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ACC Spotlight: Clemson vs Boston College

By Dave Holcomb
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Dave Holcomb previews Clemson and Boston College.

The only thing normal about 2020 is surprises. On Thursday night, the ACC received one of its biggest shocks of the season with Clemson announcing quarterback and the assumptional No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19.

Lawrence will miss this Saturday’s matchup with Boston College and given that his diagnosis came less than 14 days prior to Clemson’s showdown with No. 4 Notre Dame, he could also miss what is expected to be the biggest game of the ACC slate in 2020.

Of course, next week’s Clemson-Notre Dame matchup will lose a lot of hype if the Tigers don’t take care of business against the Eagles. Clemson’s path back to the college football mountaintop includes the Tigers winning at least one game without the Heisman trophy favorite.

This Saturday will be the first time Lawrence misses a game in his three seasons at Clemson, but the Tigers did have to deal with him leaving injured against Syracuse in 2018. Chase Brice replaced Lawrence and struggled, but Brice orchestrated two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to lead Clemson to a 27-23 victory.

Brice, who is a former 3-star prospect, is now at Duke, so it will likely be D.J. Uiagalelei behind center for Clemson. Uiagalelei is a true freshman but was a 5-star recruit and the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2020 class according to 247Sports.

In five relief appearances, Uiagalelei has completed 12 of 19 passes but for only 102 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per attempt. Like Lawrence, Uiagalelei is a pro-style signal caller who can run. Uiagalelei has two rushing touchdowns on just eight carries as well.

But the freshman will be looking to establish himself as a passer at the college level against one of the better ACC pass defenses. Boston College is ranked fourth in passing yards yielded and tied for fifth in yards allowed per pass attempt in the conference.

Clemson is expected to undergo more COVID-19 testing before kickoff, but ESPN reported Friday morning that there’s no indication Lawrence has spread the disease to any of his teammates. More testing could change that, but that’s obviously great news -- it means other quarterbacks such as Uiagalelei are good to go along with the rest of the Tigers stars that need to play well in the absence of Lawrence.

Running back Travis Etienne will be faced with the most pressure to raise his game to another level. Etienne has been in the Heisman discussion with his quarterback this season, and in a cruel twist, maybe he can leave a strong impression on the award’s voters by carrying the Clemson offense without Lawrence. Etienne has 522 rushing yards and eight touchdowns with a 6.3 yards per carry average.

Etienne is also Clemson’s second-leading receiver behind only Amari Rodgers, who needs to help Uiagalelei as well. Rodgers has 520 receiving yards and five touchdowns.

It still won’t be easy without Lawrence, but Boston College now possesses a better opportunity to beat Clemson and end a nine-game losing streak against the Tigers.

To end that skid, Boston College needs to find offensive consistency. When the Eagles score at least 23 points, they are 4-0. When they tally fewer points than 23, they are 0-2.

Of course Boston College’s record is going to be better the more the team scores, but the play of the Eagles defense also suggests anything less than four touchdowns may not be enough to win. Boston College has allowed at least 26 points in all four of its ACC games this year.

Unsurprisingly, quarterback Phil Jurkovec is the biggest key to the Eagles creating offensive consistency. Jurkovec has averaged almost 9.0 yards per pass in Boston College’s conference wins, but in their ACC loses, he’s throwing for only 6.1 yards per attempt.

Boston College has received little from its running game this year, but junior David Bailey did rush for a season-high 83 yards with two touchdowns last week versus Georgia Tech. The Eagles need Bailey to be great again against Clemson.

Unless the Tigers receive more positive coronavirus tests, Bailey and Jurkovec will be facing a mostly healthy and dominant Tigers defense. Among teams that have played at least three games this season, Clemson is fourth in total defense, third in pass defense and 12th against the run.

Prediction: Clemson 30, Boston College 14