Another week, another prime time road game. Such is life for the defending champs when you’re every opponent’s greatest draw. This week’s top 15 road battle provides plenty of encouraging comparisons to Clemson’s dominance against Louisville — where the Hokies have to overcome an identical talent gap yet lack a superstar like Lamar Jackson to bridge said gap — but the differences in defensive philosophy and coaching competence couldn’t be more glaring.
In contrast to Louisville week, this game has made me increasingly uneasy. The more I watched Louisville, the more and more my confidence grew that their defense was in serious trouble and Lamar Jackson wouldn’t have enough magic to carry a grossly inferior roster himself. We know what happened and I am still smug. By that logic, Clemson should run the opponent out of Blacksburg the way they did Louisville...until one considers the drastic difference in quality found in Virginia Tech’s coaching staff compared to Louisville’s.
Longtime defensive coordinator Bud Foster will force Kelly Bryant to beat him, playing aggressive man coverage in the back and trying to overwhelm Clemson up front like Auburn did three weeks ago; like Foster did to Will Proctor and Clemson in 2006; like Foster did to JT Barrett and Ohio State in 2014. Why this shouldn’t work as well comes back to the talent gap. Auburn actually had the talent edge over Clemson, allowing it to take away the run with its front and lock down all but Clemson’s deep fade passes.
VT is nowhere close to that talent level. Their personnel deficiencies aren’t glaring on film like Louisville’s, but I haven’t seen the talent up front to excel with such aggression like Auburn does. This doesn’t mean Clemson shouldn’t be concerned; Kelly Bryant will have his hands full. Will he bounce back after BC’s unexpected zone confused him, putting more trust in his receivers against man coverage? Or will an aggressive defense overwhelm him in the manner Louisville’s staff was afraid to try?
Everyone knows Foster’s reputation for aggressive man coverage defenses. What many either overlook or no longer remember due to the prevalence of the spread is that his true base defense was actually a 4-4, where the strong safety is a hybrid linebacker known as the rover.
Facing more 3 & 4 WR sets, Foster’s rover has evolved into a position which requires far more pass responsibility, but is still frequently employed close to the line like another (but more versatile) nickel corner to deter the run or to show pressure:
From this sort of pressure look, Foster sent your typical man cover 1 blitz. It’s vintage Foster, and Clemson should expect it in spades Saturday given Bryant’s propensity to take sacks so frequently when pressured.
If Clemson starts to have success through the air against man coverage, Foster will most likely switch to the sort of cover 4 with which we are very familiar from our own Brent Venables. It’s technically a zone defense, but with pattern matching it often resembles man coverage. Cover 4 requires a lot from its safeties in run support, but because of this they are more susceptible to play-action than a pure man coverage squad.
When facing spreads, Foster wants to scare the opponent with an 8 man front, force it into max protection, and then drop into coverage; letting his line stunts attack a confused OL and QB. As we know firsthand, shorter, aggressive safety depth is particularly vulnerable to play-action with a vertical route run directly at them, and Clemson made a living attacking aggressive cover 4 safeties on play-action a year ago:
Also, as we again know firsthand, cover 4 is vulnerable in the flats, whether off play-action or not. Longer-developing vertical routes and quick passes/screens outside must return (as in, execute properly so the coaches don’t have to give up on them like last week) as a major part of Clemson’s offensive game plan this week to take some pressure off the run, on which Virginia Tech will certainly key. Which of course leads into how Foster will attack Clemson’s blocking (both inside and out wide) itself...
This is where talent is a factor, and why things look far better for Clemson here than they did against Auburn. Clemson struggled to establish a conventional run game against Auburn, who controlled the line with its fantastic front and played press man to take away the screen game. Bryant was up to the challenge, and carried Clemson’s offense singlehandedly with deep fades and some beautiful QB counter runs.
It was difficult to find film relevant to Saturday’s match, since VT’s only solid opponent runs an air raid offense, but the sledding shouldn’t be nearly as tough against a defensive front which is prone to fatigue and lacks the quickness to generate much pressure with only a 4 man rush:
VT’s most dangerous defenders in my estimation are found in WHIP/nickel Mook Reynolds and rover Terrell Edmunds; incidentally, the two positions where versatility is paramount. Nose tackle Tim Settle can be a problem when he’s in the game, but stamina limits his snaps and production. Clemson needs patience on the ground similar to the BC game (where Clemson actually found a lot of success getting to the second level behind combo blocks from Hearn and Falcinelli throughout the entire game), but with far more of the aforementioned vertical routes and passing to the flats to loosen VT off the line of scrimmage. What do I want to see from the start? 1v1 deep shots to back them up. For the first time in weeks, Deon Cain should have plenty of opportunities to do what he does best:
Had VT not lost so much on offense this year, I’d consider this a likely loss and the Hokies the ACC favorite at this point. The Hokies are no doubt a force to be reckoned with from the Coastal thanks to an outstanding hire in Justin Fuente to complement the eternal Foster. But the talent is not yet up to snuff to go toe-to-toe against Clemson without a transcendent performance. Facing a monstrous Clemson defensive front and a versatile secondary, VT’s offense will only go as far as toss-ups to Cam Phillips will allow, and I have a hard time seeing them reach 20 points without help on defense or special teams.
Given Foster will force Bryant to beat him (until fatigue hopefully frees Feaster and Etienne), I see this game going similarly to the Auburn game, but with a bit more success for Clemson’s offense thanks to the considerable talent advantage. Foster will bring more exotic looks and unpredictable pressure than Kevin Steele did for Auburn to mitigate Clemson’s talent edge and attempt to rattle Bryant from the start, but even Auburn’s great secondary learned the dangers of man coverage against Clemson receivers downfield coupled with Bryant’s ability to run. VT will make plenty of plays defensively, but Bryant will make more against the type of defense he is best-suited to beat: aggressive man to man.