Georgia Southern at Clemson

The Sports Xchange

September 12, 2018 at 5:13 pm.

GAME SNAPSHOT
KICKOFF: Saturday, noon ET
SITE: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.
TV: ESPN2
SERIES: First meeting
RANKINGS: Clemson No. 2

PLAYERS TO WATCH
Eagles

–QB Shai Werts started all 11 games a year ago as a redshirt freshman and continues to trigger Georgia Southern’s option attack. He has rushed for more yards (246) than he has passed for (183) in the two games and accounted for six touchdowns — four rushing, two passing.

–WR Wesley Kennedy III has been Werts’ top target when the Eagles do take to the air. He has only four catches, but they have been good for 100 yards. He also has rushed twice for 26 yards and had a 77-yard run as a freshman last season. He also returns punts (2-67) and kickoffs (2-61).

–LB Tomarcio Reese is the team’s second-leading tackler (13 tackles) has been a factor in pass defense at both ends. He has shared in one of Georgia Southern’s three sacks and has one of the team’s two interceptions.

–FS Josh Moon is in his customary place — third on the team in tackles with 12 stops. He has been third on the team in tackles in each of the last two seasons and had two interceptions and two pass breakups last year. He has broken up one pass this season.

Tigers

–QB Kelly Bryant strengthened his grasp on the starting job with his performance against Texas A&M last week, guiding the Tigers on their final six possessions and coming up big with several crucial runs. He wound up completing 12 of 17 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown and leading Clemson in rushing with 54 yards and a touchdown. “I just stay the course and continue to grind,” Bryant said.

–RB Travis Etienne is averaging 5.6 yards per carry, so all he needs is more carries. Etienne has only 19 carries this season, but the Tigers’ game against Georgia Southern should afford him his most opportunities this season. “We definitely want to get him as many touches as possible,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said.

–WR Tee Higgins has emerged as Clemson’s key playmaker in the passing game. Cut from the mold of former Clemson great Mike Williams, the 6-foot-4 Higgins had three receptions for 123 yards, including a highlight-reel 64-yard touchdown, last week at Texas A&M. Earlier this week he was named ACC Receiver of the Week — the first Tiger to receive that honor since Williams in 2016.

–LB Kendall Joseph, who was Clemson’s leading tackler last season, is off to a slow start, but look for him to boost his numbers against Georgia Southern and the Bulldogs’ run-happy offense. Joseph pondered turning pro last season, but has said he is glad he decided to return for a final season.

KEYS
TO THE GAME

Georgia Southern’s Shai Werts had kind of a unique perspective on the game atmosphere at Clemson.

“I know it’s going to be loud,” said the sophomore quarterback, who is from Newberry, S.C. “I grew up going to games at Clemson, so I know what it’s going to be like on third down.”

Clemson (2-0) will host Georgia Southern (2-0) Saturday. Kickoff was moved to noon from 3:30 p.m. in advance of Hurricane Florence.

Clemson actually recruited Wertz as an athlete and offered him a scholarship, but he eventually decided that he would rather be a quarterback at a smaller school than play another position at a larger school.

The decision has worked out just fine for Wertz, who has accounted for six touchdowns while helping the Eagles to wins over South Carolina State and Massachusetts to match their win total from a year ago.

“Their quarterback is their best player,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s their leading rusher, leading passer, leading scorer. He’ll be excited to come in here and play us for sure.”

Clemson is coming off a hard-fought 28-26 victory at Texas A&M last week. The Tigers were outgained 501-413, but used big plays to outlast the Aggies and first-year coach Jimbo Fisher.

“The biggest thing for us is developing our team every week,” said Swinney, whose team is bidding for a fourth consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championship and College Football Playoff berth. “There have been a lot of very positive things from our first two games, but there are a lot of areas we need to get better in if we’re going to reach our potential.”

Foremost among them might be shoring up the defensive secondary. Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond torched the Tigers for a career-high 430 yards passing.

“We had some total busts, so that’s mental and that’s coaching as well,” Swinney said. “We had a lot of mental errors. We’re going to have to measure things in practice. It’s about having your eyes on the right things and not missing signals and turning people loose.”

While the secondary may need to regroup, the Tigers’ run defense remains solid, which doesn’t bode well for Georgia Southern, a triple-option team that annually ranks among the national leaders in rushing.

The Eagles, who won six Division I-AA titles before moving to the FBS ranks in 2014, rank fourth in the FBS this season with an average of 326.5 rushing yards per game. Clemson allows only 94 yards per game on the ground and is limiting opponents to 2.2 yards per rush, so something’s got to give.

“There are good players all over the place (for Clemson),” said Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford, whose team is looking for its first road victory against a non-conference opponent since stunning Florida in 2013.

“We’ve just got to make sure we take care of ourselves. If they end up being faster, if they end up being stronger, if they end up being more athletic, we’ve just got to go play as hard as we can.”

Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, who is a good friend of Wertz, tightened his grasp on the Tigers’ starting job with his performance last week. Bryant, who split time with freshman Trevor Lawrence in the first two games, guided the Tigers on their last six possessions of the game and wound up leading the team in passing and rushing.

“I thought his leadership and toughness and poise down the stretch were awesome,” Swinney said. “It was exactly what we needed in that moment.”

Although Clemson is a heavy favorite, Swinney recalls the near-upsets that Georgia Southern has posted in recent years, including an overtime loss at Georgia in 2015, a one-point loss at N.C. State in 2014 and a four-point defeat at Georgia Tech, also in 2014.

“They have a proud program with a lot of tradition,” Swinney said. “I’m expecting a dogfight — a four-quarter game, and that’s what we’re preparing for.”

 

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