WHEN CLEMSON RUNS THE BALL
An offense with a 111-yards-per-game running back can be a problem. An offense whose quarterback has run for 887 yards, 11 touchdowns and 5.4 per carry can be a problem. When that quarterback also throws for 270.2 yards per game, that’s a definite problem that makes defensive coordinators start thinking about spending time with the family.
Everything works off sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson. The dual-threat Watson created space for Wayne Gallman to run for 1,332 yards and 10 touchdowns. And, against the best, Watson ran the best. Clemson’s wins against Notre Dame, Florida State and North Carolina saw Watson run for 93, 107 yards and 131 yards, respectively.
Among the dual-threat quarterbacks Oklahoma’s faced recently, the Sooners held Oklahoma State’s J.W. Walsh to 50 yards on 12 carries. Despite the Big 12’s defenseless reputation, the Sooners give up only 149.2 rushing yards per game. They should have the speed in the secondary to limit the huge plays.
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WHEN CLEMSON THROWS THE BALL
Oklahoma ranks eighth nationally in total interceptions and fourth in sacks. You could credit that to playing in the Big 12, where better offenses mean more clock stoppages for first downs and scores, which means more plays per game. But the Sooners also rank 12th in pass-efficiency defense, so even with more plays, teams don’t get fat off Oklahoma without the Sooners getting their pound of flesh.
When Clemson sent home Deon Cain for what has been widely reported as a failed drug test, the Tigers sent home a receiver averaging 17.1 yards per catch, the most by 1.4 yards per catch among the team’s top six receivers.
The remaining Clemson receivers can get downfield. Don’t expect it to happen that often Thursday.
WHEN OKLAHOMA RUNS THE BALL
The past two games, in wins against TCU and Oklahoma State, Oklahoma running backs Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon made life easy for quarterback Baker Mayfield. Perine ran for 324 yards on 40 carries, 8.1 a pop, and Mixon ran for 218 yards on 28 carries, 7.7 per carry.
Granted, neither of those games came against a line as stout as Clemson’s or including a player as destructive as All-America defensive end Shaq Lawson. And the Sooners will have either gargantuan redshirt freshman Orlando Brown or true freshman Dru Samia against Lawson, a junior.
But subtract sacks and Clemson still gives up 4.6 yards per carry.
WHEN OKLAHOMA THROWS THE BALL
Oklahoma wide receiver Sterling Shepard comes into the game hot, averaging 9.4 catches, 130.4 yards over the past five games and has six touchdowns in those games. And if the Sooners can stay out of third-and-long, he will have a huge night again, as Clemson can’t have big safeties T.J. Green or Jayron Kearse hanging around to help cornerbacks Mackensie Alexander and Cordrea Tankersley.
Like Oklahoma, Clemson rushes the passer well with defensive ends Lawson and Kevin Dodd and ranks seventh nationally in pass-efficiency defense. This might be the best defense Mayfield’s seen all season. As with Clemson, the success here feels like it will depend on the success of the run.
Similar to last year’s game, expect few special-teams fireworks, although Clemson has blocked one punt and three kicks and had three kicks blocked. Neither team returns the ball particularly well. Oklahoma leads the nation in punt-return defense, a mere 0.7 of a yard per return.
Austin Seibert handles the Sooners’ punting and kicking. Seibert is 5 of 6 on field goals from 40-49 yards, but 7 of 11 from 30-39. Also, since hitting his first 10 this season, he has made only 7 of 12.
Clemson sent home kickoff man Ammon Lakip after the reported failed drug test, so Greg Huegel likely will handle that and regular kicking. Huegel’s only 48 of 53 on extra points.
Some excellent regular-season coaches turn into SpongeBob or Patrick come bowl time, unable to keep the team focused or make the right strategic adjustments. Not the case here.
Bob Stoops is 8-8 in bowl games at Oklahoma and won a national title in the Orange Bowl 15 years ago. If Stoops doesn’t know what he’s doing by now, he will never, never, never know (thank you, Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes).
Clemson’s on a three-bowl winning streak, having beaten LSU 25-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl; Ohio State 40-35 in the Orange Bowl two years ago; and Oklahoma, 40-6 last year in the Russell Athletic Bowl. This suggests Dabo Swinney kind of knows what he’s doing as well.