When Citadel football coach Kevin Higgins gushes about Clemson’s speed, he’s not referring only to Sammy Watkins’ 40 time.
Who: The Citadel (5-6) at No. 7 Clemson (9-1)
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
Radio: 1450-AM, 950-AM, 1340-AM
It’s not all about how fast the Tigers run, but how fast they run plays.
“It’s an up-tempo, fast, fast offense,” said Higgins, whose 5-6 Bulldogs will be heavy underdogs at No. 7 Clemson (9-1) on Saturday.
The Tigers are averaging 82.9 plays per game this season. By comparison, the fastest-paced football team The Citadel has played so far this season is 8-3 Old Dominion, which averages 77.1 plays per game. Old Dominion edged the Bulldogs, 59-58, on Sept. 21.
Clemson runs a play every 20.55 seconds on average, which places the Tigers among the most up-tempo teams in the nation. Against FBS competition, the Tigers run 84.1 plays per game, which ranks seventh in the nation, according to teamrankings.com.
That means the Bulldogs’ defense must be prepared to operate at a higher tempo against Clemson than it has all season.
“We have to get used to wristbands, we have to get used to signals from the sideline,” Higgins said. “And all of that has to take place quickly based on down and distance.”
Clemson runs plays so fast that Higgins will employ two scout-team offenses in practice this week as he tries to replicate the Tigers’ pace of play.
After one scout team runs a play, the second one will jump in quickly to run another.
“We’ll have two scout teams going off the (play) cards,” he said. “As soon as they run a play, the defense has to get lined up right away and the second offense runs a play. It helps the defense get adjusted to the speed of play.”
The Bulldogs used the two-team system to get ready for Samford a couple of weeks ago. The Citadel won that game, 28-26, holding Samford to 17 first downs and 353 total yards.
Higgins said Samford and Clemson “run the exact same operation,” and the comparison makes sense. Former Samford offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee is Gus Malzahn’s right-hand man at Auburn and taught Samford co-coordinator Travis Trickett; Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ relationship with tempo guru Malzahn goes back to their days in high school coaching.
But Morris, of course, has much better players at his disposal than Samford. And replicating Clemson’s speed will be more difficult for The Citadel than preparing for its pace of play.
Citadel freshman Cam Jackson, a 6-2 quarterback, will play the role of receiver Sammy Watkins during Citadel practices this week. But Higgins has had a tougher time coming up with a double for Tigers receiver Martavis Bryant, a fleet-footed 6-5, 200-pound junior.
And then there’s the matter of the Tigers’ run game, spearheaded by running back Rod McDowell.
“If you spread out and try to slow down their perimeter game, they run the ball extremely well,” Higgins said. “If you put another guy in the box, they will get it out the perimeter. A lot of challenges there.”
The Citadel’s defense has had a pretty good season, ranking second in the SoCon in rushing defense (167 yards per game) and third in total defense (369 yards per game). But the Bulldogs haven’t faced a challenge like this one.
“Speed and scheme,” Higgins said. “The scheme allows Clemson to run close to 90 plays a game, and the more plays they run the more opportunities they have for big plays. The scheme, the speed on the perimeter and the fact that they can run the ball will cause us issues.”
Follow Jeff Hartsell on Twitter @jeff_fromthepc