It was great to get the Clemson football team back in action last week. The Tigers didn’t disappoint, as they absolutely hammered Pittsburgh. Now only Virginia Tech stands in the way of another trip to Charlotte and a much desired rematch with Notre Dame. Trevor Lawrence reminded everyone just how great he is, and the Tiger defense once again showed that when Tyler Davis and James Skalski are in the lineup, it is a whole different set of problems for the opposition. Clemson should have played Florida State two weeks ago, but now we know that this will be the last regular season game of the season. Pittsburgh hammered FSU and Virginia Tech, so the Tigers are once again heavy favorites going into Blacksburg. VT does present some interesting challenges for the defense, most notably the very dangerous dual-threat QB Hendon Hooker. The Tigers need to show they can corral and punish a mobile QB before looking to face Ian Book once again. Weather could be an interesting factor, as it is slated to be a very cold night in hills of Virginia.
Clemson offense vs. VT defense: Clemson faces the VT defense for the first time since legendary Bud Foster retired. The Hokies are still one of the heaviest blitz teams you will see, but they have had a mostly down year on the defensive front. VT currently ranks dead last in total defense in the ACC at 463 yards a game. Clemson just faced the best rushing defense in the league and had a pretty good day. Now they get to face a team giving up 189.2 yards a game rushing and 4.8 yards per carry. The only thing VT is doing pretty well on defense is rushing the QB, registering 32 sacks in 9 games. Clemson will definitely look to lean on the running game a little more, though the team is passing for nearly 400 yards a game.
Many Tiger fans will remember VT linebacker Dax Hollifield, who chose VT over the Tigers for some interesting reasons. One of those was related to Bud Foster, who didn’t even last Hollifield’s career in Blacksburg. There should be ample opportunities for explosive plays against the feast or famine Hokies.
I was much happier with the effort up front by the Tigers against Pitt. While we didn’t see a super long run or 200+ yards rushing, we saw a lot less penetration on run calls and highly effective blocking in short yardage and goal line. This year’s team is built to throw the ball, and I don’t begrudge playing to the strengths of the team. As long as the run game can be there for short yardage and red zone, that is really what the team will need to have to win another National Title. Even still, it has been a while now since Travis Etienne has been able to bust off a huge run or two. This is a game where we should see that happen. Lyn-J Dixon played light years better after being benched against Notre Dame. It is good to see a veteran respond.
Clemson is still playing short handed at WR, but Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell continue to be dominant. EJ Williams got his first start and delivered some nice plays, including a fade route TD to start the onslaught against the Panthers. There is a chance Frank Ladson could return for this game, but it is more likely he will be held to be ready for Charlotte should the Tigers get there as expected.
As long as Clemson runs the ball efficiently and protects Trevor from the various VT blitzes, there should be no issues breaking 40 points in this one.
Clemson defense vs. VT offense: If VT is going to make a game of this, their offense has got to carry the load. VT does have one of the best rushing attacks in the country. At one point in the season, it looked like VT could very well be the second best team in the ACC with a healthy Hooker at QB. Alas, their defensive issues killed most of that. Hooker and running back Khalil Herbert are a dynamic one-two punch. Herbert is averaging an Etienne-like 8.2 yards per carry. The Tigers simply have to stop the run at all costs and force Hooker to throw the ball to win. Like Miami, the Hokies passing attack can be explosive but is dependent on the run game setting it up. Pittsburgh forced VT to do a lot more drop back passing and essentially stuffed their offense as a result.
VT’s offensive line is right up there with Notre Dame’s in PFF ranking. This is a good test for the Tiger front 7 before potentially seeing the Irish OL again. I’m not sure if Clemson has had a game this year when the defense has had the entire secondary personnel available. The Miami game was the closest and probably not coincidentally was the most dominant secondary performance of the season.
Tyler Davis and James Skalski made their returns to the defense and did not disappoint. The Tigers have simply been on another level defensively when those two have been healthy. Clemson unleashed a “rabbit” package on Pittsburgh which should give some future offensive coordinators some more to digest. The Tigers secondary was largely stellar against a good Pittsburgh passing attack (with Pickett behind center), even though top corner Derion Kendrick didn’t play. Sheridan Jones also missed the game as well as Zanders at safety. Malcolm Greene stepped up and played very well, and Joseph Charleston probably had his best game of the season. Mario Goodrich notched two interceptions, and Andrew Booth added another ridiculous highlight pick to his resume. There is a lot to be optimistic about for this defense going forward. Its best football is still ahead of it.
Special Teams: Clemson had a solid but not spectacular outing on special teams last week. The star of the game was probably Pitt’s punter, who was killing the ball and pinning Clemson deep routinely. B.T. Potter missed a kick, but otherwise he was his usual self, driving the ball out of the end zone on kickoffs, and making a 45-yard field goal look like an extra point. The Tigers certainly don’t want to hear any “Beamer Ball” comments that will come should the Hokies find a way to block a kick.
Overall: You worry a little about VT’s running game. Their path to success will be to control the ball and limit possessions if they aren’t hitting explosive plays. They know their defense can’t hold up all game long. Clemson knows this is essentially a playoff game and I expect some orange britches to be worn. I wouldn’t want to be the one standing in the way of Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, and the ACC Championship Game.
Clemson 52 VT 17