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Game 3 Preview: Clemson Hosts Virginia in Primetime

ACC Title Game Rematch!

NCAA Football: ACC Championship-Virginia vs Clemson Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back after the open date week! I was fully entertained by Kansas State punking the Sooners for the second straight year, followed by the LSU Tigers getting looted in their own building by that mad pirate Mike Leach and his Bulldogs, topped off by the ultimate dessert of Gamecock tears as they lost in very on-brand fashion to the Tennessee Vols.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at South Carolina
sadness, part 1000
Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

I’m excited to have another Clemson game this weekend, and a night game at that! The 2019 Coastal Champion Virginia Cavaliers come to town hoping to fare a little better than last year’s boat racing in Charlotte. They certainly offer a step up in competition from the first two games. They are more talented on defense than Wake and are one of the best coached units in the league. This is a good thing considering the upstart Miami Hurricanes are due the week after for what will be a marquis game nationally. Clemson still holds a considerable talent advantage in this game, but Bronco Mendenhall is easily the best coach UVA has had since George Welsh pulled them out of the cellar in the late 1980s and 1990s. They hold a special place for the 28-0 beat down they delivered the Gamecocks in the Belk Bowl following the 2018 season.

Clemson defense vs. UVA offense: I’ll start on this side of the ball. UVA was a little more potent than one might have expected last week against Duke considering just how big of a load Bryce Perkins carried for them in 2019. They have some skill guys that remind some of us older fans of tall UVA targets of the past like Herman Moore, Billy McMullen, and Heath Miller. They hope their run game is improved from last year, when it was essentially Bryce Perkins or bust. Wayne Taulapapa put up 95 yards and 2 TDs on the ground last week vs. Duke, but that was Duke. Brent Venables always wants to make the quarterback beat him by executing contested throws while also throwing multiple looks at him. Taking away the run game is a must for that to work to perfection, and the Tigers have been outstanding against the run so far this year. Clemson should also be back to full strength in the secondary with Mario Goodrich returning. Dabo Swinney praised Sheridan Jones this week, and I thought he looked very good against The Citadel, particularly in run support. UVA has Tony Pulijan to attack the middle and super tall Lavel Davis to go after jump balls on the outside. This will be a good test for the largely young Clemson back seven.

The question for UVA is how to deal with the scary new blood on the Tiger defense. Myles Murphy has been better than advertised and Bryan Bresee has also been very impressive early on. Tyler Davis is on track to return to some action and will hopefully be able to get some snaps in this week. Once Justin Foster and Xavier Thomas return to full health, we should really be in for a treat. Alex Craft wrote about the “final form” of MLB James Skalski in his film review from the Wake game. These next two games will be showcase moments for Skalksi considering how both UVA and Miami like to attack with zone read concepts. I expect him to come up huge this weekend.

Even in last year’s blowout win, we saw that UVA was able to scheme some matchups that worked for them. They got Hasise Dubois isolated on Tanner Muse for a score in the first quarter. Clemson’s young safeties, save Nolan Turner, will need to be on their toes as they will surely be targeted.

Clemson offense vs. UVA defense: The fate of the Cavaliers truly lies on this side of the ball. Their banged up defense had no shot at slowing down Clemson in Charlotte as Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross made mincemeat of the UVA secondary. We all know those two names are not a factor this year with Higgins playing for the Bengals and Ross out for the year with injury. We should see more of what we saw in the Wake game in terms of targets for the tight ends, particularly Braden Galloway. There should also be more looks for Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata. UVA showed in 2019 they would take their chances with their corners one-on-one outside in an effort to corral the run and create pressure. Just because it didn’t work out then doesn’t mean they won’t do it again this year hoping their healthier roster and what Clemson lost will close the gap.

Unfortunately for them and everyone else, Trevor Lawrence looks every bit the #1 pick in the NFL draft two games into the season. He is primed to exploit any and all mistakes or mismatches the defense presents as long as the protection doesn’t let him down. I’m no quarterback coach, but by my view he’s only made two real mistakes all year. The first sack he took against Wake was on him, then he missed one open throw (to Ladson) later that night. Otherwise he’s been absolutely money. Travis Etienne has been very good, but we all know that he has another gear of explosiveness that hasn’t quite been unleashed. He had a light day against The Citadel, but he will be looking at his normal touch load for this game. Amari Rodgers has settled into the alpha WR role very nicely.

UVA deploys a true 3-4 defense and uses a lot of fire zone blitzes much in the vein of the Dick LeBeau-led Pittsburgh Steelers. Zane Zandier and Nick Jackson both put up double figure tackles in the Duke game last week. The Cavs completely shut down Duke’s running game and turned Chase Brice and the Blue Devils over 5 times. How improved they are on this side of the ball will go a long way in determining how competitive they can make the game Saturday night.

Special Teams: Two weeks and no disaster plays for Clemson! This should be appreciated even more after seeing how many big special teams mistakes have occurred all over the country. Oklahoma gave up a blocked punt that was a major factor in their undoing, and the Gamecocks saw their last hope of victory dashed by a blocker failing to get away from a rolling punt. Travis Etienne got a punt return opportunity against The Citadel just for kicks and nearly took it to the house. Amari Rodgers was also close to breaking one very big and should give the opponents something to think about in the punt game. Clemson’s kick return game has gotten very little work so far, which is always a good thing. BT Potter has been perfect so far.

Overall: I respect UVA and Bronco Mendenhall. Whatever UVA’s ceiling is as a football program in this era, I think he will get them to it. They just aren’t quite ready to deal with this Clemson program with a quarterback playing at super elite level. Unless some turnovers or unexpected personnel losses enter the mix, Clemson will pull away.

Clemson 45-UVA 14