When asked earlier this week what makes Clemson running back Travis Etienne so good, NC State's senior linebacker Germaine Pratt gave a surprising response.
"Who?" said Pratt, who — despite studying Clemson video for almost two weeks since his last game — isn't impressed by the nation's hottest running back.
But Pratt, the Atlantic Coast Conference tackles leader, will meet Etienne up close and personal today when the No. 16-ranked Wolfpack visits the No. 3 Tigers in a showdown between two of the eight remaining unbeaten teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The 5-10 Etienne has emerged as the focal point for Clemson's offense during a record-breaking four-game stretch. He set a school four-game mark by rushing for 654 yards and needs just 91 more against NC State to break Terrance Flagler's five-game record of 744 set in 1986.
The sophomore from Jennings, Louisiana, enters the game ranked sixth nationally with 761 rushing yards, fourth in rushing touchdowns (11) and second in yards per carry (9.17).
"He's one of the most explosive players we've had come through here," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "We all know that for us to be successful, Travis has to have a certain amount of touches."
Etienne, who was the last prospect to give a verbal commitment to Clemson's recruiting class of 2017, was a third-team All-ACC pick as a freshman when he led the Tigers with 766 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. He used his 4.38-second speed in the 40-yard dash to produce four runs of 50 or more yards, but only topped the 100-yard barrier once in a 113-yard effort against Boston College in the third game of the season.
But after gaining 63 yards in the 2018 opener against Furman and just 44 against Texas A&M, Etienne has been practically unstoppable.
His 27-carry, 203-yard, three-touchdown performance against Syracuse, which included a game-winning scoring run, propelled him into the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Big plays have been Etienne's calling card this season. He's had 10 runs of 21 yards or longer, highlighted by jaunts of 70 and 59 yards against Wake Forest.
"He's their home run hitter," NC State defensive tackle Eurndraus Bryant said. "I believe he's one of those guys who makes their offense go. He's a hard runner who doesn't really stop on contact."
"When you play Clemson, it's always the explosive plays you're concerned about from a defensive standpoint," N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. "He (Etienne) just adds a different dimension to their run game. He is super explosive."
The Wolfpack actually held Etienne in check a year ago in Raleigh, limiting him to 31 yards on six carries. Instead, it was Tavien Feaster who delivered an 89-yard touchdown run in the third period that put Clemson in command on the way to a 38-31 win. Feaster had 105 of the Tigers' 224 yards rushing in the triumph.
Etienne, freshman Lyn-J Dixon, senior Adam Choice and Feaster have all contributed to Clemson's running game this season. So Pratt and the N.C. State defense have a daunting task to slow the Tigers' rushing attack.
But Doeren believes his unit is ready for the challenge, even if they don't know who they're tackling.
"Two weeks ago, Virginia's offense was really unique and I thought the guys handled that really well," Doeren said. "All of a sudden you're playing an up-tempo Boston College, and the guys rose to that challenge. Now they have a new one in an up-tempo, spread offense where they're balanced with tremendous athletes.
"It's not going to be easy. They're going to make plays in the game. It's just about making more than they do."
This article is written by Sammy Batten from The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.