CLEMSON — Craving a home-cooked meal after two road games, Clemson hired a nutritionist this week.
“It’s really good to be home,” coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday, knowing that any game with Georgia Tech can end with a belly ache. Of the past 17, a dozen have been decided by five points or less, including a six-game stretch during which each game was decided by three points.
To once-beaten, 15th-ranked Clemson, a 2-3 Georgia Tech might seem appetizing, but Swinney knows an ill-prepared meal can be dangerous.
“We’ve had some knockdown, drag-outs with these guys, but we haven’t won much as of late,” Swinney said. Noting that Tech’s losses to Virginia Tech and Miami came in overtime, he reminded that last year’s game came after two Tech losses. “This is a team capable of playing and beating anybody.”
This team bears striking resemblance to those that have beaten Swinney four of five. A smart, durable quarterback, big-play backs and towering receivers are staples in the coach Paul Johnson’s spin on the option. Few teams rush the ball with more proficiency. Tech ranks fourth nationally (329.4 rushing yards per game) through five weeks, and quarterback Tevin Washington leads the ACC with 11 rushing touchdowns, including all four last week. He needs six to overtake former teammate Josh Nesbit’s ACC record 35 for quarterbacks.
“He killed us last year,” said Swinney, recalling Washington’s 176 rushing yards in a 31-17 win in Atlanta. “He set about every record in the book (and) absolutely destroyed us.”
Preparing for the option with an inexperienced defense occupied much of Swinney’s conversation. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables faced option-oriented Air Force several times during his tenure at Oklahoma. There’s not much difference, though Johnson’s play-calling might be the wildcard. As Swinney reminded, Johnson frequently eschews the punt on fourth down. Tech leads the ACC with 13 fourth-down plays from scrimmage
“You have to play the option every single play,” Swinney said. “You have to do your job every play.
“Just playing with great discipline is something we’re going to have to do.”
While running remains the meat of the Tech offense, Johnson has tried to spice the entrée. Washington threw 15 passes in the Miami game and 22 against Middle Tennessee. At 6-foot-4, receiver Jeff Green creates mismatches, and Swinney cautions to be wary of Orwin Smith, “a dangerous player.” Tech has 10 plays of at least 50 yards, with nine players contributing at least one of 20 yards or more. It’s an issue for a team vulnerable to the big play.
“Discipline is the main thing, knowing where you’re supposed to be and just doing your thing,” said linebacker Tig Willard, “getting 11 guys to the ball at all times, 11 guys doing their jobs.”
That could be a challenge for a team that hasn’t done it for a full game this season. Tech’s blocking style creates angst and distracts defensive linemen.
“They’ll cut you on every single play,” Swinney said. “To stay on their feet and defeat blocks is a huge part of this game. We haven’t done a great job of that.”
Conversely, Tech’s defense has been vulnerable, allowing 26.8 points and 297 yards, including 22 plays of 20 yards or more. Miami quarterback Stephen Morris completed 31 of 52 passes for 436 yards, and Middle Tennessee running back Benny Cunningham rushed for 218 yards and five touchdowns.
Swinney said All-American receiver Sammy Watkins seemed fit after the malaise from a virus, dehydration and a kidney issue that forced him to remain in Clemson over the weekend, so the offense has a chance to hit another gear after a 576-yard performance at Boston College.
During last year’s game in Atlanta, the spoiler after and 8-0 start, Clemson committed four turnovers, and Tech milked the clock for 39 minutes. Tech created nine turnovers the past four games and scored eight touchdowns.
“We have to maximize our offensive opportunities,” Swinney said.”We’ve got to cash in.”