CLEMSON — Don’t expect too much gadgetry Saturday in the ACC Championship Game when Clemson has the football.
The Tigers’ offense has hit the 500-yard mark in eight straight games. Not bad for an offense that was supposed to scuffle with former whiz playcaller Chad Morris off to SMU, handing the reins to first-time coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott.
“Coach Elliott and Coach Scott have made our offense really simple. Kept it not as intriguing as Coach Morris,” junior tight end Jordan Leggett said. “It’s real basic. We stick to one game plan and that’s what we go with. ... I like it a whole lot better. It’s easier for these guys to perfect their craft at each play and get better at it.”
It’s a strategy that has worked well for Clemson’s opponent this season on the defensive side. North Carolina’s defense has shaved more 100 yards off its average, and nearly cut its scoring average in half (39.0 last year, 20.8 this year.) under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik, who simplified the Tar Heels’ defensive schemes.
The man ousted from Auburn three years ago for his shortcoming as a head coach has proven once again he knows defense.
“Gene Chizik is a huge part of that,” Clemson offensive lineman Eric Mac Lain said. “Obviously he’s a defensive mastermind. Really looking forward to the chess match between him and our coordinators.
“The whole culture has changed with that defense. Not too many big plays have been hit on them. They’re not going to change up what they do because you do something different. They’re vanilla, but good vanilla.”
In other words, the Tar Heels have come a long way from letting a freshman quarterback drop six touchdown passes on them in his first career start less than 15 months ago.
“It was very special that night what we did as a team and as a unit,” said Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, whose Tigers beat UNC, 50-35, on Sept. 27, 2014, at Memorial Stadium. “So I’ll never forget that moment and that day.”
There are holes in the Tar Heels’ defense. They rank outside the top 100 in rushing defense, having allowed South Carolina and Delaware to top 250 rushing yards and Duke and N.C. State to go over 300 yards on the ground.
The best offense UNC has faced thus far is No. 42 Duke. Clemson is No. 14 entering the weekend. But the improvement is clearly there, as evidenced by Chizik’s nomination as one of five finalists for the Broyles Award, which recognizes the nation’s top assistant coach.
“That’s what they present on film,” Tigers tailback Wayne Gallman said. “They play a lot like South Carolina, from what I’ve seen. Their red zone defense is really good, they’re very physical up front, and they’re going to challenge you to drive down the field.”
UNC has been susceptible to the quarterback run. Last week, N.C. State quarterback Jacoby Brissett, who hadn’t run for more than 43 yards this season, rolled for 128 yards on 20 carries. His career high was 167 rushing yards last year at UNC. Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk got loose for 74 yards on just eight attempts against the Tar Heels.
All of which could set the stage for Watson to have a big game. His nine rushing touchdowns are tied for sixth in the ACC, and he is coming off a career-best three TD carries at South Carolina.
“Well, it usually means defensively you’ve got to have somebody with their eyes on the quarterback all the time,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said. “You can’t just put everybody into coverage because he’s going to extend plays and make plays with his legs, and then you’re going to have breakdowns in coverage and he’s going to hit big plays on you.”
Earlier this week, Watson wasn’t saying what his mindset would be in terms of pass-run choices. Coming off ACL reconstructive surgery last December, he has rushed 139 times for 756 yards this season.
“It’s really just the feel of the game. I don’t go into a game thinking I’m going to run more than I’m going to pass,” Watson said. “So it just depends on what the defense is going to bring in the situation of the game and what happens that play. I just try to do my job and find an open hole in the defense.”
Watson does have 10 interceptions this season, but he’ll be trusted to carry the Clemson offense in the event a shootout unfolds.
“We’ve got the best quarterback in the country, and I want to give him an opportunity,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “If we get beat, it’s not going to be because he didn’t have the ball in his hands.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game between No. 1 Clemson (12-0) and No. 8 North Carolina (11-1) is set for 8 p.m. at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.