The time has finally arrived. After knowing that they would meet for weeks, the Hurricanes will finally match against the Clemson Tigers in Charlotte, North Carolina, for all the ACC marbles. A war among two titans in the conference, the game serves as play-in game for the conference to see who will make the field of four teams in the College Football Playoff. Always here for the people, State of the U gives you the information on who to watch Saturday in primetime.
Two vs. Two Matchup
Malek Young and Michael Jackson vs. WR Deon Cain and Ray-Ray McCloud
In a championship game such as this, we really could look all over the field to find an intriguing matchup. Yet we chose Miami’s two outside cornerbacks, Young and Jackson, who looked pedestrian last week against a Pitt receiving corp. Tigers receivers Deon Cain, Ray-Ray McCloud and even Hunter Renfrow will be the best competition in terms of depth and talent the ’Canes line up across from all season. We’re curious to see if Miami will put Young against McCloud given their similar stature and likewise for the bigger Carter squaring up against Cain.
If there is any game this season where multiple appearances of the ‘Turnover Chain’ is needed, this is that week. Jackson’s four interceptions are tied for the team lead with Jaquan Johnson, and Young has two interceptions of his own. Clemson’s QB Kelly Bryant has thrown just six interceptions this season, with two INTs over his last six games this season, so the Hurricane DBs will have their work cut out. Young leads all Miami defensive backs with eight pass break ups, but in a game where the talent is evenly matched across both rosters, UM needs to capitalize on any and every opportunity to get the ball back to the offense.
Cain leads Clemson with 620 receiving yards and five touchdown receptions. What makes the Tigers so dangerous is that any one of their pass threats can get hot in an NBA JAM style being nearly impossible to stop. We’ll discuss another target that could be the catalyst to a Clemson win a bit later, but Cain has been one of the more reliable targets for Bryant and the offense. The threat with McCloud comes with his speed and versatility. Accounting for 402 receiving yards and 40 receptions, with one receiving touchdown, McCloud is dangerous in space and has the ability to take the short pass for a long gain. So if you were Miami’s defensive coordinator, Manny Diaz, who worries you the most on offense where everyone is a legitimate threat? Miami needs to win some of those one-on-one matchups, or at least get a stalemate if they want to be crowned ACC Champions before midnight.
Clemson’s Running Game vs Miami’s Front-Seven
Both you and I would love to see more ‘Turnover Chain’ if at all possible. To make that dream become a reality, the ’Canes are going to need to neutralize the run game of the Tigers. Clemson has a three-headed monster in the backfield, spearheaded by QB Kelly Bryant who has the most rushing attempts on the team with 164 for 639 yards and 10 touchdowns. Add the dynamic duo of RB Travis Etienne and RB Tavien Feaster, who also have surpassed 600 yards rushing apiece in a lightning-and-more-lightning rushing attack. With an offense that produces 72 runs of 10 yards or more during the regular season, the Tigers’ rushing attack will look to take advantage of a Miami run defense that is susceptible to giving up big gains on the ground.
Miami’s Offensive Line vs. Clemson’s Defensive Line
Winning in the trenches goes hand-in-hand with emerging from battle victorious. In this edition of the ACC Championship game, the outcome will be determined by Miami’s offensive line. Last week, the Hurricanes’ offensive front gave QB Malik Rosier ample time to scan the field. The other side of the coin was that the Hurricanes could not establish any semblance of a run game against Pitt’s defense, gaining a measly 45 rushing yards against a Panther defense that surrendered eight 100+ rushing games in the regular season. By far Miami’s toughest opponent to date, Clemson’s run defense is the toughest in the ACC, allowing just 113.8 yards-per-game. The Hurricanes cannot afford to be one-dimensional for a consecutive week, or they will suffer the same fate as they did a week ago. Whether it’s getting a good push from Navaughn Donaldson, Tyler Gautier and Trevor Darling on the interior of the line, or the ability of tackles KC McDermott and Tyree St. Louis to allow the ’Canes room to run close to the sidelines, Miami’s offensive line needs to impose their will on the Tigers for the offense to have any sort of success.
Being qualified as elite is in the eye of the beholder. Miami fans believe their defensive front is one of—if not the—best group in the conference. Many feel that it is Clemson’s front-four that are the class of the ACC. The Tigers’ group has personnel that excel in both runs and passing. The interior is manned by future NFL first-round selections at defensive tackle in Christian Wilkins and Dexter Lawrence. Wilkins commands a double-team, and even when the double does come, he manages to still burst through blocks to make a play on the ball carrier, or force a redirect. Defensive end Clelin Ferrell is second in tackles for loss (16) ACC, and tied with Miami’s Trent Harris for second in the ACC in total sacks (8.5). The athletic, six-foot-five Ferrell will be the toughest test Miami’s offensive tackles undertake all season.
Caneseye Players to Watch
Alluded to in our two vs. two breakdown, the biggest threat on Clemson’s offense at receiver could be freshman WR Tee Higgins. We don’t just mean from a size standpoint at six foot four, 200 pounds, but in terms of his penchant for making big plays down the field. Higgins has four receptions of 30+ yards and two of 40+ yards. It appears that he has begun to find his footing in the Tigers’ offense of late.
While Miami’s defensive back unit has become notorious for their ability to get turnovers, Clemson has their own CB who has put together an excellent season. CB Ryan Carter is a do-it-all corner for the Tigers, stacking up 29 total tackles, nine pass breakups, two interceptions and two tackles for loss. Listed at five-foot-nine, Carter may not pass the eye test, but he is a defensive playmaker who helps helps Clemson get off the field sooner rather than later.
I don’t think we need to post Santana Moss’ quote this time around—it’s evident that this is a big game. The Hurricanes will rely on their playmakers to make statements from the kickoff to the final whistle, and Michael Pickney fits that description. Stuffing opponents behind the line of scrimmage, Pinckney has three tackles for loss in his final two regular season games. Whether it is Pinckney or LB Shaq Quarterman, the ’Canes are going to need an igniter to set the defense ablaze in the Charlotte night sky.
With TE Christopher Herndon finished for the season with an MCL injury, Michael Irvin II will be thrust into the starting lineup. Miami also lost WR Ahmmon Richards to a torn meniscus yesterday. For the Hurricanes’ receiving corp as a whole, it means more of the onus of the passing game will be put on those who have been trusted throughout the season. Braxton Berrios has been the surest pass-catcher, and will need to be involved heavily if Miami hopes to be crowned ACC Champs. Berrios leads all UM receivers with 45 receptions, 583 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Playing what will be his final game in his home state of North Carolina, look for No. 8 to put on a show in front of family and friends with the chance to achieve a title that has alluded the Hurricanes program for much too long.
Saturday will be the third consecutive ACC Championship game for Clemson, winners of the last two ACC titles. The last time that the Tigers lost in ACC title game was in 2009 to Georgia Tech; however, that win was vacated by the NCAA based on a GT player receiving impermissible benefits.
IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE U!