Winston-Salem, NC (Sports Network) - The 14th-ranked Clemson Tigers begin a two-game road trip through the ACC, as they invade Winston-Salem on Thursday night for league action against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
Dabo Swinney's Tigers are still very much in the hunt for the conference crown, as the defending ACC champs come into this contest at 6-1 overall and 3-1 in conference play. The team remained a half game behind the Florida State Seminoles in the Atlantic Division standings, with last week's 38-17 win over Virginia Tech. The team's lone loss came at Florida State on Sept. 22, but Clemson has reeled off three wins since then.
Jim Grobe's Demon Deacons have had their ups and downs and as a result, are just 4-3 overall, including a disappointing 2-3 mark in-conference. Wake Forest did bring an end to a two-game slide with last weekend's 16-10 win at Virginia.
Clemson has dominated this series, holding a 59-17-1 advantage all-time. The Tigers have won three straight meetings and five of the last six overall.
The Tigers were held to a season-low 295 yards against Virginia Tech, but still found a way to prevail. On the year, Clemson has been much more explosive, with playmakers at just about every skilled positions. Despite the modest numbers against the Hokies, Clemson is still averaging just under 500 yards per game (492.9), getting great balance between the run (191.7) and the pass (301.1).
Quarterback Tahj Boyd orchestrates the offense, completing 67.1 percent of his passes, for 1,908 yards and 15 touchdowns. He threw a TD pass and rushed for two in the win over Virginia Tech. It helps to have a couple of All-American candidates to throw to. Sammy Watkins was supposed to be the go-to-guy coming into the season, but he has played second-fiddle to junior DeAndre Hopkins, who leads the team in receptions (52), receiving yards (845) and TD catches (9).
The ground game is led by tailback Andre Ellington, who has rushed for 693 yards thus far, on 5.1 yards per carry. Ellington has scored seven of the team's 17 rushing TDs this season.
The Tiger defense has been a step or two behind the offense this season, but last week, Clemson's stop unit was stellar, including a pair of interceptions by safety Jonathan Meeks, one of which he returned for a touchdown.
"We improved today," defensive coordinator Brent Venables said following the win over Virginia Tech. "I'm really happy for the guys. ... We've got good enough players to play really good, quality defense. And this is the first time you feel like it wasn't just one quarter, you played well enough for four quarters to give yourself a chance to win."
Linebacker Anthony Stephone leads the team in tackles (56), followed by fellow LBs Jonathan Willard (52) and Spencer Shuey (39).
The Demon Deacons have had their problems on the offensive side of the football in 2012, averaging a modest 316.1 yards per game, struggling with consistency both on the ground (120.6 ypg) and through the air (195.6 ypg).
Quarterback Tanner Price has really had a tough time of it up to this point, completing just 50.7 percent of his passes, for 1,327 yards, with seven touchdowns against four interceptions. A big reason for the struggles is the loss of standout wide receiver Mike Campanaro (38 receptions, 429 yards, three TDs).
With the lack of a vertical threat, tailbacks Josh Harris (432 yards, four TDs) and Deandre Martin (299 yards, five TDs) have struggled to ignite the ground attack.
The problem is compounded for Wake Forest by a defense that has had its own issues. The Demon Deacons are yielding just over 400 yards of total offense per game, including a generous 183.7 yards rushing.
Junior linebacker Justin Jackson leads the team in tackles (52) as well as sacks (3). Senior middle linebacker Mike Olson is right behind in terms of tackles (51).
Grobe knows the challenge that Clemson represents.
"They're shooting the lights out offensively," Grobe said at his weekly press conference. "Virginia Tech did a good job against them last week and slowed them down a little bit, but their defense stepped up. Their defense has gotten better every week. Offensively they've got a lot of big-time players at the skill positions and they've got a good kicking game as well. You just don't see many weaknesses in them; they've got great talent but they're also very well coached. We're going to have to play at the top of our game to have a chance."