It wasn’t hard to look at Clemson’s September schedule and figure it would likely make or break the season (in terms of challenging for the ACC/Playoffs). Clemson got by a very good (and surging) Auburn squad, handled the upstart Louisville Cardinals, and now visit the defending Coastal champ Virginia Tech Hokies. Some of the hires made recently in the ACC are paying dividends, and the Justin Fuente hire is probably at the top of that list. To be honest, Virginia Tech belongs at the top end of the ACC and in contention with their mix of solid recent history (since 1990) and passionate fan base. It is good for the league when the Hokies are strong (as well as Clemson, FSU, and the Miami Hurricanes). Perhaps the most impressive thing about the 2011 season, which was a watershed season for Dabo’s program (10 wins, ACC title, BCS appearance), was taking out a top 10 VT team TWICE in the same season. It was the first time Clemson seemed to finally get some traction on Bud Foster’s defenses after humbling and mostly humiliating losses in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2006, and 2007. Now VT comes in as the hunter, and Clemson will no doubt be facing an inspired effort out of the Hokies on Saturday night. We all know the BC win wasn’t winning any beauty contests, and I certainly rank among the many who gnashed teeth and cursed as Clemson sputtered along for three quarters. Some warts were exposed a bit on Kelly Bryant, and the most important thing to watch is how he responds this week.
I was one of many fooled into overlooking some of the warts of the 2006 team prior to their fateful trip to Blacksburg. I saw Will Proctor hang guys out to dry with weak deep throw efforts in Winston-Salem. I figured the Clemson run game was just so strong, Proctor didn’t have to be that good. Heck, he was AWFUL against GT that year as well, but when C.J. Spiller can take a swing pass and juke two guys out of their jocks while racing for a score, how good do you really have to be? Well, VT loaded up on the Clemson run game and Proctor was completely out of his element without it. Bryant is certainly more talented than Proctor was (bigger, faster, stronger, better arm), but some holes in his game have crept up. He’s struggled with pressure, both recognizing it and adjusting to it, and he has held the ball too long at times. His screen game throws have been consistently poor. He missed, by my estimation, five reads in the BC game that either led to TFL or no gain and/or cost the team a potential big play. The next step in Kelly’s process is learning and growing from these issues. Proctor never could figure a way around his warts in 06, which effectively sent a promising season into the toilet. I’m anxious to see how Bryant responds on Saturday night against what promises to be a steady diet of exotic pressures and more cover 4 like BC ran.
Clemson offense vs. VT defense: Calling Deon Cain, calling Deon Cain! The Tiger 9 man has had a pretty quiet season in what was billed to be his ascension to the #WRU throne. In his defense, he has drawn PLENTY of safety help (especially last week) and the Tigers have been much more run oriented this season than last. Bud Foster very, VERY rarely plays two deep safeties, choosing instead to bring a safety up hard in run support. The chances of Cain getting single coverage are as good this week as any he has had. The Tigers have to do a better job of holding up in protection for deeper plays/double moves to be realized. This was much better in the Louisville game when Bryant surpassed 300 yards and hit several big plays (and one that was eliminated by penalty) then the Auburn game where opportunities early were missed before the staff chose to go into turtle mode on offense. Those early opportunities this week need to be hit, or Foster will be content to send 9 guys screaming at the run game on every snap.
One Achilles Heel Clemson discovered vs Foster in 2011 was exposed via the tight end Dwayne Allen. Allen had 3 TDs in two games against the Hokies in ‘11. Jordan Leggett had two against VT last year. Does Milan Richard have it in him to make plays in this game? I’m calling for more snaps for Overton who has stepped up to make some huge plays in his limited opportunities so far. His big frame is a problem for press man coverage like the Tigers will see several times Saturday.
The new heirarchy at running back has taken shape with Tavien Feaster and Travis Etienne at the top of the heap. I will send a nod to Adam Choice for some good physical running as well. We shouldn’t forget that Kendall Joseph said Choice was his least favorite guy to tackle in fall camp. Foster has a lot to worry about with the depth Clemson has at back in addition to the run threat Bryant presents. Kelly will need to step up his read game after a shaky game last week.
I certainly respect Foster and he will likely find some ways to give Clemson trouble, but I also recall WVU’s WR repeatedly winning vs the Hokies in that first game. The Mountaineers also racked up well over 200 yards rushing as well. I think the size and power of Clemson’s front will be too much for VT to handle. The Hokies will need to turn Clemson over 2 to 4 times to mitigate this issue.
Clemson defense vs. VT offense: Justin Fuente came in last year and almost immediately turned around the Hokies’ offense from the doldrums it experienced during the final stretch of the Beamer era. There is a reason he was on Dabo Swinney’s radar for offensive coordinator back in 2010. Fuente has maximized the weapons at his disposal and has fielded a competent offense even after losing his quarterback and two leading receiving threats from last year. The Hokies have been riding redshirt freshman Josh Jackson and senior WR Cam Phillips for most of their production. Getting Phillips controlled will be at or near the top of Brent Venables to do list. Clemson fans should take heart knowing Venables has effectively shut down primary targets on the outside just about every time to this point. Phillips will get his touches because of the way VT moves him and screens to him, but holding him to minimal gains and punishing him physically will be important. Clemson should never allow Phillips to slip out undetected for big plays and the Tigers should have both Mullen and Fields back to help combat the Hokies.
The VT run game cannot be allowed to get much traction on Saturday night. The Tigers will have their hands full if that isn’t the case. Last year’s game turned when Dorian O’Daniel was ejected for targeting. VT almost immediately began finding more success with their quarterback runs and McMillan rushing the ball. While VT did most of their damage through the air last year, the threat of the run game helped open up their offense in the second half. The Clemson defense has been lights out against the run all season, and it is hard to see VT getting a lot of success without the more physical running presence of Jerrod Evans this time.
I fully expect some array of trickery from VT on Saturday night. Clemson must be prepared for double passes, reverses with passes, etc. The best formula for road success is what we saw at Louisville when the Tigers suffocated the Cardinals for the majority of the first half while controlling the ball on offense. An underdog like VT needs to feed on that home energy, and the sooner the Tigers can sap it away, the better things are going to go. Any early explosive plays and cheap scores out of VT will guarantee a major dogfight and possible defeat.
Special Teams: Clemson’s new kicking situation wasn’t really tested last week. Kickoffs were adequate and there was just the one missed extra point late. Punt coverage, however, left a lot to be desired. Clemson made some, shall we say, interesting personnel decisions on punt team. There should be no fooling around with that this week, and hopefully the return of Fields and Mullen will help in that regard. Ray Ray pulled off an explosive punt return which was good to see. His aggression has been burned a few times going sideways or backwards initially, but he showed what can happen if he can squirt free from the first wave of coverage. We all know how the Hokies made a living with big special teams plays during the Beamer era. The 2007 game was a blowout by the score, but Clemson actually dominated the yardage, first downs, etc. Of course, VT ran a kickoff AND a punt back for scores (along with a pick 6) that fateful night. Again, no messing around getting third team guys snaps on special teams this week, please.
Overall: There are things to worry about this week. VT has some good players and some excellent coaching to help maximize what they are working with. However, they don’t have big game pedigree at this point, certainly nothing approaching what Clemson has built through a string of wins over ranked opponents. The Tigers have just one loss to a ranked team since 2014, and that was the first Alabama game which came down to the wire. VT’s last monumental win was the upset over Ohio State to start 2014. In the end, Clemson is just too big on both sides for the small, quick Hokies to handle for four quarters. VT has to get ahead and generate turnovers, then hold on. Clemson playing C+ football last week vs. BC only makes the likelihood of Clemson playing much better this week much higher.
Clemson 31 Virginia Tech 16