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Battle for the Atlantic: Clemson vs. Wake Forest preview

Caleb Browder, Photo Editor
Clemson wide receiver Beaux Collins (80) scores a touchdown against UConn in Memorial Stadium on Nov. 13, 2021.

Clemson football sits at 7-3 and has had its woes this season, but the team still has an opportunity to win the ACC Atlantic Division despite the struggles. It all starts at noon on Saturday, Nov. 20, when the Clemson Tigers host the No. 10 Wake Forest Demon Deacons (9-1) in hopes of narrowing Wake Forest’s division lead.  

With Clemson being two games behind Wake Forest in the division, the Tigers will need to win on Saturday and have NC State lose one of its last two games in order to win the division. Clemson also needs Wake Forest to lose to Boston College next week. 

Clemson linebacker James Skalski, who will be playing his final game in Death Valley on Saturday, spoke about the significance of this week’s matchup.  

“It’s pretty cool that they have a chance to come in here and potentially win the division, and we have a chance to keep our hopes alive,” he said. “It’s going to be a big game, they are a great team, and we’re just excited for the challenge, and I’m happy the last one in the Valley can be so significant.” 

However, defeating Wake Forest is easier said than done, as the team possesses a roster of skilled and experienced players that Clemson will attempt to contain.  

“This is kind of a game of strength-on-strength,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. 

“We’ve been really good on defense, they’ve been really, really good on offense.” 

For the Tigers, it all begins with stopping the Demon Deacons’ explosive offense, which is No. 2 in scoring in the country and led by redshirt sophomore quarterback Sam Hartman.  

Hartman, who is having the best season of his career, has 39 total touchdowns on the season while only throwing eight interceptions. On Monday, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables spoke highly of Hartman and said he is playing as well as any player in the country.  

“He’s developed, he’s matured, he’s got a lot of moxie and great instincts,” he said. 

“He understands the offense and has a good understanding, structurally, of defenses and how they are going to attack.” 

Hartman is not solely responsible for Wake Forest’s offensive successes. They also have a receiving group, led by 6’5” A.T. Perry, that can make athletic plays up and down the field. 

Although remarkable this season, Clemson’s defensive unit has had periods of noticeable fatigue when the Tigers’ offense is struggling, and the defense is continuously on the field. Hartman and the Demon Deacons’ offense often sustains long drives, so it will be crucial for Venables and his defense to be opportunistic and get off of the field.  

Meanwhile, Clemson’s offense will also need to do its share of the work, and the performance must be more efficient than last week’s win over UConn. In that game, quarterback DJ Uiagalelei finished 21/44 for 241 yards, one touchdown and one interception.  

He also had a series of eight consecutive incomplete passes, many of which were wildly inaccurate.  

Uiagalelei has shown flashes of his potential but has not been consistent with his play. He has an opportunity to show his potential and consistency against Wake Forest’s defense, which is giving up 29.1 points per game.  

Uiagalelei will, however, be without his top receiver, Justyn Ross, who Swinney has declared out for Saturday and said Ross is likely to have surgery for a foot injury.  

Helping alleviate Ross’ absence will likely be freshman receiver Dacari Collins, who had a career day against UConn with six receptions for 97 yards.  

“I just have to step up and be ready,” Collins said on Tuesday.  

“I feel like I’ve been preparing and just working my butt off every day. I’m grateful for the opportunity, so I just want to go out there and compete.” 

Alongside of Dacari Collins, look for E.J. Williams and Beaux Collins to step up in the receiving game.  

This young group of receivers has the talent to make an impact against Wake Forest, but the most intriguing aspect of Saturday’s matchup will be the chess match between Clemson’s defense and Wake Forest’s offense.  

Both have been outstanding this season, but if Clemson wants to boost its chances for the Atlantic Division title, the defense will need to contain Wake Forest’s offense, so Uiagalelei and the Tigers will have more opportunities to score the ball.

This article appeared in The Tiger’s Nov. 18 print edition. It may differ in formatting or content due to space constraints.

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