I can remember watching Clemson DE Andre Branch when he was a freshman and thinking “I can’t wait until this cat becomes a senior”. Well, he’s a senior and I’m not sure it has been completely worth the wait. He was overshadowed early in his career by Ricky Sapp and then by Nagurski Award winner Da’Quan Bowers last year. So, I expected him to ball out this year for the Tigers, but he’s been, well, good, I suppose, but I’m not totally convinced.
He’s as talented as any other pass rusher in this year’s draft class but he doesn’t produce on par with his talent. He had 10.5 sacks on the year, but had four in one game. Now it was a huge game, a 23-3 win over Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, but the next time the two teams met, Branch barely did anything, registering only three tackles. So, he’s had moments, but in his last game, he needs to have a huge moment, especially against a team that’ll throw it 50 times. West Virginia’s passing game is constructed to get the ball out fast and in the hands of talented skill players on the perimeter right now.
That can reduce how much impact Branch can have, but if Clemson’s ‘D’ can get West Virginia in 2nd and 3rd and long situations forcing WVU QB Geno Smith to take more 5 step drops, Branch can drop the hammer. And, he’ll have to in this one for a full 60 minutes to give the Clemson ‘D’ a chance to stop WVU’s ‘O’.
West Virginia’s run to the Big East title was a rough one to say the least and the Mountaineers needed to win their games down the stretch and hope for some help along the way. It got the help it needed, but down at USF, it looked like WVU wasn’t going to hold up its own end of the bargain. However, after tying the game and getting the ball back with under a minute left in the game, West Virginia needed a big play to get down into field goal range and #3 Stedman Bailey made that play.
A diving 26-yard catch by West Virginia’s big play receiver saved the season or, at a minimum, put the Mountaineers in field goal range to win the game. The kick was good and now they’re in Miami. As such, Bailey is the key for the WVU passing game.
Sure, Tavon Austin can work the underneath routes all day long and Ivan McCartneydoes work down the field, but it’s Bailey who’s the biggest threat for Clemson to try to stop. He’s the team’s go-to threat, although he had 22 fewer catches than Austin. The big concern is Bailey running free in the secondary with Clemson’s safeties trying to account for him downfield. The Clemson safeties have struggled mightily at times, especially against teams that can exploit them in coverage. West Virginia can do that and will do it mostly with #3 Bailey.
How good has Clemson true freshman play-maker Sammy Watkins been this year? It’s almost an unanswerable question. You can’t measure his impact although his total yardage numbers are off the charts for a rookie. The touches. He gets them in so many different fashions. Speed sweeps. Quick screens. The throws deep downfield. Kickoff returns. You name it.
For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll leave kickoff returns out of the mix because to stop it, either kick it away from him or kick it out of the end zone. Simple, that’s done. But, WVU can’t completely keep Clemson OC Chad Morris and QB Tajh Boyd from finding creative ways to get him the football. So, what does WVU have to do and what can it do to keep his impact to a minimum?
a. Play the game between the hashes, but probably more so between the numbers. Do NOT let him stretch you horizontally all 53 yards. Funnel everything that he does back to where you have help and shorten the field, width wise, for him. You’d be surprised how many times this season he has been given the edge then exposed defenses with his speed.
b. When he motions anywhere, pass him along with safeties. The linebackers have to stay true to the run because if LBs leave the box, Clemson can “gash” WVU with the run. So, when he goes in motion, let the safeties handle him and take the responsibility of tracking him.
c. Rally to the ball every time he touches it. 2 or 3 more guys every time. Don’t be afraid to load up and take shots when he does cross the middle of the field…if WVU can catch him.
This isn’t easy and I’m not saying it is, but maintaining “Watkins integrity” is vital for a WVU win on Wednesday night.
It’s about time Clemson finally gets to a BCS bowl game. Of all of the “major” programs that hadn’t been to a BCS bowl game, it was the one that needed to get off the schneid, especially playing in a conference that has sent Wake Forest and Georgia Tech to BCS bowls during this decade. That said, Clemson head ball coach Dabo Swinney, along with the help of first year OC Morris, did a solid coaching job incorporating young skill players with experienced linemen. But, the one area where Clemson can get hurt, if West Virginia QB Smith has time to throw the football, is in the secondary, especially at safety. The Clemson safeties have been beaten through the air all year long and that’s the ultimate key in this game. If Clemson’s back four can’t make plays, WVU will blow them right off the field. Watkins and Boyd will put points on the board, but in the end, the Mountaineer offense will go to work and dissect the Clemson defense throughout the game.
West Virginia – 37 vs. Clemson – 29