October 21, 2017 Atlanta - Georgia Tech players celebrates a 38-24 victory over the Wake Forest in an NCAA college football game at Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, October 21, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Can Georgia Tech beat Clemson? Why it could and couldn’t happen

According to the Weather Channel, there’s a 100 percent chance that it will rain Saturday in Clemson. The likelihood for Georgia Tech to beat the No. 7 Tigers is slightly lower than that, however. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Yellow Jackets a 13 percent chance to pull the upset. Some online bookmakers had Tech has a 14.5-point underdog as of Wednesday, which ties for the largest spread against the Jackets in coach Paul Johnson’s tenure.

B-back KirVonte Benson said he hears it – “the hype that everybody’s saying we’re the underdogs, we have no chance of winning, if we’re going to beat them, it’s going to be maybe something fluky or something.”

Could it happen? Could Tech leave Memorial Stadium with a signature win, earn a virtually guaranteed spot in the Top 25 for the first time since 2015 and eliminate the defending national champions from the College Football Playoff hunt?

A look at why the Jackets can and can’t  claim their biggest win, by ranking, since beating the same Tigers at Bobby Dodd Stadium in 2011, almost six years to the date:

Why Tech can’t beat Clemson

Clemson has controlled Tech’s offense the past two seasons in a way that no one has. After limiting Tech to 71 rushing yards in 2015 – the lowest rushing yardage total in Johnson’s tenure – the Tigers came back last year and held the Jackets to 95, which is tied for the third fewest.

Defensive linemen such as Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence are back, as is linebacker Kendall Joseph, all of whom caused the Jackets trouble last year.

“They’re big people,” Benson said. “They’re big men. They have a very good defense.”

Further, after doing their damage to Tech last year on a short week – it was a Thursday night game after both teams had played the previous Saturday – the Tigers have had an extra week to prep for the Jackets.

Through six games, Tech has done plenty well, but shown weaknesses that could well be costly. Notably, the Jackets have had trouble punching the ball in from inside the 10-yard line. Tech almost certainly won’t win this game with a field-goal barrage from Brenton King, who, by the way, will make his first road start Saturday.

Pass protection has not been adequate, part of the reason why the Jackets have an 88/12 run/pass ratio, about eight points higher than their norm. In the first half against Wake Forest on Saturday, the Jackets tried to go to the pass more frequently, and Demon Deacons defensive end Duke Ejiofor devoured quarterback TaQuon Marshall with three sacks. After joking Monday that Tech might throw the ball 50 or 60 times against Clemson, Johnson added, “They might break an NCAA sack record if we tried that.”

Tech is at its best when it can pop big plays in the passing game and keep defenses honest with the threat of it. Clemson is not the team to be playing when the Jackets are passing even less frequently than normal and have trouble protecting the quarterback when trying it.

Since the second-half meltdown against Tennessee in the opener, the Tech defense has been a much better unit. The Jackets are fifth nationally in third-down efficiency (24.6 percent) and have allowed only 20 plays of 20 yards or more, tied for fifth in FBS. The biggest slip-up since then was the Miami game, when the Hurricanes battered the Jackets for 184 rushing yards, getting blocked up at the point of attack and missing tackles.

Like Miami, Clemson has a big offensive line and a productive run game. The Tigers can rotate four running backs, including big-play threat Travis Etienne, who has four run plays of 50 yards or more. Even without quarterback Kelly Bryant, who apparently will play after suffering a concussion against Syracuse two weeks ago, Clemson’s run game will be a bear.

A big play out of special teams would help level the field, but Tech’s return game, in Johnson’s words, has been “abysmal.” The Jackets, who have had some success going after punts and field-goal tries in recent seasons, have yet to record a block this season.

Some intangibles also favor Clemson. After their upset loss at Syracuse on Oct.13, the defending national champions were likely bent on avoiding a repeat, well aware that another loss likely makes repeating impossible.

An 8 p.m. kickoff at Memorial Stadium is a comfortable and energy-giving setting for Clemson, not as much so for the Jackets, many of whom will be making their first trip there.

For a night game on national television, Clemson fans are “going to be wound up,” Johnson said.

Why Tech can beat Clemson

Despite Tech’s running game issues the past two seasons against Clemson, the Jackets look like they’re bringing a different group to Death Valley. The guard-center-guard trio of Parker Braun, Kenny Cooper and Shamire Devine/Will Bryan looks like the best that Johnson has had, and would seem to stand a better chance of dislodging the Clemson defensive line to clear lanes for quarterback TaQuon Marshall and Benson. Tuesday, Benson likened running behind Devine, listed at 380 pounds, to following a refrigerator.

While part of the reason Johnson has leaned so heavily on the run is the suspect passing game, part of it, too, has been how trustworthy the run game has been. The Jackets already have four 400-yard rushing games this season, more than any Johnson-coached team at Tech.

In Benson, Tech has a B-back who could attack Clemson with a combination of power, elusiveness and speed that it hasn’t seen in previous games with the Jackets. Marshall, too, has been able to gain tough yards while also demonstrating burst on the perimeter.

“I think the B-back has been terrific all year for them,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables told Clemson media this week. “Excellent player. He kind of really makes them go.”

Georgia Tech and wide receiver Stephen Hill (No. 5) upset No. 5 Clemson by a 31-17 score on October 29, 2011 at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Johnny Crawford jcrawford@ajc.com.
Photo: Jcrawford@ajc.com

Further, Johnson would say that Tech’s play the past two seasons against Clemson has not been representative. He said that the offense has “played like garbage,” to be precise. Tech’s offense has hung up numbers on strong defenses in the past. If it’s playing well, it can do so again.

“Just do what we do, and we’ll be fine,” Marshall said.

On defense, Tech actually played OK against Clemson last year. The Jackets were picked apart by quarterback Deshaun Watson on the Tigers’ two touchdown drives in the first quarter, but still held Clemson to 26 points and 5.4 yards per play, both well under the Tigers’ season averages.

And thus far, Tech’s defense looks markedly better, though bringing back linebacker Brant Mitchell, who missed the Wake Forest game with a lower-body injury and whose status for Saturday is unclear, would help. Chances are that Clemson will hit big plays and score points. But if Tech can induce a low-possession game and a few three-and-outs – Tech is fourth in FBS in three-and-out percentage at 44.4 percent – that could throw off the Tigers’ rhythm.

The slow starts the past two years have been killers against Clemson – Tech fell behind 26-3 in 2015 and 23-0 last year – but the Jackets have been strong in the first quarter, giving up just 17 first-quarter points thus far.

“We’re ready,” nickel back and captain Lawrence Austin said. “They’re a great team, but we’re competitors all across the board. We know we’ve got to make plays. They’re going to make some plays, but we can’t hang our heads. We’ve just got to fight the whole time.”

As far as how Tech can win on special teams, that’s a tough one. Lamont Simmons’ kickoff return for a touchdown against Miami was more the Hurricanes’ doing than Tech’s. Clemson hasn’t had a punt blocked since 2010 or a given up a punt return for a touchdown since 2011. Tech has been putting in intensive effort to try to improve the kicking game. Perhaps there’s a breakthrough Saturday.

Judging from their comments and demeanor from interviews, Tech’s players are excited, unafraid and optimistic about their chances against Clemson. They’ll likely take the field with an us-against-the-world mindset, which can be dangerous against a team that realizes it can’t afford to lose again. After two aggravating losses to Tennessee and Miami, beating Clemson would be a hefty trophy for the Jackets.

Tech often plays well in these circumstances, most recently the 30-20 win at Virginia Tech last season. Don’t be surprised by a gadget play from the offense to try to get some easy points and perhaps unsettle the Tigers a little bit. The Jackets have not had a complete game this season, but Clemson should get their best effort.

“I’m excited to play them, I know the team’s excited to play them,” A-back J.J. Green said. “You don’t get too many games like this.”

A win in Death Valley would be a considerable upset, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.

“It’s exciting,” Marshall said. “You can’t really ask for much more. They’re a good team. I think we have the capability to go in and win.”

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