Clemson football: Goals ahead of final regular season game

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Clemson football will finish its regular season this weekend, wrapping up its ninth divisional game of the year against Virginia Tech. A rescheduling of the Florida State game is off the table after a recent schedule change made by the ACC, but Clemson didn’t plan on traveling down to Florida again anyway. With the season almost over, Clemson is running out of time to make improvements.

The ACC recently announced several scheduling adjustments that allowed the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to clinch a spot in the conference championship. Even if Brian Kelly’s team loses to Syracuse, it will still make the ACC Championship Game. Meanwhile, Clemson needs a win to secure its bid or a Miami loss in either of the Hurricanes’ next two games.

Most analysts assume the Tigers will roll to a comfortable win over the Hokies. While Clemson is coming off a scorching 52-17 win over Pitt, Dabo Swinney’s team must remain focused. The Tigers flashed more inconsistencies and weaknesses this season than in either of the past two years. The game against Virginia Tech is an opportunity to overcome those deficiencies.

Get Etienne over 100 rushing yards

Clemson set the tone on the ground during its previous runs to the national championship game. However, the Tigers witnessed a stunning dip in rushing production this season. In 2019, the offense averaged 240.5 rushing yards per game. That mark is down to 149.4 yards per game this year.

I’ve harped on this in the past, but Clemson cannot enter the playoffs or ACC Championship Game with a one-dimensional offense. The running game must support Trevor Lawrence, especially if the Tigers plan on controlling the pace of games against worthy opponents. Clemson must get better production from the offensive line and fewer fumbles from Travis Etienne to restore its dominance on the ground.

Despite winning the ACC Player of the Year award in each of the past two seasons, Etienne hasn’t made much of an impact as a runner this year. His receiving totals leave a better impression than his usual production on the ground. Etienne is only averaging 76 rushing yards per game in 2020. For reference, he averaged 58 rushing yards as a freshman and 109 during his sophomore and junior campaigns.

Etienne only has two 100-yard rushing performances this season. That’s horrendous for a running back possessing first-round potential. Clemson’s offensive line, which got four new starters this year, needs to open more holes for the superstar running back.

Let healthy returning players feast

I can’t describe how much of a relief it was to see Tyler Davis and James Skalski take the field against Pittsburgh. The two defensive starters are crucial parts of a unit that suffered against Boston College and Notre Dame. Clemson’s defense set new season highs for points scored in back-to-back weeks without those two players in the lineup.

Davis and Skalski hadn’t played since the Georgia Tech blowout in mid-October. Meanwhile, Mike Jones Jr. also made his return to the lineup after not appearing since Clemson’s win over Syracuse. Bryan Bresee also saw playing time against Pittsburgh after suffering an injury against Notre Dame. The return of these crucial leaders gave Clemson’s defense some extra juice last weekend.

The Tigers are still awaiting the returns of cornerback Sheridan Jones and safety Lannden Zanders, who both missed the Pittsburgh game. Hopefully, they’ll be ready to play in Clemson’s regular season finale, but the Tigers aren’t releasing much injury information this year because of COVID-19 and player privacy.

Clemson football can’t go into the postseason without all of its key starters, especially on defense. With any luck, the Tigers will get their injured stars back and get them re-acclimated to the game by beating Virginia Tech.

Dominate against the run

Virginia Tech enters Saturday’s matchup averaging 250 rushing yards per game. That puts the Hokies among the best rushing teams in the FBS. Meanwhile, Notre Dame averages roughly 230 rushing yards per outing. Think of the matchup against the Hokies and Khalil Herbert as practice for battling Notre Dame and Kyren Williams.

Clemson’s defensive front recently received reinforcements in Davis and Skalski, but even the veteran duo won’t save the defense alone. In previous seasons, the defense stifled top running backs and run-orientated offenses. Yet, Williams ran for 140 yards and three touchdowns against the Tigers. That kind of performance isn’t acceptable from a championship-seeking defense.

Avoid injuries at all cost

This ties back into my second point. Out of every Clemson football team Lawrence has played on, this unit is the weakest. The defense is week-to-week, the running game disappears, the offensive line is inexperienced and the wide receivers lack the ceilings of Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. However, when the Tigers are fully healthy, they’re as good as anyone in college football.

Losing a starter or even quality rotational player against Virginia Tech could prove devastating down the line. Once Clemson football has a significant lead, Swinney should get his men off the field as soon as possible.

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