Sept. 20, 2016
Jon Cooper | The Good Word
– Paul Johnson has never been one to dwell — good or bad.
A 3-0 start to the 2016 season — on the heels of a 3-9 2015 — is no exception.
Of course, nothing can hijack positive emotions, and pretty much everything for that matter, like a primetime Thursday night game against No. 5/3 Clemson at Bobby Dodd Stadium. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN.
“We’re happy to be 3-0 and we’ve got the biggest challenge we’ve faced so far this year on Thursday night on a short week,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a quick turnaround against a very, very talented team. This is the most talented team we’ll have played, by a mile, and that’s not a knock on the other teams. I think Boston College has some really talented, hard-nosed players on defense, but they’re not the same type of physical guys that we’ll see against Clemson.”
So much for celebrating being 3-0 for the third time in four years and the fourth time in six and matching last season’s win total.
It’s getting to 4-0 for the second time in four years and third time in his nine on The Flats that is the big deal now. Herculean, actually.
But numbers like the ledger of his starts, his 7-2 record in home games against ranked teams, his 3-1 mark against top-10 teams in home games and even his 2014 squad being responsible for Clemson’s last regular-season loss (and one of only two games lost as a starter by 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Deshaun Watson) aren’t part of Johnson’s thinking.
“I remember that game, [Watson] got hurt early in that game,” said Johnson of the 28-6 beatdown on Nov. 15, 2014. “We hit some big plays in the running game. We were able to hit some big plays and we also were able to hit some third-down pass plays. DeAndre Smelter made a couple of back-shoulder catches and Darren [Waller] made one on third down and we converted some [more] third downs. So that’s what you’ve got to do.”
But Johnson isn’t much of a history buff as far as this series. He’s certainly not interested in looking back too closely at last year’s game, in which the Jackets were mauled, 43-24. In fact, the recent visits to Clemson have not been pretty, as last year’s 43 points allowed were the fewest allowed by Tech in any of its last three games in Death Valley.
“We don’t talk about last year, other than the fact that [Clemson] beat the fool out of us,” he said. “They beat the fool out of a lot of people last year. If you watch the tape, we were not a very good football team a year ago, and they were. We just have to play better. I think we’re a little better than we were a year ago, we’ll see if they’re better or the same.
“We’ve been good in the one stat that matters, scoring defense,” he added. “But we haven’t played an offense that’s even close to these guys yet. Forcing turnovers would be a big help in that.”
Johnson certainly and rightfully is wary of Clemson’s explosive offense heading into Thursday night. It’s the one that put up 59 last week, granted, against South Carolina State of the MEAC (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference) and is averaging 36.0 ppg. But he respects the talent that’s there.
“I’m sure that [Clemson head coach] Dabo [Swinney] will tell you they haven’t come close to scratching the surface of what they’re capable of offensively with the people they have,” said Johnson. “Let’s just hope they don’t do it this week.”
Johnson felt his defense improved its pressure Saturday against Vanderbilt, but also realizes that Watson, who is seventh in the ACC in total offense (258.7 yards per game) is a different animal than Commodores’ QB Kyle Shurmur.
“It was better. The quarterback for Vanderbilt was not a big run threat,” he said. “He pulled it down a couple of times when we were able to rally to him on third down where if that were Mr. Watson, that would be a first down. It’s still a work in progress but we got better.
“Defensively, you have to stay away from the big plays. It would be helpful to get some turnovers, too,” he added. “They’ve got the kind of defense you’re going to struggle to drive the length of the field on. We’ve got to get some field position and some help some way. They’ve got the kind of offense that if you don’t make them go the length of the field, you’re not going to last very long. You’ve got to play together as a team.”
Offensively, Tech needs to be productive on first and second down, so as to have a chance of converting on third . Clemson’s defense is stopping opponents cold, holding them to a league-best 17.8 success rate on third down. It’s something Tech struggled with last season against the Tigers, going 1-for-12.
“A lot of that was mostly third-and-12 and third-and-15 and third-and-long,” Johnson said. “Nobody has fared very well against them … You get third and long, they’re going to eat you alive because they can get pressure with three guys and play eight in coverage. So we’ve got to try to stay out of third and longs.”
Third down conversions has been a strength for the Jackets, who rank second in the ACC converting at 54.1 percent. But, again, it hasn’t been done against Clemson.
What the Jackets have done against Clemson, and something Johnson hopes to see Thursday night, is play well at home and be able to feed off the energy of the atmosphere that Thursday night primetime brings. The Jackets will look to break a two-game Thursday night home losing streak and win for the first time on a Thursday at Bobby Dodd Stadium since Sept. 10, 2009, when they knocked off Clemson, 30-27.
“I think we’ve always had a really good atmosphere for night games but I think Thursday night games, in particular, have been really good,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll have a big crowd on Thursday night and it’ll be fun for the guys to go out and play.”
“I look at this as a great opportunity,” he added. “We just have to go play, go out there and play as hard as you can and execute. If we can do that, we’ll be in the game. We can play with them, we’ve played with them before. You can take numbers and do whatever you want to but the bottom line is that we’ve played them nine times, we’ve beaten them five, they’ve beaten us four. Now the last few years, they’ve won at home, we’ve won at home. We just happened to play them at their place two years in a row. They’ve won three of the last four, the three of which have been at their place.”