Clemson University

Clemson vs. NC State: Five burning questions ... and a prediction

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney previews matchup with NC State

Swinney is impressed with Ryan Finley, Wolfpack
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Swinney is impressed with Ryan Finley, Wolfpack

No. 3 Clemson (6-0, 3-0 ACC) will host No. 16 N.C. State (5-0, 2-0 ACC) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in a game that will be televised by ESPN.

Here are our top five questions heading into the game:

Who will win the battle up front?

If N.C. State is going to have a chance to pull off the upset, it will have to slow down Clemson’s defensive front. The Tigers have four All-Americans in Clelin Ferrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant, and freshman Xavier Thomas is becoming quite the weapon as well. N.C. State’s offensive line got the best of Clemson’s defensive front a season ago. The Wolfpack rushed for 153 yards and quarterback Ryan Finley attempted 50 passes and was sacked only once as N.C. State put up 31 points in a narrow loss. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney admitted that N.C. State’s offensive line controlled the line of scrimmage in 2017 and challenged Clemson’s defensive front this week to not let that happen again. N.C. State has allowed only two sacks through the first five games of the 2018 season.

Can N.C. State run the football?

The Wolfpack are No. 95 in the nation in rushing at 145 yards per game and rank No. 99 in yards per carry, averaging less than 4 yards per attempt. For comparison, Clemson is No. 4 in rushing yards per game at 281 and No. 2 in yards per carry at almost 7. As good as Finley is, N.C. State will have to run the ball and keep Clemson’s defense honest to be successful. Having a one-dimensional offense is a recipe for disaster against Clemson’s loaded defense. The Tigers are No. 14 in rushing defense, allowing 108 yards per game. That number is particularly impressive because Clemson has played three option teams.

How much has Clemson’s secondary improved?

Swinney believes Clemson’s secondary has improved dramatically since allowing more than 400 passing yards in Week 2 against Texas A&M, but he also knows that the Tigers haven’t faced an offense as prolific as N.C. State’s yet this year. Clemson played three option teams in its first six games, and Texas A&M is the only top 65 passing offense the Tigers have faced, coming in at No. 25. N.C. State is No. 6 in the nation in passing, averaging 335 yards per game. Finley and receivers Kelvin Harmon, Jakobi Meyers and Emeka Emezie will give Trayvon Mullen, A.J. Terrell, K’Von Wallace, Tanner Muse and the rest of the Clemson secondary a tough challenge.

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Can Trevor Lawrence rise to the occasion?

The freshman quarterback has been impressive so far in 2018, but he has yet to have to make a play with the game on the line late. Clemson has played two games decided by less than 28 points so far this year. The Tigers defeated Texas A&M 28-26 in Week 2, but Kelly Bryant played most of the second half and the entire fourth quarter. The Tigers also rallied to defeat Syracuse 27-23 on Sept. 29, but Lawrence did not play the entire second half after being injured in the second quarter. If Clemson is behind or leading by a close margin late and Lawrence is counted on to make a big-time throw, it will be interesting to see how he responds.

Can Clemson get off the field on third down?

N.C. State has been incredible on third down this year, converting 61 percent of the time, which is No. 1 in the nation. The next closest is Alabama at 57 percent. The Tigers have been impressive on third-down defense, holding opponents to a 28-percent conversion rate, which ranks No. 8. Clemson will need to be strong in that area again this week to keep N.C. State’s offense off the field and keep the defense from getting worn down, which it did in Week 2 against Texas A&M.

Prediction: Clemson is favored by 17.5 points, which seems like a lot against an undefeated N.C. State team led by a senior quarterback, who is one of the best in the nation. Maybe Vegas knows something, and the Tigers will come out and dominate N.C. State. Often when a point spread seems strange, that is the case. But I’m expecting a close game in this series for the third consecutive year. Finley has plenty of weapons, and I still think you can find some holes in Clemson’s secondary. With that said, I also don’t think the Wolfpack can slow down Lawrence, Travis Etienne and company. I expect Clemson will put the game away late.

Pick: Clemson 31, N.C. State 21