Halfway through the regular season, fueled by a gritty victory Saturday against Virginia Tech, the Hurricanes possess what they likely didn’t after two consecutive losses to begin October: confidence.
They also have some playmakers who have emerged – rush end Al-Quadin Muhammad, defensive end Chad Thomas, defensive tackle Courtel Jenkins among those on defense; and receivers Rashawn Scott, Herb Waters, Stacy Coley and tight end David Njoku on offense.
The Canes (4-2, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) will need them all, and more, as they begin on-field preparations Tuesday for their nationally televised home matchup with sixth-ranked Clemson (6-0, 3-0) at noon Saturday (ABC).
“Boosted. Definitely boosted,’’ sophomore middle linebacker Juwon Young said of his confidence Saturday after his first career interception late in the third quarter helped preserve the victory.
Coley, with two strong games in a row, said what energized him was the 54-second go-ahead touchdown drive late in the first half that culminated with Scott’s 7-yard catch from Brad Kaaya with four seconds left.
“It gave us a lot of confidence with Scotty catching the touchdown pass,’’ said Coley, who led in receiving yards Saturday with 63 on four catches. “It was an amazing feeling.’’
The Canes, who now boast the No. 1 turnover margin in the nation, could use whatever momentum they can generate against the Tigers.
Clemson ranks 10th nationally in total defense (281 yards-per-game allowed), 14th in scoring defense (16.7 points allowed per game) and has a quarterback, Deshaun Watson, who ranks 11th in completion percentage and 17th in passing efficiency.
Coach Al Golden had his weekly coaches’ show interview Monday with Joe Rose on 560 WQAM, and talked about the progression of some of his newest playmakers – as well as the drive-killing and touchdown-negating penalties the Canes continually make.
“The last couple of weeks it feels good out there,’’ Golden said, despite the 29-24 loss at FSU. “There’s no panic. Guys are enjoying the fight. [Virginia Tech] made a heck of a throw-and-catch there under pressure when Courtel was right in the quarterback’s face. It could have easily deflated us but we went down and Herb came up with a big, [45-yard] third-down catch that flipped the field.
“…They’re answering the call right now. They’re beating man. They’re catching the ball in traffic. Their run-after-catch has been good.
“…Quan Muhammad and Chad are starting to just let it rip and it’s great to see.’’
Now for the not-so-good.
The Hurricanes are committing penalties – lots of them. In the “fewest penalties per game’’ category, they rank 104 of 127 teams ranked in the Football Bowl Subdivision, averaging nearly eight penalties a game. They’re 98th in “fewest penalty yards per game,’’ averaging nearly 69 yards. Saturday, the Canes committed nine penalties for 81 yards.
Five touchdowns have been called back this season because of penalties.
Golden was especially agitated by a taunting foul called on Scott after his final touchdown and the roughing-the-passer penalty called on Anthony Moten in the fourth quarter on a third-down play in which quarterback Michael Brewer threw an incomplete pass.
“There’s no margin for error this week,’’ Golden reminded about Clemson, a team with many strengths. “People can say, ‘Oh, we didn’t crush him, but… we hit him late. They don’t end up scoring on that drive, but they change the field and they end up scoring on the next drive. It’s happening across the board in too many spots.’’
Golden said he “challenged the leadership’’ to eliminate the mistakes because “some of them are just intolerable and selfish.’’
The Canes have also struggled in the run game, much of that due to a mostly young offensive line that lost three starters, including first-round draft pick Ereck Flowers. Short-yardage, red-zone and third-down opportunities have been challenging. UM is 102nd nationally in rushing offense, with Joe Yearby not nearly as productive the past two games.
Sophomore Kc McDermott and redshirt freshman Joe Brown made their first career starts Saturday at left and right guard, respectively, which could help kick-start an improvement.
“I know it’s not the yards we want,’’ Golden said Saturday of the run game. “We have more guys certainly than we did five or six weeks ago. …We just want to continue to push it forward.’’