Canes Ready for Formidable Test in Death Valley

by David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – They call it Death Valley for a reason.

Clemson Memorial Stadium has seen a lot of wins by the hometown Tigers, especially recently. Clemson has not lost a home game since 2016, a 43-42 loss to Pitt on Nov. 12 that was a blip on the radar as that Tigers team charged toward a national championship.

The Tigers have lost just four total games since 2016, amassing an incredible 58-4 record over that time period and winning a pair of national titles and becoming a perennial top-5 team in the process.

It’s no secret the juggernaut that top-ranked Clemson has become over the last five years, as the Tigers have won five consecutive ACC titles and both of their meetings against the Hurricanes since 2015.

Add in the fact that Clemson has two of the best players in the country leading its team in quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne and you can understand why many pundits around the country expect the Tigers to continue their success this week.

So why should Miami feel like Saturday’s top-10 matchup between the No. 1 Tigers and No. 7 Hurricanes will be any different than its recent games with Clemson?

Head coach Manny Diaz believes the 2020 Hurricanes have the right mindset and focus to go into Death Valley and improve to 3-0 all-time on Clemson’s home field.

“When you play a game like this, motivation is just the cover charge,” Diaz said. “Once you get in, Clemson is going to play very hard. They are very disruptive and aggressive on defense. They are going to run every front and every coverage and they are going to play extraordinarily hard and be very physical. If you don’t match that, you can forget it. You don’t have a chance. Now it is about who can function within the framework of the offense and defense. If you sit there and look at the logo on the side of their helmet, that is what got us in 2017. You have to focus on doing your job and if our guys do that, then it can be a football game and it is about who can protect the ball and win the explosive plays.”

Zach McCloud believes Miami is more mature as a team and has better leadership across the roster heading into Saturday's game at Clemson.

The two sides last met in the 2017 ACC Championship Game and things did not go Miami’s way, as Clemson won, 38-3, to claim its third of now five straight conference titles. But redshirt junior Corey Gaynor, who was a true freshman on that 2017 squad, knows the current Canes possess three qualities that separate this Miami team from the last one that made some noise on the national stage.

“Unity, togetherness — we’re a very close team, we all look out for each other, we hold each other accountable — and maturity, we’re all getting older as years go on,” Gaynor said.

Linebacker Zach McCloud was a key member of Miami’s defense in 2017 and he feels the 2020 Hurricanes have the right leadership in place to be successful in a big game like Saturday’s matchup at Clemson.

“In terms of the maturity and the way the team feels different, we just have more guys in more position rooms and all over the field, it’s just more widespread. It’s not one or two guys trying to lead the team,” McCloud said. “The leadership is widespread and I think that helps a whole lot.”

Miami also has an elite quarterback at the helm of its new high-powered offense and that is something ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit believes will make a difference when the ball kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday.

“D’Eriq King gives them hope. He makes this feel different. He makes Miami feel different to me,” Herbstreit said of the Canes’ quarterback. “I think that position on any team impacts the personality and confidence of a team and it has been so long since Miami has had that position cleaned up and where the defense believes in him and the offense believes in him. I go all the way back to Ken Dorsey with that. I think that is real. I think they are coming into Death Valley with a real belief they can win because of him and Rhett Lashlee’s new scheme.”

Both King and Lashlee are excited for the challenge ahead of them and the quarterback and offensive coordinator know what a victory would mean for the program.

“I think that’s the reason why you come to play at Miami, to play in big games like this,” King said. “It’s a regular game for us, this is the third week in a row we have College GameDay. I know it’s a big game. Obviously, Clemson is a great team, they have great players – Trevor, Travis, and a great defense. It’s the next game so it’s a big game for us. We’re going to try to get a win, it would mean a lot for the program.”

“This is why you come to the University of Miami, to play and coach in games like this,” Lashlee said. “It is a great opportunity and if we were to prepare any differently this week compared to everyone else, it would prove that we aren’t always giving it our best. Clemson is by far the biggest challenge since I’ve been here, but we have to prepare the same every week. We are going to give it our best and see where we stand.”

“I think that’s the reason why you come to play at Miami, to play in big games like this.”

Miami quarterback D'Eriq King

King has been the face of Miami’s meteoric rise up the polls, leading the Hurricanes’ offense to a productive 43.3 points and nearly 500 yards per game. He has completed 67 percent of his passes and thrown six touchdowns and zero interceptions. Also a threat with his legs, the redshirt senior has one rushing touchdown through three games and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry and over 50 rushing yards per game. Having a player of his ability and maturity leading the Canes is immeasurable as Miami heads to Clemson this week.

“It’s so valuable. And [he’s] a guy who has been in some big stadiums and played against some big opposition,” Diaz said. “And I think if you just know D’Eriq, just his temperament, he’s got a cool, calm demeanor about him. A quiet confidence about him that I think gives everybody on our team confidence that every week we’ve got a chance to win if we protect him and do our job around him well. And not just D’Eriq, all around him I think we have a much more mature team than we had a year ago. The leadership is better on both sides of the ball than it was a year ago.”

While much focus is expected to be placed on the marquee quarterbacks in this contest, the game will also feature two defenses that have been among the nation’s most productive behind the line of scrimmage in recent years. Since 2016, Clemson and Miami rank No. 1 and No. 2 in the country, respectively, in both sacks and tackles for loss. Both teams enter this game ranked in the Top 10 in tackles for loss, with Miami sitting tied for fourth with 31 and Clemson tied for eighth with 27.

“It is one of those games where if you want to see how good you are, this is the team to play because you are playing the premier team in college football if you look at what they have done during Dabo Swinney’s time there,” Miami defensive coordinator Blake Baker said.

While Clemson is talented across the board, Miami’s defense knows it needs to limit the effectiveness of Lawrence and Etienne if the Canes want to leave Death Valley victorious. But those two players will pose a huge challenge for any defense they face.

“Travis Etienne may be the best player in college football,” Diaz said Monday on the Joe Rose Show. “He is so dynamic. His explosiveness, his start-stop, his ability to run through tackles. Virginia was dominated on third down by him. I think Clemson converted three or four third down and ten or mores and a lot of times it was just getting the ball to him and letting him do some things to get the distance he needed to get.”

While Etienne is a threat on the ground and in the passing game, Lawrence is also capable of doing damage through the air and with his legs.

“He is a problem,” Baker said. “He is 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds and he can do a lot of his damage with his legs. He is great when a play breaks down of extending the play and throwing on the run or scrambling for yards. Once he gets into the open field, he is a load to bring down. He is real fast. People sleep on that more than anything because he has such long strides.

“The biggest thing is that we have to contest a lot of his throws,” Baker added. “Even when you think you have a guy covered, he is so accurate that he is going to put the ball in there. He has great arm strength and accuracy that he can throw it into tight windows like an NFL quarterback.”

Regardless of the opponent, the Hurricanes defense lives by the same set of core principles and they will be on display on Saturday night.

“The main thing is still the main thing. Ever since I’ve been here, on defense, the main thing has been run to the ball, play tough, tackle and play as a unit,” Carter said. “That’s the biggest thing that we can do this weekend, play as one unit. You know it’s three phases of a game, special teams, defense and offense, and when we find that groove, that rhythm where we are all playing not as defense, offense, special teams, but as Miami Hurricanes then we’re playing good ball.”

"We're trying to get ourselves in a position where playing these games is not extraordinary for Miami anymore."

Miami head coach Manny Diaz

While Miami is in for a challenge Saturday night, Clemson’s head coach knows his Tigers will need to bring their best if they want to beat the Hurricanes.

“Got the biggest challenge that we’ve had all year for sure in Miami. This is a really, really complete football team,” Swinney said. “Man, Manny has done a great job down there. They have dudes everywhere and that’s pretty easy to see when you turn the film on.”

The Hurricanes carry a 6-5 all-time series lead over the Tigers but have dropped the last two matchups. UM is 2-0 all-time in road games in the series, winning its last game in Death Valley, 30-21, in 2010.

Miami is looking for its first win over the nation’s No. 1 team since an October 7, 2000 win over Florida State. UM’s last win over a No. 1 team on the road was Nov. 16, 1991 at Florida State, a game forever known as “Wide Right I.” But Diaz expects the Hurricanes to play in a lot more games like this top-10 matchup going forward.

“What we’re trying to do, we’re trying to get ourselves in a position where playing these games is not extraordinary for Miami anymore,” Diaz said. “That we are in these types of prime-time matchups, the College GameDay thing, playing teams like Clemson.

“This is how you build a program to be in these positions and have it feel kind of natural and normal, which is exactly what it does to Clemson,” Diaz continued. “This is a great opportunity for us in terms of what we’ve done over the first three weeks to go test ourselves against one of these teams that are very comfortable in these settings and has had to earn the right to be there. They weren’t always this way. That was kind of a thing for them early on. And someone told Clemson that there was a statement game and they had to sort of move through these same guideposts to get to where they’re at today.”

Saturday will mark the 24th game involving the Hurricanes picked as the site of ESPN’s College GameDay; Miami is 15-8 in 23 previous games involved in the show. Swinney expects a hard-fought battle when the two teams square off on ABC Saturday night.

“This will be a heck of a game. Will be a great matchup,” Swinney said. “This is by far the biggest challenge we’ve had, and the biggest challenge they’ve had. This is what it’s all about. That’s why they made it GameDay, two good teams going at it.”

While the hype surrounding the game can seem overwhelming, the Hurricanes are locked in on the task at hand and ignoring all the distractions that come with a top-10 battle.

“It’s just the next game. If we treat it like a Super Bowl or the next game, it’s the same thing,” Gaynor said. “We’re all focused on this football team and we’re just ready to go play football on Saturday.”

With Miami’s leadership setting the tone in the locker room and on the field, one of its biggest leaders may have best explained what the Hurricanes are feeling heading into Death Valley this week.

“I’m just excited to have an opportunity to play in this game,” King said. “They’re the number one team in the country for a reason. I feel like we’ve earned the right to be in this kind of game. We’ve got to try to play the best we can on the road.”