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N.C. State analysis: paws up, paws down

Davis Stevens, Staff
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) threw for over 300 yards on Saturday and was key to Clemson’s big win over N.C. State

Paws Up: Isaiah Simmons

     Against the Texas A&M Aggies in week two, the Tigers were tested for the first time this season. Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond lit up the Clemson secondary en route to a 430-yard passing performance. The victim of many of Mond’s surgical passes was redshirt sophomore linebacker Isaiah Simmons. After the game, many wondered if Clemson’s secondary was anywhere close to the suffocating proficiency that the unit had been known for in years prior.

     Since that game, Simmons has improved week-in and week-out, helping to transform the Clemson defense back into the stifling form that is normally expected from the program. During Saturday’s game against the N.C. State Wolfpack, Simmons delivered a performance that likely ranks as his best of the season.

     Simmons was all over the field, dropping into coverages and breaking up passes while also lining up on the line of scrimmage on multiple occasions and frequently blowing by the opposing line and tackling Wolfpack ball carriers. He led both teams in total tackles with 11, including a team-high eight solo tackles. On a third-and-six in the first quarter, he also burst past the line of scrimmage and pressured N.C. State quarterback Ryan Finley, forcing him to overthrow his receiver, bringing up 4th down.  

     In total, the Clemson defense held NC State’s offense well below their season average (335.4 passing yards per game), giving up just 193 passing yards to the Wolfpack.

     Because of Simmons’ versatility as a defender and his improvement as the season has progressed, and considering the fact that his most outstanding game came against the highest-ranked opponent that the Tigers have faced thus far, Clemson’s secondary is at the height of its powers and seems poised to dominate Clemson’s remaining opponents.

Paws Down: Deep Ball Accuracy

     In a blowout win, it is often difficult to find areas to criticize. The same is true for Clemson’s domination against N.C. State. That does not, however, mean that there are no areas to nitpick.

     Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence had an outstanding game on Saturday, throwing for 308 yards and completing 26 of his 39 pass attempts. As has become apparent, Lawrence is most dangerous when given the opportunity to flex his arm strength and air the ball out downfield to his all-world receiving corps. He has a penchant to look for the long-ball as his first option, which leads to moments like Tee Higgins’ 46-yard touchdown grab in the first quarter.

      Because of Lawrence’s tremendous arm strength and his true freshman status, though (and the fact that he is human), he sometimes makes mistakes. On Saturday, Lawrence overthrew receivers on multiple occasions, putting just too much power onto throws that sailed over his targets’ heads.

     This is really splitting hairs though, as Lawrence was truly sensational on Saturday. Offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said of Lawrence after the game, “Well, I think that now that Trevor is our quarterback and we kinda know who we are offensively… [he’s gained] timing. Because whenever he was second-team guy, he was going out there with different wideouts, and now he’s up there getting used to that first group of wideouts. So overall just the timing. I mean that’s where the execution comes from: and where the timing comes from is practice.”

Paws Up: Out Routes

     One of the keys to the Tigers’ domination was the offense’s ability to exploit the different coverages that the Wolfpack provided. The offense routinely abused N.C. State’s soft coverage near the sidelines, picking up first downs on out routes near the sidelines seemingly at will.

     Likely because of Clemson’s dominance on the ground in previous games, the Wolfpack routinely stacked the box, placing extra defenders in position to halt the rush. Because of the extra attention in defending the rush, the defensive backs assigned with covering Clemson’s wide receivers were often undermanned. They seemed to be adhering to the idea “bend but don’t break,” in which the defense concedes short passes with a focus of preventing long plays that turn into touchdowns.

      Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, the defense bent AND broke. They gave up 10-yard receptions to receivers all game long, often on consecutive plays. The Tigers marched up and down the field repeatedly, scoring touchdown after touchdown. When asked about receiver Tee Higgins, Scott said, “I hate to always compare my guys, but it’s kinda like Mike Williams’ second year. You just kinda see the second half of that season where it really starts to take off.”

Paws Down: Run Game

      Again, it’s hard to find flaws with such an excellent performance, but one of the deficits of Saturday’s game was the Tigers’ ability to run the football. Travis Etienne did manage to rack up three touchdowns on the ground, but finished with only 39 yards on 2.6 yards per attempt, easily his worst production of the season.

      Of course, this was what N.C. State wanted. They stacked the box and did everything they could to contain Etienne, and they were successful. It was no surprise that Etienne would have a game where he looked like a mere mortal considering his otherworldly numbers this season. The fact that the Clemson offense was able to adapt to the defense and succeed through the air speaks volumes about the versatility of the program and the skill of the coaching staff.

     Hopefully Etienne’s slow day was just a symptom of heavy N.C. State game planning and not the beginning of a downward trend. Etienne is the catalyst of the Clemson offense and one of the most explosive weapons in the country. He still paces the ACC in touchdowns, but will need to return to his superhuman form for the Tigers to contend for a national championship.

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