ACC Championship Game preview: Will Clemson, Miami passing attacks answer bell in Charlotte?

Miami suffered its first loss of the season in its regular-season finale Friday, dropping a 24-14 decision at Pittsburgh in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. The loss ended the Hurricanes’ 15-game win streak, which was the longest in the country.

We’ll see where Miami checks in Tuesday evening when the newest set of College Football Playoff rankings are released, but beating Clemson in the ACC Championship Game next weekend would make the Hurricanes a one-loss ACC champion and should certainly have them square in the CFP mix.

Certainly, this isn’t the way that Mark Richt’s squad wanted to go into its biggest game of the season. Surely, the team’s confidence is shaken. Once again, the Hurricanes stumbled to a slow start. This time, though, they were was unable to come back as they had several times before this fall.

Meanwhile, Clemson is in great position to earn its third consecutive CFP bid and defend its first national championship since 1981. The Tigers have certainly moved past their lone loss to Syracuse and are coming off of an impressive win over in-state rival South Carolina on the road.

Let’s take a look at how Miami and Clemson stack up heading into the 2017 ACC Championship Game, which will kick off at 8 p.m. ET Saturday from Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

Clemson offense vs. Miami defense

The Hurricanes had some problems with Panthers true freshman quarterback Kenny Pickett, who threw for 193 yards and a score and ran for 2 more touchdowns in his first career start. He looked confident and poised while making plays both through the air and with his feet. Simply put, he played much better than Hurricanes counterpart Malik Rosier, who was actually benched for a series in the most critical spot of the game. While Miami’s defense did not allow a lot of big plays, Pitt amassed 345 total yards and put together a couple of methodical scoring drives.

And, because of its inept offense, Miami was unable to score off either turnover the defense forced. When a defense forces two takeaways and sets an offense up near midfield, it has to come up with points. Instead, the Hurricanes had a pair of three-and-outs. So even if the Miami defense can force a couple of Tigers turnovers, can Rosier and company cash in?

Back to the Clemson offense, though. Can first-year starting quarterback Kelly Bryant connect on a few plays down the field to loosen up the Miami defense? It is vital for the Tigers to get their downfield passing game going if they are to have any shot at a repeat national championship. Against the last three FBS opponents he faced (Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Florida State) before the South Carolina game, Bryant went a combined 1 of 23 passing on throws traveling 15 yards or more in the air. He performed well against The Citadel two weekends ago, completing 2 of his 5 deep balls with both going for touchdowns. But that was an FCS foe. Miami’s defense is much different.

Enter Tee Higgins, a freshman who made a beautiful one-handed grab down the sideline that went for a 78-yard touchdown against The Citadel. He came into that game not being utilized very much because of the Tigers’ depth at receiver, but perhaps we’ll see more of the budding star who should have a monstrous 2018 season. He followed up his performance against the Bulldogs with 3 catches for 84 yards last Saturday at South Carolina.

Clemson was very prolific downfield with Deshaun Watson leading the offense, but Bryant brings a different skill set to the table. Because of this, the Tigers have relied on quicker, shorter passes to complement their rushing attack this season. Under Bryant, Clemson has relied on the dual-threat signal caller’s strong legs and shiftiness while allowing for more run-pass option plays. Additionally, Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster are part of a rushing attack that is the most dangerous of the Dabo Swinney tenure.

Of course, while accuracy has been an issue for Bryant, his receivers are not immune to blame, either — which is why Higgins may see his role increase against Miami and beyond. His presence offers a real threat of the deep ball, and pushing the ball downfield is a critical aspect of the offense if only for a pass interference call here and there.

Miami proved to be susceptible to the deep ball in its win against Virginia, so Clemson will have its chances. We’ll see if Hurricanes defensive coordinator Manny Diaz wants to bring most of his defenders up near the line of scrimmage and put his corners on the island and dare Bryant to take shots downfield. If that’s the game plan, then Bryant will need to perform as he did against The Citadel as opposed to those previous games against league foes in which he failed to consistently connect deep.

Explosive plays are needed from this offense. We’ve seen them from Etienne & Co. on the ground. But can Bryant channel his inner Watson and make the passing attack more prolific?

Miami offense vs. Clemson defense

The Miami offense was a mess against Pitt. Rosier struggled mightily, completing just 44 percent of his passes (15 of 34) for just 187 yards with 2 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Richt even made a stunning move by benching him in the fourth quarter for Evan Shirreffs, who had thrown 5 passes this season. He promptly threw 2 incompletions and was sacked. Richt announced on Twitter after the game that Rosier would be his starter against the Tigers, but this offense only scored seven points through the first three quarters against Pat Narduzzi’s squad — its lowest total this season.

What’s more, Rosier avoided a couple of interceptions that could have gone the other way and missed on a couple of potentially big plays to the speedy Jeff Thomas and Ahmmon Richards.

While Rosier’s struggles were certainly an issue, the lack of a ground game also played a role in the Pitt loss. Rosier was the team’s leading rusher at the time he was replaced while Travis Homer struggled to get going (7 carries, 12 yards). Miami had issues in the trenches against the Panthers, which certainly doesn’t bode well with Clemson’s nasty defensive front up next. Things will be even more difficult without tight end Chris Herndon IV, who suffered a season-ending knee injury against Pitt. He was second on the team in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. Homer needs more touches, but will Miami abandon the run if things go awry early?

If we see the Miami team that throttled Notre Dame, it should be a very good game on Saturday night. But can the ‘Canes regain the mojo that had everyone proclaiming that The U was back?

The post ACC Championship Game preview: Will Clemson, Miami passing attacks answer bell in Charlotte? appeared first on Diehards.

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