Everyone has that one friend whose life is pristinely in order: countless hours spent at a varsity sports practice and even more volunteering in Boston while still keeping an impeccable social reputation and a sterling GPA. For this kid, everything clicks—nothing can tear him or her away from this seemingly endless hot streak.
But watch this friend very closely: come midterm season, homework piles up, expectations get higher, and all of a sudden, the hard work crumbles as quickly as it came. In other words, this kid chokes under the pressure, unable to clinch a completely spotless record.
This weekend, the No. 24 Clemson Tigers hope to avoid choking again, taking on Boston College at Alumni Stadium. The Tigers moved back into the AP Top 25 after defeating the ACC rival Louisville 23-17, continuing a three game ACC win streak and increasing to 4-2, with a 3-1 record in the ACC.
It’s notable, however, that each of Clemson’s three ACC wins came while unranked—that’s because the Tigers suffered two early season losses to ranked opponents: then-No. 12 Georgia, in a 45-21 rout, and then-No. 1 Florida State, 23-17 in overtime. And while a hard-fought defeat to FSU could seem like a positive, the Seminoles lacked defending Heisman winner Jameis Winston, a loss which represented a golden opportunity for the Tigers to take control of the ACC and the polls.
Save for the brutal loss to Georgia, Clemson looks poised to dominate the Eagles on defense, as it has done all year. The Tigers rank 18th in passing defense—an asset that will most likely not factor heavily into this game, thanks to BC’s weak aerial attack behind quarterback Tyler Murphy. This means Tigers’ star pass rusher Vic Beasley, third in the NCAA with eight sacks, will seek to keep Murphy scrambling.
Normally, this would not be a problem for Murphy and BC’s vaunted ground game, which has gained the most yards in the ACC and has scored 20 touchdowns between five different backs. Yet, head coach Dabo Swinney’s rushing defense ranks 11th in the nation, giving up a mere 100.5 yards per game, a full 215 yards lower than BC’s per game average, and it is far and away the most difficult defense the Eagles have faced so far this year.
While the Tigers may get the advantage on the defensive side, they will be hard-pressed to get ahead when controlling the ball. According to ESPN’s metrics, BC’s defense ranks just ahead in rushing defense (ninth) and just behind in passing defense (18th), giving Clemson its toughest all-around test this season. Clemson will certainly benefit from BC’s lack of depth in the secondary, and it will look to capitalize on the loss of Eagles’ cornerback Bryce Jones.
The Tigers, however, will have to deal with their own loss in freshman phenom, quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson, who threw for 1,176 yards and 12 touchdowns while also gaining 147 yards on the ground with three touchdowns, left last week’s game against Louisville in the second quarter. According to CBS Sports, he broke a small bone in a finger on his throwing hand and requires four screws—the injury will leave Watson on the sidelines for about four weeks.
This means that senior Cole Stoudt will once again step into the starting role. Stoudt began the year as the starter, but was demoted after turning in a poor performance against Georgia and being overshadowed by Watson, who threw three touchdowns in eight passes in Clemson’s 73-7 demolishing of South Carolina State.
While Stoudt led Clemson in its win over Louisville, he did so unimpressively, completing 20 of 33 for only 162 yards and an interception. The Tigers did not score an offensive touchdown with Stoudt in the game. Additionally, he received a painkiller and did not practice prior to the Louisville game, as reported by Charleston’s Post and Courier. Despite being a senior, Stoudt has spent most of his career on the bench as a backup to Tajh Boyd.
“It really wasn’t because Cole played bad,” said Swinney of the previous change under center in a teleconference on Wednesday. “It was more that this freshman we have was just unreal. That’s just kind of what happened there. But we have all the confidence in the world in Cole Stoudt. We expect him to play at a high level and lead us to victory. We know he’s capable of doing that.”
Despite having no player with 100 yards in a single game, Clemson sports four running backs who have gained over 100 yards, including leading rusher Adam Choice, with 205 on the ground, and senior D.J. Howard, who also has three touchdowns. Swinney will need one of them to break out against BC’s iron-clad rushing defense, led by defending ACC Defensive Players of the Week Josh Keyes and Brian Mihalik.
If the Tigers want to retain their spot in the Top 25, this matchup is crucial to impress voters, especially with little difficulty remaining on their schedule. But, if the Tigers choke against BC, expect them to stay off the rankings. This time, for good.
Featured Image by Richard Shiro / AP Photo