CLEMSON — Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris said earlier this month he was surprised by the amount of man coverage his receivers have faced this season, but before leaving a group of reporters he added: “I like it.”
N.C. State (6-4, 3-3 ACC) at No. 11 Clemson (9-1, 6-1) When: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson Television: ABC or ESPN2 Line: Clemson by 17
Duke attempted man coverage against Clemson’s potent passing offense and was subsequently strafed.
Wake Forest employed a similar strategy against the No. 11 Tigers (9-1, 6-1 ACC) and DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins routinely beat the single coverage in another runaway Clemson win.
Clemson expects to see more man coverage this week when it hosts N.C. State at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. But the difference between the Wolfpack and some of the opponents Clemson has steamrolled during its six-game winning streak is N.C. State (6-4, 3-3) has an imposing, talented secondary led by 6-3, 194-pound cornerback David Amerson, projected as a first-round NFL choice prior to the season.
Amerson and fellow king-sized corner, 6-3, 196-pound Dontae Johnson, proved they could win one-on-one battles with Clemson receivers last season when N.C. State defeated the Tigers in Raleigh.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows Amerson well, having recruited the Greensboro, N.C., native out of high school when Swinney thought he had the body control, size and hands to be a receiver.
“I thought he whipped our butt last year,” Swinney said. “People are trying to keep the ball away from him because he’s a ball hawk. Last year he was a freak show.
“People have tried to stay away with him as much as possible.”
Amerson is viewed as having a down season because he’s given up some big plays and his interception totals are down from last season’s historic mark when he led the nation with 13 interceptions. (The next closest player had eight). Still, Amerson is second in the ACC with four interceptions this season.
Of course last season was a different scenario.
Watkins missed the game with a shoulder injury. DeAndre Hopkins was not playing at the level he is this fall. Left tackle Phillip Price missed the game, and as a result, Clemson was unable to protect quarterback Tajh Boyd against N.C. State’s pressure.
Like last year, N.C. State has a big, athletic defensive front — N.C. State’s four starting defensive linemen all weigh 274 pounds or more — and is able to create pressure, leading the ACC with 30 sacks.
“We lost a lot of (individual) battles last year,” Boyd said. “I wouldn’t say it’s a vengeance thing, but we pride ourselves in playing a certain way.”
Clemson proved it could win one-on-one battles against quality corners and handle elite defensive fronts in a loss at Florida State, and the Tigers have to repeat the offensive performance Saturday.
“They have the most overall team speed since Florida State,” Clemson center Dalton Freeman said. “They have the best front we’ve seen since Florida State.”
And N.C. State could give Clemson the best game it has seen since Florida State.
Follow Travis Sawchik on Twitter: @travis_sawchik.