1. Lawrence coming in hot
Without an interception Saturday, Tech’s defense may become a part of history. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence has thrown 355 passes without an interception, a streak dating to the Tigers' seventh game of last season. The ACC record for consecutive throws without an interception is held by N.C. State’s Russell Wilson with 379. (The FBS record is 444, held by Colby Cameron of Louisiana Tech.)
A Cartersville High grad, Lawrence is doing more than avoiding interceptions this season, completing 72.4% of his passes and averaging 9.8 yards per attempt (8.0 is well above average) with a 10/0 touchdown/interception ratio.
Tech’s pass defense, aided by an improved pass rush, has improved in some respects, notably opponent pass completion rate, which has dropped from 60.4% to 57.3%. But the opposition’s 9/3 touchdown/interception rate needs some work.
Tech defensive backs Tre Swilling and Kaleb Oliver both picked off Lawrence twice last year in the season opener, one of Lawrence’s poorest games in his 26-start career, and actually threw two against Tech in 2018 in the game that vaulted Lawrence into the starting lineup (safety Malik Rivera and defensive lineman Desmond Branch). However, Tech defensive coordinator Andrew Thacker said, Lawrence is not making the mistakes that he did last year that led to the interceptions.
“It’s our job to force the issue on him and get him off of rhythm like any quarterback,” Thacker said. “He is human, he does make mistakes, he is not flawless. But when it comes to talent, there is not a more talented young man in the country.”
2. Third downs a key in first half
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney saluted the Jackets for their fortitude in rallying back from early deficits – winning 16-13 after falling behind 10-0 to Florida State and coming back from a 21-7 deficit against Louisville to win 46-27. Even in the two losses, Tech closed a 28-7 gap to 28-21 against Central Florida and a 17-0 deficit against Syracuse to pull to within 23-20 before faltering.
“When you watch, you can see certain things as a coach,” Swinney said. “This team is playing with confidence, they’re playing with great effort. They believe in what they’re doing. They believe in each other, they don’t quit.”
A critical step that the Jackets can take actually is not making those comebacks necessary. Tech has been outscored 41-14 in the first quarter and 82-41 in the first half of its four games.
Advantageous field position gained through turnovers and special-teams plays is one part of the Jackets' downfall in the first half. Third-down play on defense is another. Tech opponents are 21-for-37 in the first half on third down (56.8%) but 9-for-28 (32.1%) after halftime.
Thacker said that he and his staff need to be better at getting the right personnel on the field and having them play fast, along with making better calls.
3. Leaning on tight ends
Tight ends Dylan Deveney and Dylan Leonard could be a big help against Clemson as they were against Louisville in the first game of the season in which they were both fully available. Offensive coordinator Dave Patenaude often had them both on the field as a counter to the Cardinals using three down linemen.
On four of Tech’s five red-zone touchdown plays, both were on the field. Both Deveney and Leonard’s size and speed makes them effective as both blockers and targets for quarterback Jeff Sims.
“It does open up a bunch of stuff,” Patenaude said. “It just makes you more flexible with what you’re calling.”
Flexibility is particularly important against Clemson, as Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables rarely sticks with one scheme from game to game and also oversees a unit stocked with future draft picks.
“The funny thing with these guys is that you never really know what you’re going to get until you get there because they’re so multiple in what they do,” Patenaude said. “Coach Venables is as good a defensive coordinator as there is at any level of football.”
4. Placekicking treacherous for both
Tech and Clemson have one weakness in common. Both are trying to resolve protection issues with their placekicking units. The Tigers had three field-goal tries blocked against Miami, which is nothing compared with the Jackets' trials.
When Louisville’s defensive lineman Jonathan Goldwire hopped over the middle of the Jackets' line to block kicker Gavin Stewart’s extra-point try in the third quarter last Friday, it was the sixth block of a Tech field-goal or extra-point try this season.
To put Tech’s placekicking issues into context, Tech has had four field-goal tries blocked this season out of six tries. Before this season, dating to the end of the 2014 season, Jackets field-goal units had gotten off 60 consecutive field-goal attempts without having four blocked.
Low trajectories and besieged protection have both been problematic. Asked how it could be remedied, coach Geoff Collins replied, “Same thing we do every day – we’ve got to work and work and work every single day, and the guys are doing it. Continue every single day to get better.”
5. Quez Jackson keeps busy
Linebacker Quez Jackson has led the team in tackles in three of its four games this season, including nine against Louisville on Friday. With 33 tackles total, his 8.3 tackles-per-game average ranks seventh in the ACC. That’s commendable work for a player who was rated the No. 119 prospect in Georgia (247Sports Composite) in the class of 2018 out of Peach County High.
Thacker said that Jackson and fellow linebacker David Curry prepare for games as well as anyone on the defense. Beyond that, Jackson rarely has missed tackles.
“At the moment of truth, he’s shown up and he’s tackled well,” Thacker said. “That’s what we ask the linebackers to do.”
Jackson said he is playing with more confidence after last season, in which he started the final five games of the season.
“But that’s all due to the guys around me,” he said. “Because I feed off their energy, we feed off each others' energy, so it’s just great for the whole team in general.”