Tuesday, October 15, 2013

5 Keys for a Win against FSU

At some point Saturday afternoon, the lights will come on at Death Valley and Clemson will be aglow with anticipation as the college football universe tunes in to watch the ACC’s version of the game of the century. Very rarely does a midseason game of this magnitude come to fruition, especially when it involves two ACC teams. For the first time in a while, both Clemson and Florida State have dreams of a bigger prize than a trip to the ACC Championship game, but unfortunately, after Saturday night, one of these two teams will play peanut gallery to the other.

If Clemson wants to be the cheeree rather than the cheerer, here are five things they need to do better than Florida State:

Stay Ahead of the Chains
Both Clemson and Florida State are excellent on 3rd down. Offensively, FSU ranks 12th in 3rd down conversion percentage while Clemson is 49th. Conversely, Clemson is 1st in 3rd down defensive conversion percentage while FSU is 16th. But what makes both teams so successful on third downs is not so much scheme, but down and distance.

Clemson’s offense converts 3rd downs at about a 44% rate, though that percentage has been hindered by Clemson’s last two performances. But what that number doesn’t show is typical yards to go for each situation. When Clemson converts a 3rd down, they average just over 4 yards to go; however, when they fail to convert a 3rd down, their average is over 7 yards to go. The Clemson offense must avoid the negative plays to keep themselves on the right side of the sticks.

For the season, Clemson's defense is successful in forcing a 4th down over 70% of the time. The main reason: their play on 1st and 2nd down. Opponents who convert third downs do so with an average of just over 6 yards to go compared to the over 9 yards for opponents who fail to convert a third down.

Additionally, Clemson leads the nation in sacks per game allowing Clemson's pass rush to become the defense's biggest advantage. Not only has it allowed Clemson to rush fewer players, but it also allows Venables to send focused blitzes with the linebackers and/or secondary. We've seen Anthony and Steward both get strip-sacks recovered by the defense. The last one even resulted in a Vic Beasley TD.

And while the pass rush is Clemson's greatest strength, it can be somewhat negated by teams with a true run/pass option. An example is the fact that over half of Clemson’s sacks have come on 3rd down situations.

For Clemson to have a chance, they need to allow their D-line to pin their ears and go after Winston. Hopefully the consistent pressure will eventually force him into a mistake - one that Clemson can cash in for easy points.

Stay Committed to the Run
One way the Clemson offense controlled the Georgia game was by mixing in the run. In that game Clemson rushed for nearly 200 yards, including 132 from Hot Rod. Since then, the overall rushing numbers have been decent, but much of that has occurred in mop up duty.

Against Florida State, their talented defensive line will put pressure on Tajh Boyd, much like Boston College did, and the best way to slow their rush is to keep them honest with run.

Last year, we saw Clemson somewhat abandon the run in losses to Florida State and South Carolina. There was a sense of panic and need to move the ball downfield with the pass, but when the defense knows you’re in passing mode, it's hard to effectively block every rusher.

Also, the Florida State offense will challenge the Clemson defense like they have not been challenged this year, and there may be times when the Clemson offense needs to slow down a bit to provide the defense some rest. Running the ball is the most effective way to give your defense a breather.

This year, McDowell needs to find the form he had against Georgia, and both Brooks and Davidson need to be willing to pick up the extra yard (while maintaining ball security).

Clemson's best chance to win is to approach the 200 yard mark, keep the chains moving, and wait for the big play to pop.

Nothing Cheap
This season, Clemson is only giving up an average of 16 points per game. While it is unrealistic to hold Florida State to under 20, Clemson needs to at least force Florida State to work for their points.

Unfortunately, the big play remains Clemson's Achilles heel. On the season, Clemson has given up 8 20+ yard touchdown plays and 5 50+ yard touchdown plays. The long scores have occurred in every game minus Wake Forest, including two long TD’s in each of the last two games. What's scary is that outside of a healthy Todd Gurley, Florida State is the most explosive team that Clemson has faced.

While points won’t be at a premium in this game, the teams are too evenly matched for one team to overcome too large of a deficit. As we saw in the 3rd down stats, Clemson is at its best when forcing teams to convert 3rd downs. If Clemson can make Florida State drive the field, the Clemson pass rush will eventually get to Winston or he will make a mistake.

But one thing Clemson can't do is give up the big play(s).

Win Special Teams
Last year Florida State used the return game to setup short fields and answer Clemson points. They averaged nearly 40 yards per return and constantly pressured the Clemson defense.

This Florida State team boasts the ability to have a repeat performance. Unfortunately, the Clemson special teams unit doesn’t look to be all that better. Already this year we've seen a muffed punt, missed short field goal, bad hold, and 40+ yard return against Clemson. But more than that, Clemson hasn’t been able to punish other teams on special teams. Clemson has not seen a big play since Watkins' freshman year. To combat the Florida State offense, Clemson could use a big play to flip the field and give their offense better scoring opportunities.

On the flipside, one of those completely random stats show Clemson has yet to see an opponent make a field goal this season (two misses and a botched snap).

In games like this, special teams can mean the difference between playing in the Sugar Bowl and playing in Pasadena.

Stay Focused
I am the father of two little blonde girls who on any given day could accomplish the world. If they believe it, they can achieve it. However, on any given day these two girls can completely leave reality and enter their own dream world filled with unicorns and candy. To me, this is the Clemson offense.

The Clemson can accomplish anything they set their minds to, but it seems every game they leave reality and enter a dream world where they can just dream of success and it will come. Unfortunately for the Clemson offense (and my girls), you can’t just dream success, you must pursue it. For Clemson to beat Florida State, the offense must continually pursue success.

For instance, in the last two games the Clemson offense has had streaks of at least six straight possessions without points. Against Syracuse, Clemson was nearly flawless in jumping out to a 35-7 lead; however, following that last touchdown, the offense quit trying to pursue success, but just dream it. The result was an offense that produced three punts, two interceptions, and a turnover on downs. Those six possessions combined to include just two first downs and 50 yards of total offense.

Similarly, the Clemson offense started the Boston College game with six straight empty possessions. This time, the damage included two fumbles, a missed field goal, botched snap, turnover on downs, and a punt.

In both cases, Clemson was fortunate to only allow a touchdown. Against Florida State, that level of offensive ineptitude could result in Clemson being down by 2-3 scores, or out of the game altogether.

The second half of being focused is for the crowd. Saturday is going to be a long day, beginning with Gameday, and hopefully culminating by gathering at the paw to celebrate. But to be able to keep the team in the game, the crowd needs to stay active. They must make Mr. Winston have difficulty thinking and getting the signals in play. They must cause distraction and intimidation to this young team that has yet to face a raucous environment.

Hopefully Saturday night both the team and the crowd can stay mentally sharp.

As we've said before, we'll say again: Clemson mustn't go 5 for 5 in these keys, but they must win a majority of them. If they do, I think most Clemson fans will be pleased with the results.

If not, Clemson’s best chance at a national championship in 30 years could be gone. And that will be a tough pill to swallow.

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