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Clemson vs. Florida State: 4 things to watch as Tigers search for mojo

CLEMSON — This isn’t the era of Bobby Bowden’s Florida State teams that beat Clemson in 13 of 15 meetings.

This may not be the golden years, either, when the Tigers and Seminoles traded blows near the end of Tommy Bowden’s tenure at Clemson and the beginning of Dabo Swinney’s.

This may not even be the same Clemson that has beaten FSU five straight times, as neither team sits in a real position of power as the Seminoles arrive for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff Oct. 30 at Memorial Stadium. The Tigers are 4-3. The Seminoles are 3-4.

“This game, it’s not necessarily for the lead in the division, but it’s Clemson-Florida State,” Swinney said. “It’s a huge, huge game."

It’s certainly a more interesting matchup than anyone anticipated looking at the schedule in September. FSU, which fell to 0-4 after a loss to Louisville, has rattled off three straight wins. Clemson, which just lost a heartbreaker at Pittsburgh, has all but fallen out of the ACC title race, but the Tigers still have something to play for.

Stuck with three regular-season losses for the first time since 2014, the Tigers can still achieve an 11th consecutive season of 10 wins or more if they run the table.

“We’re not going to quit. That’s not what we do. That’s not a foundational principle in our program,” Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “We’re going to quit focusing on the outcome and we’re just going to play for each other.”

Here are four things to watch as a plucky FSU squad visits Death Valley, facing a Clemson team trying to salvage what it can.

All eyes on the QB

For the first time all season, there isn’t 100 percent certainty about Clemson’s quarterback. After another shaky offensive performance at Pitt, coaches wanted to evaluate things throughout the week between D.J. Uiagalelei and Taisun Phommachanh.

In describing the QB competition, Elliott framed it as taking pressure off of Uiagalelei, allowing him to take a step back and refocus. At the same time, Elliott and Swinney continue to vocally throw their support behind the sophomore.

“Be upset, be angry, be frustrated, because we’re not living up to the expectations everybody has. But don’t write that man off,” Elliott said. “Big Cinco, he’s got too much to him. He’s got too much character to let this be what defines him. He’s going to write the book and finish it.”

Even after getting pulled in favor of Phommachanh at Pitt, Uiagalelei reentered and responded with a touchdown drive on Clemson’s last possession. He doesn’t stay down for long. It’s just a question of consistency for a signal-caller who has thrown for more interceptions (5) than touchdowns (4) — and two of those picks were taken back for touchdowns.

If the Tigers go for a switch behind center, it will be interesting to see how open the playbook is for Phommachanh, who is still six months out from an Achilles tear and would be making his first career start. Whether he starts or not, Phommachanh could still see the field, because Elliott has indicated there are packages in the works for the redshirt sophomore.

Containing the Seminoles’ dash

Clemson has, for the most part, been able to contain potent rushing attacks. Even when Syracuse’s Sean Tucker exploded for 132 first-half yards on the Tigers, they held him to 25 in the second half.

But now Clemson, the ACC’s best defense in yards per carry allowed (3.2), will face the most explosive rushing attack in the conference. Both of the Seminoles’ top running backs, Jashaun Corbin (7.9 yards per carry) and Treshaun Ward (7.4), average better than 7 yards per rush. Quarterback Jordan Travis adds another 5.2 yards per tuck-and-run.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables compared the challenge to Syracuse, which featured a great running quarterback, as well, in Garrett Shrader. But FSU ups the ante.

“These guys, they are more explosive and faster,” Venables said, “and you can have everything hemmed up the right way and they can still make plays.“

Luckily for the Tigers, they have more bodies with defensive tackle Tyler Davis (biceps) in his second week back from injury. He was on a “pitch count” last week, Swinney said, but he should be free to play more snaps versus a potent FSU rushing attack.

The line takes shape, again

Clemson’s offensive line just can’t seem to catch a break.

A shuffled group, just trying to find some cohesion early in the season, was hit by a toe injury to guard Will Putnam at N.C. State. Then, Hunter Rayburn got COVID-19 before Syracuse. Now, Matt Bockhorst is out for the season with an ACL tear. The front five hasn’t had an easy time meshing.

Despite those moving pieces, Clemson has made some gains, rushing for 164 yards on just 30 carries at Pitt. That’s nearly 5.5 yards a clip. But they have to carry that momentum forward without running back Kobe Pace, who is out with COVID-19.

"Giveth and taketh," as Swinney put it.

The big question is how the Tigers work the center position, especially since Mason Trotter has held things together nicely in Rayburn’s absence. Elliott indicated the plan would be to stick with Trotter and ease Rayburn back in after being out a couple of weeks. If so, can this o-line finally take steps forward without falling back?

Matching FSU’s explosiveness

A lack of explosiveness has been an odd characteristic of Clemson’s offense all season.

The Tigers have produced 79 plays of 10-plus yards in 2021, which ranks last in the ACC. For comparison, the conference leader is Virginia with 179. Florida State appears mortal in comparison, with 108, but the Seminoles have seven plays of 50-plus yards, which trails only North Carolina (9) and Syracuse (8).

Clemson has just two plays of 50-plus yards this season.

If the Tigers control the ball, establish the run, and limit FSU's big plays, maybe this doesn’t matter. But if Florida State does prove explosive, will Clemson have the juice to respond? The Tigers will be without Pace, but they get leading receiver Joseph Ngata back in this one. Of Clemson's 11 pass plays of 20-plus yards versus FBS competition, Ngata has six of them.


Clemson 23, Florida State 17