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Five questions and a pick: Clemson-Miami

This week I got an email from Larry Williams, the senior writer for TigerIllustrated.com wanting to know if I'd be willing to exchange a Q&A with him before the Canes take on Clemson Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Land Shark Stadium.


Larry Williams Q-1: Where are the Tigers most banged up and could the Canes take advantage of it?
A: The Tigers were recently banged-up on offense with LT Chris Hairston recovering from a sprained MCL and C.J. Spiller dealing with an injury to his right big toe (suffered in the opener). The open week preceding last week's win over Wake Forest really helped those two guys get healthy. That's about it, other than the concussion suffered by strong-side linebacker Scotty Cooper. He'll miss this game, but it's not a big loss because he didn't play much anyway.

Q-2: How do you explain this Clemson team to your friends? They've played so well defensively but somehow are 3-3 with a loss to Maryland. Is it matter of the Tigers just being inconsistent?
A: This season has conformed to the story of Clemson football over the last decade: a roller-coaster ride. Clemson was a play away from defeating two good teams (Georgia Tech and TCU). The Tigers then stubbed their toe against a bad Maryland team before putting it all together in last week's 35-point beatdown of Wake Forest.

This program has been perplexing for a while now because you look at all that talent and wonder why the Tigers aren't better. It's fairly common for most teams to break even in close games. Clemson has lost eight of its last nine games decided by seven points or less.

There are numerous explanations for the close-game failures over that period of time, but I think two primary factors are: 1) Tightening up late, which would seem to point to coaching, and 2) Struggles on the offensive line. If you can't move people off the line, it's hard to run the ball and sustain drives.

I tend to think the latter factor has been more critical than the former. The great question facing this program is whether Dabo Swinney can vanquish the demons and get the Tigers over the hump.

Q-3: Just how good are Da'Quan Bowers and Ricky Sapp really? Should Miami fans brace themselves for a long afternoon?
Da'Quan Bowers A: Bowers is scary good. Freaky good. Pick your description. He's a beast, and of late he's really elevated his play by sustaining his intensity through the course of a game. If I were a Miami fan, I'd be very worried about him lining up across from Matt Pipho.

Sapp has had a good season thus far after a rapid offseason recovery from ACL surgery. First-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele likes putting him in different spots. He's lined up as a linebacker when they shift to the 3-4, and I suspect he'll draw some responsibility for flaring out and covering running backs on swing passes and such.

This tandem could be trouble for Miami, but I'd suspect Mark Whipple would give his tackles a lot of help. And you have to think those long-armed tackles would be able to neutralize the ends to an extent with their size and reach.

Q-4: How do the Tigers see this Miami team? Do they really respect this Miami offense considering so many guys are young?
A: On multiple occasions this week, offensive coaches have remarked that facing Miami's defense is like practicing against their own defense. Both defenses have a ton of speed and athleticism. Clemson's players are jacked for this one, in part because they want to prove themselves against a Top 10 team and in part because of going up against a Miami program that has such a mystique. The Tigers have a bunch of guys from Florida who have had this one circled on their calendars for some time.

I think the Tigers respect Miami's offense a lot. They know Jacory Harris is good; they know those running backs are athletic and run really hard; and they know that fleet of receivers could be hard to cover. But I do sense Clemson believes it can get to Harris and really disrupt that offense. The defensive line is extremely deep, and Miami's OL is not. The Tigers are confident they can win that battle over the course of the game. Virginia Tech overwhelmed Miami with a stifling effort from its defensive line and unpredictable looks from Bud Foster. Clemson believes it is capable of following that blueprint.

Q-5: Can you explain to everyone in South Florida why they need to be fearful of CJ Spiller?
A: Through six games this season, Spiller has produced a play of 60-plus yards in every game via a play from scrimmage, kickoff return or punt return. That's amazing.

Spiller should be feared because he is a threat to do the spectacular on every play. He has the moves to make guys miss at the line of scrimmage, and no one will catch him from behind.

Ryan Williams is a very good back, and he made the Hurricanes look silly on occasion in Blacksburg. Spiller is even better, and he can make Miami pay dearly for overpursuit.

Larry's Prediction: I spent the early portion of the week thinking Miami by 10-12. Now, I'm not so sure because I think Clemson's depth advantage on the DL could be huge. I also wonder whether Miami, with all that youth, is due a hiccup game in which they make a ton of mistakes and lose. Bottom line, though, is that Clemson put a lot into winning last week's game against Wake Forest. Prepping for Whipple's offense on short notice is a tough assignment, and the Canes have had a few weeks to get healthy and hold some of their stuff back. Clemson is going to have to sustain some drives to win, and I'm not confident the Tigers can do that against this defensive front. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Tigers prevail. But they're going to have to show me they can win these kinds of games before I pick them to do it. I'll take Miami 27-20.

Q-1: First off, can you give us some idea as to Miami's injury situation? Lot of guys banged up, and Randy Shannon doesn't typically reveal much. If you're in the dark on the specifics, can you offer your assessment of where the Hurricanes are thinnest as a result of injuries?
A: Getting real answers on injuries from Randy Shannon is next to impossible. Where Miami is hurt the most really is along the defensive line. Last week, they had eight healthy players there. The only one expected back this week is senior Eric Moncur, who was likely being rested against UCF.

The offensive line should get guard Joel Figueroa back this week. But Fig is only one of six guys UM has really used on its offensive line rotation. Safety Randy Phillips will be back this week after missing the last three games with a torn labrum. He's skipping out on surgery and will provide some depth at safety, where Jojo Nicholas is still out. All in all, this Miami is banged up. But they'll have enough guys not to be in emergency mode this weekend.

Q-2: Miami's offensive line looked great early against Florida State and Georgia Tech but was overwhelmed by Virginia Tech's defensive front and gave up a combined 10 sacks against Oklahoma and Central Florida. What is your take on the guys up front? Are they not the strength that some people might perceive?
A: I think teams have realized that right tackle Matt Pipho is not very good and beatable on the edge. Two huge injuries to Miami this season were tight end Richard Gordon and fullback Pat Hill. Both did a great job picking up blitzes -- as well as running back Graig Cooper who is back this week. The left side of UM's line is very good. Jason Fox and Orlando Franklin are solid. Center AJ Trump is good too. But the right side is where most teams are bringing pressure. 

I'm sure Kevin Steele and Clemson's defense is going to attack Miami the same way UCF, Oklahoma and Virginia Tech have. It will be interesting to see how Mark Whipple counters this week.

Jacory Harris Q-3. What specific part of Jacory Harris' season to date has impressed you the most?
A: The fact he hasn't been injured yet. Knowing Harris from his days at Miami Northwestern, I always expected him to be as good a passer as he's been. But I didn't realize how tough he really was. 

This guy has taken quite a few licks and remained calm and cool in the pocket. He scrambles much better than I remember in high school too and never takes his eyes off the field. But he needs to stop taking chances. So far, he's been pretty lucky only to get intercepted five times. He's taken quite a few chances down field and really has been fortunate to not turn the ball over.

Q-4. Virginia Tech gashed Miami for 272 yards on the ground, with Ryan Williams running wild. Do you think that was an aberration, or could C.J. Spiller do similar damage Saturday?
A: Spiller is an amazing back. He could very well carve up UM's defense, which as I mentioned earlier is banged up in the front seven. It's all going to depend really on what Clemson decides to run offensively.

What has always worked well against the Canes in terms of running the football has been the spread option attack. Ryan Williams Virginia Tech gave them fits with it. Florida State did the same a year ago. If Clemson's offense throws in a few new wrinkles based out of that formation, they should have some success running the football

Q-5. These teams haven't played since 2005 and probably aren't all that familiar with each other. How do you think Miami views Clemson?
 A: The Canes respect the Tigers. Orlando Franklin, who is one of biggest, meanest guys on the team, told me flat out when he looked at the schedule it was Clemson and Oklahoma who worried him the most. He knows how good Clemson's defense is up front and is looking forward to the challenge. Miami's receivers know how talented the Tigers secondary is and are looking forward to the man-to-man matchups. And the Canes are definitely well aware of what Spiller and Jacoby Ford can do in the open field. UM is not looking past Clemson whatsoever.

My prediction: This is going to be a really tough test for the Canes. I see the Tigers having a big day getting to Jacory Harris and putting the pressure on him. CJ Spiller and Ford should have some success on offense. But the fact UM is at home and not taking the Tigers lightly gives me the confidence they'll pull this one out close. Miami has a great kicker in Matt Bosher. It may just come down to his right foot. I'm picking Miami 24-22. 

FYI... I will be at a wedding Saturday and won't be at the game. We'll have a guest blogger here at Eye On The U to provide thoughts and commentary throughout the game. I'm recording the game and watching it when I get home. I'll post my grades and thoughts afterward.