TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Clemson opened 2012 away from home against Auburn, with questions swirling about how last season's high-flying offense would perform without its best acrobat, Sammy Watkins, who was suspended for two games.
The emphatic answer came in the form of Andre Ellington.
The senior tailback has largely toiled in the shadows of the Tigers' big-play passing attack, but Ellington remains the engine that drives so much of what the Tigers do offensively. Against Auburn, he ran for a whopping 228 yards to pave the way for a Clemson victory. Since the start of the 2011 season, Ellington has racked up more than 1,500 yards on the ground.
"He’s really elusive, he’s really fast," FSU linebacker Vince Williams said. "He reminds me of a slightly bigger Chris [Thompson]. He can do some things. I like him."
But in a game heralded for its strength-against-strength matchups, there may be none more intense than Ellington's elusive speed vs. Florida State's ferocious defensive front.
While Ellington has averaged 5.4 yards per carry since the start of last season, the Seminoles' defense has held opponents to less than half that. No running back has topped 100 yards against FSU in the past 11 games -- a stretch in which the opponent's leading rusher has only twice topped 60 yards in a game. Even amid the offensive fireworks of last year's Clemson win, Ellington managed just 3.1 yards per carry.
On the other hand, few tailbacks are so capable of challenging Florida State's dynamic front. Ellington has gained nearly twice as many yards this season after contact (199) than Florida State has allowed in total (101). And Florida State has held opponents to no gain or negative yards on 47 percent of rushing attempts, the best in the nation. Ellington has failed to gain positive yardage on just four of his 53 rushing attempts, and he has been hit in the backfield just seven times, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
The matchup confronts two immutable laws of physics -- Ellington is the object in motion, and Florida State's defense is the immovable force.
"He's a good back, but we're going to play hard," Florida State linebacker Telvin Smith said. "That's one thing we really try to key on is the run, so we're going to play hard and see what happens."
Of course, the problem isn't so much stopping Ellington as it is focusing on him. It's not that Clemson has a Heisman-contending quarterback, big-play receivers or a 1,000-yard rusher, Jimbo Fisher said. It's that the Tigers have all of those weapons.
"That's the thing that makes them unique is [Ellington] got 220-some yards against Auburn," Fisher said. "They have great balance on offense. It's a big concern. And [Ellington] is a really good player."
It's something of a pick-your-poison approach for defenses aiming to corral Clemson's firepower.
To slow Tajh Boyd and the passing game, the defensive line needs to get pressure. But if the line is too aggressive, Ellington can explode in the running game.
The difference this week, however, is that's few teams offer a defense as capable of finding that balance as Florida State.
“If you take a look at that D-line we have," safety Lamarcus Joyner said, "that kind of eases the pressure, eases the steam off the pot.”
Noles to watch:
1. EJ Manuel. The fifth-year senior has done a lot at Florida State, but he has won just one start against a ranked opponent -- against No. 18 West Virginia in the Gator Bowl to wrap up the 2009 season -- and he sat out last season's game against Clemson with an injured shoulder.
2. Nick Waisome and Ronald Darby. The two young corners will have, by far, their biggest test of the season this week when they're tasked with covering Clemson wideouts DeAndre Hopkins and Watkins. Waisome will get the start, but Darby has the track speed to keep pace with the Tigers' big-play receivers.
3. Bjoern Werner. The FSU defensive end leads the nation in sacks (6.5) and tackles for loss (9) and will be looking to pad those numbers against a Clemson line that has allowed 15 TFLs so far this season.
Tigers to watch:
1. Boyd. There's plenty of hype surrounding Clemson's pass-catchers, but the biggest improvement offensively for the Tigers might be with the man throwing those passes. Boyd has accounted for 822 yards of offense and six TDs through three games, and he was the star of last year's win over FSU, throwing for 344 yards and three touchdowns.
2. Gifford Timothy. The sophomore right tackle struggled against Auburn in his first start, allowing three sacks. Things will be tougher for Timothy this week, as he goes up against Werner, Cornellius Carradine and the explosive FSU pass rush.
3. Malliciah Goodman and Corey Crawford. Clemson's starting defensive ends have yet to register a sack through three games, and the Tigers have just three as a team. Given FSU's problems in pass protection a week ago against Wake Forest, the Tigers will need to find a way to generate pressure on Manuel to slow the Seminoles' offense.
By the numbers:
22. That's the number of three-and-outs forced by Florida State's defense so far this season, a whopping 52.4 percent of all opponents' drives, the best ratio in the nation. The Seminoles are one of just two teams in the nation (along with TCU) not to have allowed a touchdown thus far.*
6. That's the number of times since 1978 -- when the NCAA split into FBS and FCS divisions -- that a team has posted three straight shutouts in a single season. The last time it happened was in 1995. Both Florida State and Alabama have a chance this weekend to match the feat.*
17. That's the number of Clemson's plays that have gone for 25 yards or more this season, tied for the most in the country through three games.*
62.5. That's the percentage of Sammy Watkins' receiving yards that have come after the catch in his career, including 105 of his 141 yards against Florida State a year ago.*
21.16. Average time (in seconds) it takes for Clemson to get a play off in 2012, the fastest turnaround between plays in the ACC. Only 16 other teams in the country have run more plays per minute of possession this year. Florida State, meanwhile, ranks 63rd nationally. On average, Clemson is running 79 offensive plays per game, compared to just 64 for FSU.
* Numbers courtesy of ESPN Stats & Info