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Clemson O-line to face biggest test yet against FSU pass rush

Doug Buffington/Icon Sportswire

One path to winning a lot of football games requires a football team to do three things: block well, tackle well and find an answer at the all-important quarterback position.

In Clemson’s case, there’s no question the Tigers have tackled well; they’re No. 4 in the nation in yards allowed per play. They also have one of the best quarterbacks in all of college football in junior Deshaun Watson.

Dabo Swinney can also check the “blocks well” box with an offensive line that’s kept Watson’s jersey clean for most of the year. The offensive front will face its greatest challenge yet, however, when it plays Florida State on Saturday.

Fortunately for Clemson, injuries have factored in only to a small extent up front this fall. The first-team group of Mitch Hyatt, Taylor Hearn, Jay Guillermo, Tyrone Crowder and Jake Fruhmorgen is healthy, which is a major reason why the Tigers have only given up seven sacks this season (second in the ACC behind Pittsburgh’s five).

Watson’s quick release and mobility have played a part. Rarely ever do opposing defensive linemen have time to get in the backfield and bring the signal-caller to the ground before the ball is out.

That could change against the Seminoles.

Florida State thrives at getting to the quarterback, accumulating 24 sacks over its first seven games this season. What’s even more impressive is that the team’s pass rush has shined despite key players missing time earlier in the season.

Josh Sweat suffered a knee injury in September that kept him out for two games. Defensive back Derwin James, who was a threat coming off the edge as a freshman on his way to 4.5 sacks, has been out since a knee injury sidelined him against Charleston Southern in Week 2.

None of that has stopped the Seminoles from getting after opposing quarterbacks.

Senior defensive end DeMarcus Walker is the star of the group, racking up 8.5 sacks so far. The rest of the pass rush is balanced, with end Brian Burns, linebacker Jacob Pugh, defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi and Sweat each logging at least 2.5 sacks.

Statistically, it will be the best pass rush the Tigers have seen this season. Florida State’s 3.43 sacks per game average ranks No. 9 nationally. Of the teams Clemson has played, Boston College (3.29) and NC State (3.14) are the closest to that average. The Eagles and the Wolfpack sacked Watson twice each.

The flip side for the Tigers is that the Seminoles have been exploited left and right when they don’t get to the quarterback. FSU allows 8.3 yards per passing attempt (No. 111 in the country), and while Jimbo Fisher’s team hasn’t given up as much through the air in its last two outings, its opponents in those contests — Miami and Wake Forest — haven’t been consistent this year when it comes to throwing the ball.

The matchup between Clemson’s stellar offensive line and Florida State’s sack-hungry pass rush will be the game within the game on Saturday night. If the Tigers prove they can protect Watson, they should maintain their unblemished record. If not, an upset might be on the horizon.

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