Clemson-Georgia Tech Preview
The outcome will help determine which team protects its Atlantic Coast Conference championship hopes.
It's a matchup of strength against strength.
Georgia Tech's offense leads the nation in third-down conversions. Clemson has the nation's best defense on third downs.
The No. 24 Yellow Jackets are second in the nation in rushing. The No. 18 Tigers are second in total defense and fourth against the run.
Coach Paul Johnson said he can't let Clemson's imposing run defense influence his normal run-first attack in Georgia Tech's spread option offense.
''We're going to do what we do,'' Johnson said Tuesday before using cliches to illustrate his point.
''We'll be successful or they will, but we're not going to throw out the baby with the bath water,'' he said. ''Dance with the one that brung us. That's all I know to do.''
Georgia Tech averages 335.6 yards rushing per game. Clemson allows an average of only 90.9 yards rushing.
Johnson said his offense must continue to avoid third-and-long plays. The Yellow Jackets have converted 70 of 118 third downs for a 59.3 percent success rate that leads the nation. Clemson's defense is No. 1 by allowing first downs on only 23.2 percent of third-down plays.
Georgia Tech avoids difficult third-down situations by averaging 6.1 yards per carry. On the rare third-and-long plays, the option offense keeps defenses guessing.
''We haven't been in a lot of third and longs because of the nature of what we do,'' Johnson said. ''The nature of the offense, for a lot of teams third and 6 is a passing down. Not so much for us. ... It limits blitzes. We've had some success running the ball against blitzes. ... It makes the other team a little hesitant to jump in nickel and dime (packages), and all that stuff.''
Georgia Tech's productive running game will be boosted by the return of former starting running back Zach Laskey, who missed three games with a shoulder injury. Johnson said Synjyn Days will start against Clemson and share carries with Laskey.
Days, a senior, ran for a career-high 157 yards with a touchdown in last week's 56-23 win at North Carolina State. It was his third straight 100-yard game, but he said he was ''a little'' surprised Laskey wasn't returning as the starter.
''I guess coach has been pleased with my performance lately,'' Days said. ''But I'm pretty sure we're going to rotate because Zach is a great player. We both have great skill sets that I think will work well with each other.''
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Georgia Tech will be ''our most difficult challenge defensively, for sure.''
''They're executing at a high level,'' Swinney said. ''They're always tough. They're always in the top 10 in rushing every year.''
Quarterback Justin Thomas leads the Yellow Jackets with 781 yards rushing. Thomas has 14 touchdown passes - the high mark for any quarterback in Johnson's seven years.
''Their quarterback is really playing at a high level, making good decisions and is a really good runner,'' Swinney said. ''I don't think he gets enough credit for his ability to throw the ball. They have made some big plays in the passing game.''
Backup quarterback Tim Byerly leads Georgia Tech with seven rushing touchdowns - one on every 6.4 carries.
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, meanwhile, said he's healed up and ready to play after missing three games with a broken bone in his throwing hand. The five-star freshman said he could've played last week in a win at Wake Forest, but Swinney wanted to avoid using Watson.
''No pain at all,'' Watson said Monday.
While backup Cole Stoudt stood tall the past month winning all three of his starts, the offense averaged nearly three touchdowns fewer than it had before Watson's injury.
The Tigers had put up 40 points a game in the five contests before Watson got hurt as he accounted for 15 touchdowns, and they averaged 22 points in the four games since with seven offensive TDs.
''Circumstances have dictated some of the things that have happened,'' offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. ''But to be honest with you, I really don't care. It's about performance.''
Watson, the Georgia state prep record holder with 17,134 yards and 218 touchdowns at Gainesville High, is confident he can pick up where he left off and spark an offense that's struggled to get going the past month.
''I just have to find that out Saturday and hopefully, get even better than the past couple of weeks,'' Watson said. ''I just have to do my role and get the W.''