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Can Clemson's offense get on track against LSU's defense?
Considering the success of Clemson and LSU this year, the 2012 Chick-fil-A Bowl could easily be a BCS matchup and should be one of the postseason’s must-see bowl games. Clemson’s two losses came at the hands of South Carolina and Florida State, a combined 21-4. LSU suffered two close defeats to Florida and Alabama – both teams in BCS bowls.
Although Clemson fell short of repeating as ACC champions, coach Dabo Swinney has the program on the right track. Swinney has assembled a solid coaching staff, which is a key reason why the program has back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time since 1989-90. Clemson went 1-1 against the SEC this season, losing 27-17 to South Carolina in the regular season finale, while beating Auburn in Atlanta 26-19 to open the year. Taking on LSU will be an even tougher challenge for Clemson, especially with the matchup in the trenches.
LSU had preseason expectations of playing for the national championship once again but narrow losses to Alabama and Florida relegated Les Miles’ team to a bowl game outside of the BCS. However, LSU has been on an incredible run over the last three years, recording a 34-5 mark during that span.
These two teams have met only twice, with LSU winning both games. Interestingly enough, the two meetings between Clemson and LSU occurred in bowl games.
Chick-fil-A Bowl – Clemson (10-2) vs. LSU (10-2)
Date/Time: Dec. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: Atlanta, Ga.
When the Clemson Tigers have the ball:
Since the arrival of Chad Morris as coordinator, Clemson has emerged as one of the top offenses in the ACC. The Tigers averaged 33.6 points per game last season but increased that number to 42.3 per contest in 2012. Morris’ scheme has been a major factor in Clemson’s offensive improvement but a ton of credit also goes to quarterback Tajh Boyd.
The junior passer has thrived under Morris, throwing for 67 scores and 7,378 yards over the last two seasons. Boyd has 25 picks over the last two years but showed improved mobility in 2012, which allowed him to record 492 yards and nine scores on the ground this season.
Although Boyd has been one of college football’s top-10 quarterbacks the last two seasons, he has struggled against SEC defenses. Take out his 386-yard performance against Auburn in 2011 and Boyd has thrown for 474 yards, three touchdowns and four picks in three previous contests against SEC opponents.
With Boyd and receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins capable of scoring 30 points, the offensive line will be under the microscope on New Year’s Eve. This unit allowed 2.2 sacks a game this season and faces it’s toughest test of the year in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. LSU has one of the best defensive lines in the nation, filled with depth, speed, talent and experience. Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo combined for 11 sacks this season, while tackles Bennie Logan, Anthony Johnson and Josh Downs are active around the line of scrimmage.
Pass protection is a huge question mark for Clemson’s offensive line in this matchup, but it also has to be concerned about clearing the way for running back Andre Ellington. LSU ranks ninth nationally against the run and allowed only one player – Florida’s Mike Gillislee – to reach the 100-yard mark. Ellington rushed for 228 yards in the opener against Auburn but had only two 100-yard performances the rest of the year.
It may seem simple and perhaps too obvious, but the Chick-fil-A Bowl is going to be won or lost in the trenches. Clemson’s offensive line has to play better than it did against South Carolina. If LSU’s defensive line wins the battle up front, Boyd won’t have opportunities to stretch the field. If Boyd has time to throw, there’s no shortage of weapons with Watkins and Hopkins outside at receiver, along with tight end Brandon Ford working the middle of the field.
When the LSU Tigers have the ball:
There’s quite a contrast in style of play between Clemson and LSU. While Clemson prefers a no-huddle spread offense, LSU has old school, run-first mentality. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with running an old-school offense, especially when it has worked to win 34 games over the last three years.
LSU leans with the run but is fairly balanced on offense. The rushing attack is generating 179.9 yards per game, while the passing offense ranks 90th nationally at 207.3 yards per contest.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger was under heavy pressure to perform in his first season as the starter and didn’t get comfortable until late in the year. Mettenberger recorded only two games of more than 200 passing yards through the first eight weeks but finished with at least 217 yards in each of his final four games. Mettenberger seemed in control and showed more poise than he did at the start of the season, which allowed LSU’s passing attack to take a few more chances.
LSU has an underrated group of receivers, headlined by Odell Beckham (40 catches), Jarvis Landry (52 catches), Kadron Boone (24 catches) and Russell Shepard. This group is capable of stretching the field against Clemson’s secondary, which ranked eighth in the ACC and allowed 250.3 yards per game.
Even though Mettenberger showed improvement at the end of the regular season, LSU isn’t going to go away from its bread and butter. Les Miles’ team has an embarrassment of riches in the backfield, as five players could start for a handful of SEC teams. Freshman Jeremy Hill led the team with 631 rushing yards and 10 scores, but Kenny Hilliard (456 yards), Michael Ford (393 yards), Spencer Ware (358 yards) and Alfred Blue (270 yards) will all see touches. Ware was a key contributor out of the backfield for Mettenberger, catching 15 passes for 212 yards and one score.
LSU’s offensive line suffered some key injuries this season, including the loss of potential All-America tackle Chris Faulk early in the year. Despite the new faces in the lineup, LSU averaged 4.3 yards per rush. Clemson’s defensive line averaged 2.3 sacks a game during the regular season, which could create some problems for LSU’s passing attack. However, the bigger problem for Clemson is a rush defense allowing 160.7 yards per game.
Although Clemson can put up points in a hurry, LSU’s edge in the trenches will control the tempo of this game. Boyd should be able to hit on a few big plays but the time off between the regular season finale and bowl game could create some early rust for Clemson. LSU won’t need too much from its passing attack, as Jeremy Hill and Spencer Ware should be able to grind out plenty of yards against Clemson’s defensive line.
Prediction: LSU 34, Clemson 24
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