Looking at Clemson is like looking at ourselves. They have a stout defense and an underwhelming offense, forcing the Tigers to lean on their defensive unit and try to win tight, low-scoring games. We've detailed the series of close games the Bulls played in the last two months of the season, and Clemson has had plenty of those as well. The Tigers failed to score more than 14 points in four of their last five games. On the other hand, they gave up 16 points or less in their last six ACC games. If anything, the offense/defense imbalance may be even stronger for Clemson than it is for USF.
The obvious Ben Folds song for this game is "Battle of Who Could Care Less", for two teams who rarely seem to be interested in scoring more than about 20 points.
Ben Folds Five - Battle Of Who Could Care Less (via Dudgeon82)
Here are some keys to winning what could be another stressful, low-scoring, close game. (All of the stats I gathered on Clemson came from the very thorough stats package on Clemson's official site, and from the Clemson page on PhilSteele.com.)
1. Figure out a way to move the ball on the ground. Running the ball has been USF's bread and butter all year. But Clemson held six of their eight ACC opponents under 100 yards rushing, and only Georgia Tech managed more than 4 yards per carry (which is logical since they run the triple option). I wouldn't expect USF to have a whole lot of success with straight ahead running. They'll need to get out on the edges, so obviously having a healthy B.J. Daniels will be a huge plus to open up the draws, zone reads, and option packages. This also will help keep Da'Quan Bowers and the rest of the talented Tigers defensive line from teeing off in the pass rush.
Which leads to...
2. Minimize Da'Quan Bowers' impact on the game. Slowing Bowers down is really difficult, because on top of his huge numbers, he was incredibly consistent. Bowers led Clemson in solo tackles, he recorded at least half a sack in 10 of 12 games, and he got at least half a TFL in all but one game (against Presbyterian, where the Tigers rolled up a 42-0 halftime lead and he only played 21 snaps). While it's sometimes hard to get up for a bowl game like this one, I expect motivation will not be a problem for him as he's making a push to be the #1 pick in the draft. But for all the commotion about Bowers, and rightly so, Clemson as a team only managed 29 sacks this season. Bowers had more sacks (15.5) than the rest of the defense combined (13.5). The Bulls will probably double-team or chip him on as many plays as they can, or run plays away from him, or call plays that might take advantage of him being over-aggressive (like screen passes).
3. Deal with their multiple QBs better than they deal with yours. Both teams are being somewhat coy with their quarterback situations leading into this game, for different reasons. Dabo Swinney benched Kyle Parker in Clemson's final game of the season, a brutal 29-7 loss to South Carolina. Parker responded by throwing a mini-tantrum and cleaning out his locker right after the game, throwing his status for this game into question. It looks like backup Tajh Boyd will get the start, but no one knows how much action Parker will get.
For the Bulls, B.J. Daniels is back from the quad injury that kept him out of the Connecticut game. He and Bobby Eveld have been getting reps together in practice, and Skip Holtz is keeping his cards close to the vest as to who will play. Will one or the other start and play the whole game, or will there be some mixing and matching? I think USF has the potential to do this and gain a little bit of an edge. Parker and Boyd have similar skill sets, which minimizes the amount of extra preparation the Bulls may need to do. But Daniels and Eveld have divergent skills, so Clemson may have to be equally ready for both.
4. Special teams. Barring turnovers, this is looking like a field position and kicking game battle. Clemson has good return and kick coverage units, as do the Bulls, but USF has an advantage in kicking. Chandler Catanzaro only made 12 out of 19 field goals for the Tigers, including an ugly 7-for-12 inside of 40 yards. Meanwhile, the Bulls switched to Maikon Bonani against Western Kentucky and he went 13-for-16 the rest of the season, only missing one kick shorter than 50 yards. (Two of his three misses were after a made field goal had been wiped out -- one by a penalty against Syracuse, and the other was after the 52-yarder that Louisville coach Charlie Strong canceled with one of those bitch-move "call a timeout right before the snap" timeouts.)
The Tigers do have an advantage in the punt game. Dawson Zimmerman averaged 42.6 yards per punt this season, including 18 downed inside the 20-yard line. Meanwhile, we know the struggles Justin Brockhaus-Kann started having in the second half of the season. He averaged only 38.0 yards per punt on the season, and only averaged 40 yards in two of the final nine games. On the flip side, the Bulls did a good job covering his weak punts -- back out the fair-catch snafu against Rutgers, and opponents only averaged 6.9 yards per return this season.
5. Get into a position where your biggest advantage is a factor, if possible. I don't really know how you can plan for this in a game, but clearly the Bulls' biggest advantage is in coaching. USF's performance this year is mostly the result of an under-talented team playing up to and maybe even above their abilities. Meanwhile, Clemson's has largely been the result of underachievement. An adjustment here, a calculated risk there, or maybe who manages the clock better could decide a game like this.
I still remember Dabo Swinney giving away the FSU game. Tied at 13, Clemson didn't have enough timeouts to get the ball back on the Seminoles' last possession, and FSU seemed content to run the clock out and go to overtime, yet Swinney called them anyway. FSU responded with more aggressive play calling. They managed to get into long field goal range, and of course Dustin Hopkins blasted through a 55-yarder at the buzzer to win the game.
Other potential keys:
- The Tigers will be without running back Andre Ellington, which should play into USF's hands. They don't have to account for his breakaway speed and can crowd the line a little more to handle Jamie Harper, his backup.
- Clemson has shown a strange tendency to give up scoring drives in clusters. (I'm not including some garbage-time scores put up by Presbyterian or Wake Forest here.) Auburn scored three straight touchdowns against them. Georgia Tech had two field goals and a touchdown in three straight drives. The next week, Boston College scored a touchdown and three field goals in four straight drives. And South Carolina scored on four of their first five drives. These weren't necessarily short fields, either. I don't know if this is just a random variable, or if the Tigers are slow on the uptick with adjustments, or if it's a mental factor. But it might be exploitable.
- Lindsey Lamar, for obvious reasons.
- Before we get all overconfident about facing an unknown commodity in Tajh Boyd, ask yourself how that worked out in El Paso a few years ago when fourth-string Oregon QB Justin Roper tore the Bulls a new one.