CLEMSON, S.C. (WSPA) – The undefeated Tigers return to Death Valley taking on the 4-2 Boston College Eagles Saturday at noon.
Clemson remains one of most balanced teams in college football through six games. The team isn’t a top five unit rushing or passing, but combined they’re averaging 48.2 points per game, good for 4th in the FBS. It’s important to note that the top two scoring teams, Ohio State and Michigan, have played just one game. So in reality Clemson trails only Alabama among teams that have played multiple games.
The Tigers have 17 rushing touchdowns and 19 passing touchdowns as well, further displaying their versatility. They can score from all angles. After starting the first four games without throwing an interception, Trevor Lawrence has turned the ball over in consecutive games. But it hasn’t really slowed Clemson down, and Lawrence has also thrown seven touchdowns in that span. On the flip side, Travis Etienne has found the end zone in each of the past four contests, including a three-touchdown outing against Syracuse last weekend. It’s odd that he’s only eclipsed one-hundred yards rushing twice this season, but he’s been efficient in every game. And he’s recorded multiple catches in all but one game this season. The multi-faceted Etienne continues his Heisman bid given his versatility.
On defense they’ve been consistent against the run and the pass, but have improved in one key area: turnovers. The Tigers forced three turnovers in the first three games of the season, but have recorded ten takeaways in the last three. They’re taking advantage of opportunities, especially through the air, and are reaping the rewards. Clemson is now tied for third in the FBS with 13 takeaways this season. And they’ve been really solid in situational football, allowing just 26.4% third down conversions.
They lose senior linebacker Jamie Skalski for multiple games due to a groin injury, though, which is a big loss for the team. Baylon Spector will be relied upon even more in the coming weeks.
The 2020 Eagles are a completely new-look program after the hiring of Jeff Hafley, the former Ohio State defensive coordinator. Hafley brought in Frank Cignetti, a former NFL offensive coordinator to call the plays for the Eagles. Cignetti’s approach blends an RPO-style offense with traditional pro blocking and passing schemes. And he’s got the quarterback to do it.
Sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec (#5), a transfer from Notre Dame, has the size and skillset to execute Cignetti’s plan well. Jurkovec, at 6’5’ 227, has a huge arm to stretch the field while pairing that with athleticism and running ability. Jurkevec is most dangerous in play action, where he’s routinely hit on big plays down the field, particularly to Zay Flowers (#4). Jurkevec has thrown for 12 touchdowns to four interceptions this season, completing 63% of his passes. On the ground he’s added just over one hundred yards for three scores as well. Clemson will need to be disciplined as he has great movement within the pocket and can escape if necessary.
The aforementioned Flowers has been a spectacular receiver so far in 2020. The sophomore has caught 29 passes for 473 yards and four scores at 16.3 per reception. He also has a score on the ground. Flowers is the primary deep threat as he takes the top off of the defense. Nolan Turner will likely be busy dealing with him on the back end throughout the afternoon. C.J. Lewis (#11) is another big threat opposite Flowers. Lewis is their large body target on the outside and makes quality, contested catches.
Another big receiving threat is the tight end Hunter Long (#80). Perhaps the ACC’s best tight end, Long (6’5, 253 lbs) is a balanced player who can in-line block as well as he can catch. While Flowers leads the team in yards, Long has the most receptions with 38. He’s heavily targeted in Cignetti’s system. He’s been extremely reliable in the red zone, and on third downs, and has scored three touchdowns through six games.
The team has struggled to run the ball effectively, however. At just under one hundred yards rushing per game, the Eagles have aired it out far more often than they’ve attacked on the ground. But it’s been working for the most part in a 4-2 effort. David Nailey (#26) is their lead, feature back. He’s used in the pass game out of the backfield as well, and has four total touchdowns this season. His 3.8 yards per carry is underwhelming, though. As an offense, they’re converting 46% of their third downs, an area where they’ll be tested heavily against the stingy Tigers. But as is typical with Boston College, they have a stout offensive line that helps contribute to those numbers. An experienced unit, the Eagles o-line will be among the toughest group Clemson faces all season.
They’ve contributed eight total giveaways this season, but are plus in the turnover column with eleven takeaways, tied for ninth in the FBS. And the defense is holding opposing offenses to a 39% completion percentage on third down.
Although they’re giving up over 382 total yards per game, a defense that ranked dead last in the ACC last season has improved significantly with a defensive-focused head coach at the helm. They’re pushing the pocket and getting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They’ve racked up a 7th-best 17 sacks in 2020. Defensive end Maxamilian Roberts (#4) leads the team with 3.5 sacks while linebacker Isaiah McDuffie (#55) is right behind with three.
Senior linebacker Max Richardson (#14) is the leader in the second level. He’s second on the team in tackles, and leads the team with six tackles for loss. He routinely gets into the backfield, and is great against the run.
The Eagles have come away with some impressive wins this season, particularly a one-point win over Pitt a couple weeks. And they nearly beat UNC in a 26-22 loss. They’ve played pretty good ball so far, but will certainly meet their toughest challenge this Saturday.
Clemson’s pass rush versus BC’s quarterback Phil Jurkovec will be the matchup to watch in Saturday’s showdown. The Tigers have been great at getting after the quarterback while Jurkovec is mobile enough to evade the rush, but also has great awareness to step up into the pocket and beat teams that overpursue through the air.
If the Tigers can hold off Jurkevec and the Eagles’ deep threats then they should win easily. And Clemson’s offense should continue to run efficiently. Until we see the Tigers have an off day, it’s safe to assume they’ll be clicking on all cylinders. It’s just a matter of whether or not the BC offense can keep pace.