Football previews: No. 9 Clemson will try to solve offensive woes at NC State
Published 12:00 am Friday, September 24, 2021
By Aaron Beard
AP Sports Writer
Ninth-ranked Clemson hasn’t looked much like the high-scoring juggernaut of recent years. That either has the six-time reigning Atlantic Coast Conference champions as vulnerable as they’ve been in a long time or set to break loose for a big output.
The answer comes Saturday when the Tigers visit North Carolina State, the team picked as Clemson’s top challenger in the league’s Atlantic Division.
“We all know that’s a tough place to play,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “We’re going to have to play our best game and we’re a long way from playing our best game to this point. Hopefully, this will be the week.”
The Tigers (2-1, 1-0 ACC) have sputtered offensively after losing No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Trevor Lawrence at quarterback and two-time ACC player of the year Travis Etienne at running back.
The unit led by quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei failed to reach the end zone in the season-opening loss to No. 2 Georgia, then followed a 49-3 win against South Carolina State by surviving a 14-8 win against Georgia Tech. That’s a total of 17 points against Bowl Subdivision opponents for a team that averaged almost 44 points per game from 2018-20.
N.C. State (2-1) is playing its league opener with a largely veteran squad, though the Wolfpack’s defense has already lost all-ACC linebacker Payton Wilson and starting safety Cyrus Fagan to season-ending injuries. And while it looked sharp in overwhelming South Florida and Furman by a combined score of 90-7, N.C. State blew a chance at a marquee win with a loss at Mississippi State in Week 2.
The offense led by Devin Leary struggled in that game. That unit now faces a defense carrying the load for the Tigers, part of a big opportunity for the Wolfpack and ninth-year coach Dave Doeren.
“Sometimes you get too caught up in comparisons,” Doeren said. “The bottom line is we want to be the best we can be here and to be the best N.C. State possible, we have to go out and not beat us, and play as hard as we can for each other and see where that puts us.”
Some other things to know about Saturday’s Clemson-N.C. State game:
Clemson’s win against Georgia Tech improved Clemson to 53-3 against league opponents dating to the start of the 2015 season.
The Tigers split two games last year with Notre Dame, which gave up its football independence for one season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Otherwise, the Tigers have gone nearly four years since losing to one of the league’s every-year football members (at Syracuse in October 2017 ).
N.C. State has lost eight straight and 15 of 16 meetings, though the Wolfpack has given the Tigers some of their toughest tussles during their reign.
The Tigers had to win a 56-41 shootout in Raleigh in 2015. A year later, the Wolfpack missed a short field goal for the win to end regulation in what turned into an overtime road loss to the eventual national champions.
And in 2017, the Tigers grinded through a 38-31 win in Raleigh.
Clemson’s last loss to N.C. State was 37-13 in 2011 with a top-10 ranking.
The Tigers won the last meeting, cruising 55-10 in Raleigh in November 2019.
Georgia Tech welcomes No. 21 North Carolina to game in NFL stadium
ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia Tech is taking the shortest of road trips for a home game that coach Geoff Collins hopes will provide a boost to recruiting.
A victory would help, too.
In Collins’ third season, the Yellow Jackets (1-2, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) are still seeking the sort of signature win that would signal a true turnaround. They hope to get it Saturday night when they host No. 21 North Carolina at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The 71,000-seat, retractable-roof stadium is best known as the home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Located about a mile from Georgia Tech’s midtown campus, this is the first of six games in six years the Jackets will play at their new home away from home.
“Every guy that we’re going to end up signing in this class and the next class, every single year will play a game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium,” Collins said, already giving his sales pitch. “I’m excited that our guys get to experience that.”
Starting out the season in the Top 10, North Carolina (2-1, 1-1) managed just 10 points while giving up six sacks in an ugly loss at Virginia Tech. For star quarterback Sam Howell, it was the first three-interception game of his career.
But the Tar Heels looked more like the team everyone expected in winning a 59-39 shootout over Virginia last week. They piled up 699 total yards and scored touchdowns on all five of their second-half possessions.
North Carolina coach Mack Brown said it took time to build chemistry as injuries along the offensive line made it even more challenging to replace a pair of 1,000-yard rushers (Javonte Williams and Michael Carter) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Dyami Brown).
He said there’s no chance his team will look past the Yellow Jackets after they nearly pulled off a major upset at Clemson last week, losing 14-8 in a game that went down the final seconds. “Georgia Tech did us a favor,” he said. “Our guys understand Clemson. They know how good their players are … so that ought to wake them up if nothing else.”
WHO’S AT QB?
Jeff Sims, who showed dynamic potential as a freshman last season, was injured in Georgia Tech’s opening game and hasn’t played since. Jordan Yates started the last two weeks, guiding the Yellow Jackets to an easy win over FCS school Kennesaw State before the close call at Clemson. He has completed 65.3 percent of his passes for 592 yards, with five touchdowns and just one interception.
Sims is apparently healthy, but Georgia Tech hasn’t said who will start against the Tar Heels.
Howell has turned in the first two 100-yard rushing performances of his career the past two weeks (102 against Georgia State, 112 against Virginia) while continuing his prolific passing.
Howell is only the fourth Bowl Subdivision quarterback to have consecutive games with 300 yards passing and 100 yards rushing, with the most notable player on that list being Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson of Louisville in 2017.
“I kind of got lucky there that I had back-to-back games,” Howell said. “It’s certainly not something I do every week.”
Josh Downs has been great from the start for the Tar Heels, while Tennessee graduate transfer Ty Chandler stepped up to lead a strong rushing attack against the Cavaliers.
Downs had eight catches in each of UNC’s first three games, including a 203-yard, two-TD showing last week.
Chandler ran 20 times for a career-best 198 yards and two touchdowns, leading a 392-yard team rushing output.
After throwing five TD passes against Virginia, Howell will face a Georgia Tech defense that leads the ACC and ranks fifth in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards allowed (124.3 per game). The Yellow Jackets are coming off a stellar defensive performance in a 14-8 loss at Clemson, limiting the Tigers to 284 yards in total offense.
Virginia eyes rebound against Wake Forest after tough loss
Virginia is eager to get back on the field after allowing 59 points and 699 yards in a 59-39 loss against No. 21 North Carolina.
The problem for the Cavaliers (2-1, 0-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) is that the opportunity comes tonight against Wake Forest, which has won four straight in the series.
The Demon Deacons (3-0, 1-0) are off to their fourth 3-0 start under eighth-year coach Dave Clawson after a third straight easy win to start the season. They are coming off a 35-14 win against a Florida State team that is 0-3 for the first time since the late Bobby Bowden’s first season in 1976.
But Clawson isn’t having trouble citing areas needing improvement. He found the uncharacteristic eight penalties for 74 yards against FSU “bothersome,” along with four turnovers through three games after having one through the first seven games last year.
“At times the ball security isn’t what it needs to be,” Clawson said. “But you always enjoy fixing those things after a win.”
Still, he had plenty to feel good about in terms of how the Demon Deacons handled their ACC opener. “I just think our players just understood the importance of that game,” Clawson said. “The first two weeks we played well and we won, but we knew the level of competition was going to be a step up.”
Virginia was dominant against William & Mary and Illinois, but its opener in the Atlantic Coast Conference was alarmingly poor. Coach Bronco Mendenhall said the way it unfolded can be a positive going forward.
“If you can get the lessons exposed and what needs to be improved early, early on, man, that gives us the best chance to recover and go forward,” he said, noting that the Tar Heels had a similar experience in a season-opening loss at Virginia Tech.
Virginia quarterback Brennan Armstrong has been prolific, throwing for 11 touchdowns and running for two more through three games. But the team gained just 24 yards on 22 running attempts against North Carolina and will need far better production in support of the passing game to give the Cavaliers balance.
With defenders focused on Jaquarii Roberson last week, fellow receiver A.T. Perry has thrived. Things are going to get tougher due to his success. The redshirt sophomore had career highs of seven catches and 155 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown. Roberson had a quiet game to see the end of his six-game streak with a touchdown catch. Clawson said Perry will have a new challenge.
“To me, it’s not can you have that one game. We know what A.T. is capable of,” Clawson said. “But now life is going to get a bit tougher. Once you have that breakout game and you put it on film, you’re not going to get the short straw anymore in terms of the coverage.”
DO YOUR JOB
Mendenhall said focus wasn’t an issue for his defense against the Tar Heels.
“If anything it was, man, just playing outside of their technique and outside of their scheme and outside of their assignments, maybe because they were — wanted to win too much,” the coach said. “That’s not the right way to say it. Because they were motivated at a really high level, they were going outside of what was really necessary and expected, and a lot of times that was the cause of the problem.”
Wake Forest had four sacks last week against Florida State and is fifth in the league with nine sacks through the first three games. The Demon Deacons must get pressure on Armstrong to slow the Cavaliers’ high-scoring attack.
“It’s very important,” defensive lineman Luiji Vilain said. “They have a really good quarterback, a good O-line. So we’ve got to get some pressure on them to slow down that passing game.”
Mendenhall called Clawson one of the best coaches in college football, and the Demon Deacons head man is perhaps best known for his offensive expertise.
“You look at a the things that they did well against us and the things that maybe we did well against them,” Clawson said of preparing for the game. “That’s kind of where the chess match begins. How much are they going to tweak what they did?”
Duke’s Durant looks to keep finding end zone against Kansas
DURHAM (AP) — Mataeo Durant has gone from being part of Duke’s rushing tandem to a lead back tied for the national lead in total touchdowns.
The Blue Devils (2-1) host Kansas on Saturday in a second straight matchup against a power-conference opponent, following last weekend’s win against Northwestern. And the 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior has reached the end zone multiple times in every game so far, both with explosive long gainers and in short-yardage work as a finisher.
“Just being a football player, you always want to get the ball in those pivotal positions,” Durant said. “I pride myself on taking advantage of those red-zone possessions where I get the ball, and just trying to make the most of those opportunities when they’re presented toward me.”
Durant opened with a program-record 255 yards on the ground in a loss to Charlotte, and is averaging an Atlantic Coast Conference-best 132.7 yards rushing.
He has run for seven touchdowns – including runs of 53 and 59 yards – and also has a TD catch, tying him with Marshall freshman Rasheen Ali for most total TDs in the Bowl Subdivision ranks entering the week.
A year ago, Durant ran for a team-best 654 yards and six touchdowns while splitting work with departed senior Deon Jackson. “He’s physically better than he’s been,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “Yeah, I may pray that he stays healthy and see what a season can turn out to be like for him.”
Durant is set up to succeed again against one of the nation’s worst run defenses.
The Jayhawks (1-2) rank 122nd out of 130 FBS teams by allowing 225.3 yards rushing per game. That comes after surrendering 215 yards and four touchdowns in a loss at Coastal Carolina, followed by 307 yards and four more scores in last week’s loss to Baylor.
“There’s continued progress,” first-year Kansas coach Lance Leipold said. “It’s not all showing up on the scoreboard or on the statsheet right now. I still think we’re finding out what we can do offensively. … Defensively we need to tackle better, we need to be more physical.”
Duke committed an FBS-worst 39 turnovers last year as probably the biggest cause behind a two-win season. They had only one notable turnover through two games – quarterback Gunnar Holmberg’s goal-line fumble while trying to run it in in the opener against Charlotte – but had three turnovers last week.
Two were lost fumbles by Durant, one helping Northwestern score a second quick touchdown after trailing 30-7 at halftime.
Kansas will have a different depth chart in the backfield with running back Velton Gardner entering the transfer portal.
Gardner led the Jayhawks in rushing last year and had started each game this year, though he had seen his workload drop since the opener. Quarterback Jason Bean leads the team with 216 yards rushing, while freshman Devin Neal (74 yards on 22 carries) is atop the depth chart.
Duke has tallied 1,571 total yards for the first three games, marking the most for the program through three games since 1988 (1,580). Duke has cracked the 500-yard mark twice, first with 580 yards in the Charlotte loss and last week with 558 in the Northwestern win.
KANSAS VISITING ACC TERRITORY
Kansas won its last road game against an Atlantic Coast Conference opponent, beating Boston College 48-24 two years ago during a three-win season under former coach Les Miles. Before that, Kansas hadn’t played an ACC team on the road since a 41-3 loss to Duke in September 2014.
DUKE VS. THE BIG 12
Duke has won three straight games against Big 12 competition. The Blue Devils lost 44-16 to a nationally ranked Kansas team on the road in September 2009 during Cutcliffe’s second season. But they beat Kansas in 2014 before taking both games in a home-and-home set with Baylor in 2017 (34-20 at home) and 2018 (40-27 on the road).