No Clemson player has averaged 10 yards on punt returns for a season since 2010.
--RB Zac Brooks is questionable for the Virginia game after suffering a shoulder injury at Maryland on Oct. 26.
--CB Garry Peters is out with a foot injury suffered on Oct. 16.
--DT Kevin Dodd is out with a toe injury.