Shai Wertz knows what to expect when his Georgia Southern team challenges No. 2 Clemson on Saturday afternoon in a battle of unbeaten teams at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C.
“I know it’s going to be loud,” said Georgia Southern’s sophomore quarterback, who is from Newberry, S.C. “I grew up going to games at Clemson, so I know what it’s going to be like on third down.”
Clemson actually recruited Wertz as an athlete and offered him a scholarship a few years ago, but he eventually decided he’d rather be a quarterback at a smaller school than play another position at a larger school.
The decision has worked out just fine for Wertz, who has accounted for six touchdowns while helping the Eagles to a 2-0 start.
“Their quarterback is their best player,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s their leading rusher, leading passer, leading scorer. He’ll be excited to come in here and play us for sure.”
Clemson (2-0) is coming off a hard-fought 28-26 victory at Texas A&M last week. The Tigers were outgained 501-413, but used big plays to outlast the Aggies and first-year coach Jimbo Fisher.
“The biggest thing for us is developing our team every week,” said Swinney, whose team is bidding for a third consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference championship and College Football Playoff berth. “There have been a lot of very positive things from our first two games, but there are a lot of areas we need to get better in if we’re going to reach our potential.”
Foremost among them might be shoring up the defensive secondary. Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond torched the Tigers for a career-high 430 yards.
“We had some total busts, so that’s mental and that’s coaching as well,” Swinney said. “We had a lot of mental errors. We’re going to have to measure things in practice. It’s about having your eyes on the right things and not missing signals and turning people loose.”
While the secondary may need to regroup, the Tigers’ run defense remains solid, which doesn’t bode well for Georgia Southern, a triple-option team that annually ranks among the national leaders in rushing.
The Eagles, who won six Division I-AA titles before moving to the FBS ranks in 2014, rank fourth in the FBS this season with an average of 326.5 rushing yards per game. Clemson allows only 94 yards per game on the ground and is limiting opponents to 2.2 yards per rush, so something’s got to give.
“There are good players all over the place (for Clemson),” said Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford, whose team is looking for its first road victory against a non-conference opponent since stunning Florida in 2013.
“We’ve just got to make sure we take care of ourselves. If they end up being faster, if they end up being stronger, if they end up being more athletic, we’ve just got to go play as hard as we can.”
Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, who is a good friend of Wertz’s, tightened his grasp on the Tigers’ starting job with his performance last week. Bryant, who split time with freshman Trevor Lawrence in the first two games, guided the Tigers on their last six possessions of the game and wound up leading the team in passing and rushing.
“I thought his leadership and toughness and poise down the stretch were awesome,” Swinney said. “It was exactly what we needed in that moment.”
Although Clemson is a heavy favorite, Swinney recalls the near-upsets that Georgia Southern has posted in recent years, including an overtime loss at Georgia in 2015, a one-point loss at N.C. State in 2014 and a four-point defeat at Georgia Tech, also in 2014.
“They have a proud program with a lot of tradition,” Swinney said. “I’m expecting a dogfight — a four-quarter game, and that’s what we’re preparing for.”