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NoleNation Q&A: Previewing Clemson

9/19/2012

For months, Florida State's soft schedule has had many fans clamoring for a perfect regular season, but the biggest speed bump on the way to that goal comes Saturday.

Clemson enters this game ranked 10th in the nation, sports one of the most dynamic offenses in the country, and the Tigers have beaten FSU in six of the last nine matchups, including a 35-30 win last season.

So, what can the Seminoles do to topple the Tigers?

For some insight, we checked in with Clemson beat writer Travis Sawchik of the Charleston Post & Courier, and he provided some great detail on the Tigers' strengths and weaknesses entering the biggest game of the season so far.

NoleNation: Sammy Watkins looked like he hadn't missed a beat in his return to action last weekend, while DeAndre Hopkins has also established himself as one of the most dangerous receivers in the ACC. Given that FSU doesn't have much experience at corner aside from Xavier Rhodes, how big of an advantage can Clemson's deep receiving corps have?

Travis Sawchik: I'm really looking forward to Xavier Rhodes matching up in press coverage against Hopkins and Watkins. It should be good theater. That said, the one area where I think Clemson has an advantage in this game is with its receivers.

Hopkins is stronger and more explosive in route-running this year, and we are seeing it in his stat line. He has great natural hands and ball skills and is probably a No. 1 on most BCS-level teams.

Watkins is probably a top-10 overall talent in the college game. His combination of burst/long speed/body control and hands is pretty much unmatched. To me, he's Julio Jones with better hands.

Beyond Hopkins and Watkins are talented sophomores in Charone Peake and Martavis Bryant, who also have impressive size/speed ratios. Clemson can create mismatches with this group -- if Tajh Boyd has time to throw.

NN: FSU's defense has been one of the best in the nation against the run, but Andre Ellington figures to be the best back the Seminoles have faced in a while. What's the key for him to find running room this week, and how important will the ground game be to Clemson's offensive success?

Sawchik: Clemson has to have success on the ground to keep out of second- and third-and-long situations. Clemson implemented the pistol formation this offseason and has been using it as a base offense. It seems to have helped Ellington get in more of a downhill mode, and the extra steps in receiving the handoff have resulted in extra time for plays to develop, which has helped the OL create more combination blocks. Ellington has great natural running instincts, so the key is for the OL simply to create some slivers of space. They've exceeded expectations so far, but FSU's front is an entirely different challenge.

NN: Dabo Swinney didn't hide his appreciation for FSU's defensive line, and he has his share of concerns about his offensive line. What can Clemson do to try to slow Bjoern Werner and the FSU pass rush?

Sawchik: Auburn DE Corey Lemonier routinely beat Clemson RT Gifford Timothy in the season opener, registering a couple of sacks. Werner figures to offer a similar mismatch. What Clemson was effective at doing in the opener was chip blocking with its running backs out of the backfield. Ellington and Roderick McDowell have improved in this area and they'll have to be effective again in pass protection to give Tajh Boyd a chance to go through his progressions and make good decisions. I think FSU will be able to generate more of an interior rush than Auburn, though, and will really challenge Clemson's backs in pass protection.

NN: Fair or not, what most fans remember about last season's Clemson team is the thrashing in the Orange Bowl. The defense has obviously made strides since then, so what's the biggest difference on that side of the ball?

Sawchik: Clemson's D hasn't given up 70 points again but there are still a number of concerns. No. 1 is that Clemson is 84th in the nation against the run despite playing a weak schedule. Clemson has also generated just three sacks in three games and has struggled to generate a pass rush. The front seven contains mostly freshmen and sophomores. I expect this group to improve as the season goes along, but it is still a relatively inexperienced bunch learning new DC Brent Venables' more zone-oriented system.

NN: Last year, it was a masterful game from Tajh Boyd that helped carry Clemson. What do you think are the 2-3 keys to a win against FSU this time around?

Sawchik: I think No. 1 is Boyd's decision-making. When teams more often were able to rush four and drop seven in coverage in the second half of last year, Boyd forced a lot of throws and threw nine interceptions in the last six games. FSU figures to be able to do the same at times, so Boyd can't force throws downfield into coverage. He has a habit of sometimes over-trusting his arm.

You hit on another key earlier, and that is the running game. Nothing could help Boyd and Clemson more than Ellington setting up some second- and third-and-shorts to slow down the pass rush. Clemson can't win if it's constantly in obvious passing situations.

Clemson's run defense must also be competent. Clemson entered the Furman game last week 115th in the FBS in yards per rush attempt allowed. Clemson players have struggled with gap integrity and locating the ball. With Chris Thompson averaging 14 yards per carry this is a problem area for the Tigers. Clemson can't continue to allow six and seven yards per rush attempt and expect to have much of a chance against a talented offense like FSU's.

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Terrific stuff from Travis. If you're looking for more great Clemson info, check out Travis' coverage of the Tigers here or follow him on Twitter at @Travis_Sawchik.