The Tigers are seeking to become the first Power 5 team to win five consecutive conference championship games (currently tied with Florida ’93-’96 at four years in a row). To help us preview the match-up, we connected with Paul Wiley of Streaking the Lawn.
STS: Entering the season, Bryce Perkins was widely viewed as the best non-Clemson QB in the ACC. Perkins has lived up to the hype and delivered Virginia their first ever ACC Coastal title. At the conclusion of the Commonwealth Cup, the announcers said he had earned a special place in UVA lore. How instrumental has he been to this season and where does he fit in the broader context of UVA football?
STL: Simply put, there’s no way Virginia makes the leaps forward in 2018 or 2019 without Perkins running the offense. Last season, only two quarterbacks threw for 2,600 yards and rushed for 900: Perkins and Heisman-winner Kyler Murray. Pretty decent company to keep. His 3,628 yards of total offense this year set a new UVA single-season record, breaking the previous high of 3,603 set... last year by Bryce Perkins.
Beyond the stats are the kinds of special highlight plays that make a player’s legend live on well after they’ve moved on. Perkins has those in spades: hurdling two different Louisville players, the dancing two-point conversion against Florida State, and of course the clinic he put on to win back the Commonwealth Cup on Friday. His bounceback from the brutal ending to last year’s VaTech game alone would be enough to lock him into UVA fans’ memories, but to do so while lifting the entire program with him makes Perkins an all-time great.
STS: Virginia ranks just 109th in rushing offense with just 128 rushing yards per game on a paltry 3.9 YPC. QB Perkins is their leading rusher. Wayne Taulapapa is their next leading rusher only has 416 rushing yards. Is the Cavalier offense as one-dimensional as it looks on paper?
STL: Unfortunately, yes. You’re not supposed to be one-dimensional with a dual-threat quarterback, but Virginia hasn’t quite figured its run game out this year. Some of that is due to a young and inexperienced running back corps; some of it is due to an offensive line that has not seemed to progress as quickly as other position groups in the Mendenhall era. Those two factors together have made for a frustratingly inconsistent 2019 for the rushing dimension. Despite the low yardage, Taulapapa is fourth in the ACC in rushing touchdowns. The rest of the crew—Lamont Atkins, PK Kier, Mike Hollins, and Chris Sharp—can each show flashes and execute well in specific situations. But Virginia relies on the quick throw game to move the ball consistently, and that’s not likely to change in the final two games of the year.
STS: The Cavaliers rank 116th in sacks allowed (3.0 per game). Clemson’s defensive line isn’t quite as prestigious as last year, but they still rank 18th in team sacks per game and have 35 in total. Do you think Virginia can protect Perkins well enough to run the offense or will Clemson will be in the backfield early and often?
STL: If you want a clinic in this very question, go back and watch Virginia’s game at Notre Dame. The Irish have the best defense—and definitely the best defensive line—that UVA faced in 2019. In the first half, Perkins got the ball out fast to Virginia’s reliable wide receivers, and the offense was clicking all the way to a halftime lead. But in the second half, Notre Dame shifted to defensive schemes that forced Perkins to hold the ball, and the Irish defense just FEASTED on UVA’s young offensive line. That offensive line has played better of late as they’ve gotten to play more as a consistent unit. No doubt, though, Clemson has at least as much defensive talent as Notre Dame, so I expect the offensive coaches are working on schemes to emphasize the quick throw game early and often.
STS: On the other side of the ball, Virginia has done a great job getting to the QB. How big of a threat is the pass rush against the Tigers’ veteran offensive line? Is that a matchup you feel Virginia can win with some consistency?
STL: Creative, aggressive, effective blitzes have always been the staple of Bronco Mendenhall defenses, going back to BYU and even New Mexico before that. (Mendenhall and Rocky Long developed the 3-3-5 defense at New Mexico, with help from a linebacker you might have heard of named Brian Urlacher.) That scheme has some pretty impressive athletes in it, with Charles Snowden’s length paired with Noah Taylor’s speed paired with Jordan Mack’s football IQ paired with Zane “ZZ Stop” Zandier’s thunderous tackles. Clemson has the right combination to slow all that down, though: talented and veteran offensive linemen leading an offense that’s equally effective running and throwing.
STS: In some of our games with big spreads, we’re looking at one specific strength of our opponent and seeing how Clemson handles it. Against U of SC it was how Clemson’s OL handles the Cocks’ defensive line. Against Boston College, it was how Clemson’s defensive front can stop AJ Dillon. In this one, what’s the one thing Clemson fans should be watching for Saturday night?
STL: I think we just talked about it: UVA’s pass rush. The defensive secondary would have been my answer back in September, but losing All-American and erstwhile first-round cornerback Bryce Hall against Miami was just the most high profile of a series of injury setbacks to that unit. Safety Brenton Nelson (2017 ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year) was also lost for the season, and Chris Moore has been banged up the past several games. As a result, UVA’s best shot to slow down Trevor Lawrence is by getting pressure. The more they can do so with creative 4-man blitzes, the better chance Virginia has to put a restrictor plate on Clemson’s Lamborghini offense. If the Tigers’ offensive line stymies the rush, and the Hoos have to bring five or six guys in order to make pressure, the more Tee Higgins & Co. are going to feast on the back end.
STS: Virginia is a 28-point underdog in this game. They’re likely to get an Orange Bowl bid regardless of the game’s outcome so: A) How much do these two upcoming postseason games mean for this program and how the year is viewed by Virginia fans? B) Do you think Virginia can give the Tigers a serious scare?
STL: I may just be speaking for myself, but the year should already be viewed as a smashing success. UVA held serve by going undefeated at Scott Stadium, won the Coastal Divison for the first time ever, and brought the Commonwealth Cup back home—all while starting a total of seven seniors across offense, defense, and special teams. Average home attendance for the season is over 50,000 for the first time in years. There is an open debate among the fanbase of what the expectation should be, year-in and year-out, for Cavalier football. I say it looks a lot like this: nine wins, competing for the ACC title, and beating VaTech.
That said, the team won’t look at Saturday night and think, “Well we’re just happy to be here.” They’ll be hyped to take their best shot in national primetime, against the team that has dominated the conference, for a chance to bring home even more hardware. But Clemson is used to that: when you’ve done what Clemson has done and been who Clemson has been the past five years, you must be used to getting everybody’s best shot. And the Tigers have plenty to play for as well. If Clemson comes out fast, this will be over pretty quick. If Virginia can keep it close going to halftime, it will at least stay interesting. But I expect Clemson’s talent—from the field all the way to the coaches’ box—to hold out and deliver a CFP-berth-clinching win.
STS: Thank you to Paul Wiley for shedding light on Clemson’s fifth unique ACC Championship opponent in the past five years, the Virginia Cavaliers. If you enjoyed this Q&A, please follow Paul on Twitter here, and check out the other half of this Q&A here.