In what universe can a quarterback go 23-for-30, throw for 383 yards and five touchdowns, run one in just for the hell of it, and still barely get out of the game alive? At Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, that's where. After the 58-0 drubbing of Miami, it's possible that the Tigers thought they were going to have an easy week. As an NFL Films narrator might say, however, "The N.C. State Wolfpack had other plans."
So what you had basically was a one-hour score-a-thon, with two previously impenetrable defenses (N.C. State is ranked No. 4 in the country for total defense) spouting cracks, creases, and holes like a poorly maintained dam. Almost every move the Tigers made was met with an equal maneuver by N.C. State, like some sort of nightmarish scientific equation. This was a game in which a team was up by more than two touchdowns with four minutes to go, and no one in the stadium or at home was comfortable with that lead. It was ridiculously tense; watching the highlights, I had to constantly remind myself that Clemson won, lest I succumb to a stress-related heart-attack.
And as it turns out, that nauseating roller coaster of a game was merely a teaser, because the Seminoles are coming to town. Yes, the crushers of Clemson's dreams for the last three seasons are coming into Death Valley on Saturday, and they're bringing a lot of expectations, hopes, and dreams with them.
There's no simple way to describe what kind of team the Tigers will be facing this weekend. Florida St. has typically been able to compensate for their sloppy execution and mystifyingly poor decisions with streaks of brilliant play. But as the 2015 season has progressed, the ACC Big Dogs from Tallahassee have proven themselves vulnerable. This isn't just about their loss to Georgia Tech. It's about the fact that they were tied 16-16 with Georgia Tech in the first place. This is a team that barely beat Wake Forest, snuck past Miami with a 29-24 win, and looked pretty unimpressive against Boston College. This is a beatable team, especially with Clemson playing at home.
Who will start at QB for the Seminoles this Saturday is a mystery as I write this. Starter Everett Golson was out for the Syracuse game due to the just-vaguely-worded-enough "concussion-like symptoms." Typically, that might allow Clemson fans a sigh of relief, except that backup Sean Maguire stepped in for Golson and only threw for 302 yards or so, and let's not forget that Maguire is the QB that led Florida St. to an overtime victory over Clemson last year.
Don't look for injured RB Dalvin Cook to sit out either way. Cook hurt his ankle against Wake, but he took the Syracuse game off to recover, and even if he's not at 100 percent, he's a threat on the ground. Cook has 127 carries for over 1,000 yards, more than the remainder of the FSU offense combined. He quite simply is the Seminoles ground game, so expect the Clemson D to focus as much of their attention on Cook at the line of scrimmage as possible.
The passing game is trickier. Travis Rudolph, Kermit Whitfield, and Jesus Wilson are just about equal on the reception stat-sheet, giving Golson and/or Maguire a few weapons to choose from. Clemson didn't look great in the secondary against N.C. State, and that's going to have to change before Saturday.
Quite simply, the key to this game is going to be Clemson's defense. They're ranked 5th in the country to Florida St's 23rd, but they didn't look that sharp against N.C. State. The offense has done their job over the last few games. It's time for the defense to step back into their beast-mode formation and take advantage of the Seminoles' current vulnerability.