The ACC did not do Duke any favors this season by scheduling the top two teams in the conference—Florida State and Clemson—in consecutive weeks.
After being beaten up by the No. 9 Seminoles last week, the Blue Devils (6-3, 3-2 in the ACC) now face No. 10 Clemson, which comes into Saturday’s game fresh after drubbing Wake Forest 42-13 last Thursday night. In addition to having two extra days to prepare, the lopsided victory in Winston-Salem allowed the Tigers (7-1, 4-1 in the ACC) to rest a majority of their starters in the second half of last week’s contest.
“A couple extra days was good for us,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said.
The only blemish on Clemson’s record is a hard-fought 49-37 loss on the road to Florida State in week four. Since then, the Tigers have comfortably beaten Boston College, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
Entering the final month of the regular season, Clemson appears to be firing on all cylinders, especially on offense, where it has a wealth of talent led by signal caller Tajh Boyd, his favorite target Sammy Watkins and running back Andre Ellington.
“They have as many weapons as anybody in football, “ Duke head coach David Cutcliffe said. “They can run it. They have great receivers. Their quarterback has played at a high level for quite some time now. They execute.”
After serving a two-game suspension during the first two games of the year and battling illness early in the season, Watkins—who is widely considered the most electrifying player in the ACC—is in prime form. The 6-foot-1 sophomore is coming off a huge game against the Demon Deacons, catching eight passes for 202 yards, with 177 of those coming in the first half.
“He has played four and a half games now and I think he’s settling in,” Swinney said. “It was good to see him make some of the those plays that people expect him to make, but he impacts the game no matter what the stat column says.”
Watkins’ partner in crime on the perimeter is junior DeAndre Hopkins, another dynamic game-breaker in the open field. He has 10 touchdown receptions and 15 catches for gains of 20 yards or more on the season. The tandem of him and Watkins is a nightmare for defensive coordinators to prepare for.
“You can’t mimic those kind of guys in practice because of the size and speed,” Cutcliffe said.
On the ground, Andre Ellington, a senior, leads the charge. The 5-foot-9 speedster has gained 754 rushing yards and recorded seven touchdowns this year. Additionally, he is a threat to catch passes out of the backfield.
Boyd appears to be playing his best football of the year after an underwhelming performance against Virginia Tech two weeks ago. The redshirt junior torched the Wake Forest secondary for a Clemson-record 428 yards and five touchdowns in the first half alone.
“Our quarterback got back on track,” Swinney said. “I thought he was outstanding [against Wake Forest].”
The defense also turned in its best effort of the year, sacking Demon Deacon quarterback Tanner Price five times and limiting his offense to just 290 total yards. Replicating that same effort this week against Duke quarterback Sean Renfree, who leads an offense that averages nearly 43 points per game at home, will be one of the Tigers’ biggest keys to finishing the year 4-1 on the road.
“It’s hard to get to the quarterback,” Swinney said. “That ball comes out, and you can tell that’s something they coach very hard.”
To help the cause in forcing Renfree to hold the ball longer, the Tigers’ secondary is expected to regain the services of sophomore cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who averaged 6.8 tackles per game in his four healthy appearances.
“I think he’s going to be able to go,” Swinney said. “But he probably won’t start.”
Clemson’s trip north to Durham is the program’s first since 2007, which saw the Tigers overwhelm the Blue Devils 47-10. Unlike the last meeting between the two cross-divisional foes, the Tigers will face a Blue Devil team that is undefeated at home this year.
“They have really competed their tails off for four quarters every week,” Swinney said. “We are going to have to play well.”