ACC Championship Game Preview: #5 Virginia Tech vs. #20 Clemson

, TechSideline.com, on November 30, 2011
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  • Date: Saturday, December 3rd, 2011
  • Time: 8:00
  • TV: ESPN (Brent Musberger and Kirk Herbstreit)

Back on October 1, Virginia Tech hosted Clemson for a big Saturday night
showdown between the ACC’s two highest ranked teams. The Tigers left Blacksburg
with a relatively easy 23-3 victory over the Hokies. That was the high water
mark of Clemson’s season, and since then they have steadily regressed as a
football team. On the other hand, Virginia Tech has steadily gotten better,
culminating in a 38-0 whipping of UVA this past weekend for the Coastal Division
crown.

Clemson has lost three of their last four games. They were whipped by Georgia
Tech 31-17 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. They
came back in the fourth quarter to overcome a big deficit at home against Wake
Forest, winning 31-28. In their last two games, they were blown out by NC State
(37-13) and South Carolina (34-13). This is a reeling football team that is
caught in a downward spiral. The problem with Clemson is that whenever they get
into that downward spiral, they generally don’t get out of it until the next
season begins and they get to out-athlete the non-conference opponents on their
schedule.

That said, this game is a playoff. The past means nothing. Both teams want to
win this game. However, is Clemson confident after the last two weeks of getting
crushed? They have to be down, at least a little bit, and the question is how
that’s going to affect them.

Tajh Boyd vs. Logan Thomas

Tajh Boyd is the First Team All-ACC quarterback. For the season, he completed
59.9% of his passes for 3,338 yards, with 28 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
Boyd is a good player playing in a good offense, but at the same time, he
struggled down the stretch for Clemson.


Tajh Boyd,
Last 4 Games

Opp.

Comp.

Att.

Yards

TD

INT
Georgia Tech 23 40 295 1 2
Wake Forest 27 43 343 2 2
NC State 21 34 238 0 2
South Carolina 11 29 83 1 1
Totals 82 146 959 4 7
110.8 efficiency rating

Boyd has thrown for a lot of yards, with the exception of the South Carolina
game, but he’s also been turning the ball over. Those numbers don’t include a
couple of fumbles, as well as a couple of balls that could have easily been
intercepted by Wake Forest. If those interceptions are made by Wake, then the
Tigers might be losers of four games in a row.

Over the last two games, Boyd has been sacked six times. He looks much less
comfortable running the offense than he did earlier in the season, and you can
bet that Bud Foster has noticed that on film.

On the other hand, Logan Thomas has looked like the best quarterback in the
ACC since that Clemson loss on October 1.


Logan
Thomas, Last 7 Games

Opp.

Comp.

Att.

Yards

TD

INT
Miami 23 25 310 3 0
Wake 17 32 280 2 0
BC 22 36 268 1 0
Duke 17 28 190 1 2
GT 7 13 209 3 0
UNC 19 32 195 2 0
UVA 13 21 187 2 0
Totals 118 187 1639 14 2
159.3 rating

Expand those numbers out for a whole season, and Thomas would rank 11th
nationally in passing efficiency, and that doesn’t even take into account what
he’s been doing on the ground. He’s a dominant runner on the read option and
quarterback sneak, and defensive backs (and linebackers) have a lot of trouble
with him in the open field.

In that span of seven games, Thomas has played five games that I would
classify as “big” games. The Miami game was huge, Wake Forest was on
the road against a then-unbeaten ACC team at night, Georgia Tech and UNC were
huge Thursday night games, and UVA was for the Coastal Division title.

In those five games, Thomas has completed 64.2% of his passes for 1,181
yards, with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions, a quarterback rating of 177.1.
He has also run for 197 yards and nine touchdowns in those five big games,
executing the read option flawlessly.

To me, Logan Thomas looks like a big game player. He is trending up, while
Tajh Boyd is trending down. It appears that the Hokies have an advantage at
quarterback in this game.

The Rest of Clemson’s Offense

The Clemson offense has put up big numbers this season. Here’s a look at how
they have fared against ACC competition.


Clemson
Offense vs. the ACC

Category

Stat

ACC Rank
Rushing 136.1 ypg 9
Passing 307.6 ypg 1
Total 443.8 ypg 1
Scoring 33.8 ppg 1
Pass Eff. 137.3 6
Third Down% 42.70% 4
Sacks Allowed 17 8

Average

4.29

Those are good numbers, though as a comparison, the Virginia Tech offense has
an average rank of 3.29 against a similar ACC schedule (common opponents were
Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Boston College and UNC).

The Tigers have a finesse style of play on the offensive side of the ball.
For the season, they average just 3.9 yards per carry, and they have given up a
lot of sacks, particularly in recent weeks. Here’s a look at their offensive
line.


The
Clemson Offensive Line

Pos.

Player

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.
LT Phillip Price 6-5 315 r-Sr.
LG David Smith 6-5 310 r-Sr.
C Dalton Freeman 6-5 285 r-Jr.
RG Antoine McClain 6-6 335 Sr.
RT Landon Walker 6-6 305 r-Sr.

Despite their size and experience, this group has underperformed at times
this year. I believe that it’s a toughness issue, which much to the chagrin of
Clemson fans, has been engrained in the culture of the program for the better
part of a decade.

On the other hand, the Clemson offense does possess many strengths.

Dwayne Allen (6-4, 255, r-Jr.) – Allen is arguably the best tight end in
the nation. You can line him up as an in-line tight end, an H-back, or split him
out as a wide receiver. He has 46 catches for 545 yards and six touchdowns this
season. He is projected as a first or second round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Allen had four catches for 75 yards and a touchdown in the first meeting.

Sammy Watkins (6-1, 200, Fr.) – Watkins is the best freshman wide
receiver in America. He has good size, he’s explosive and he’s fast. With 72
catches for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns, he is a major part of the Clemson
offense. He has been banged up recently, which has limited the Clemson offensive
attack. Cris Hill shut Watkins down in the first meeting, limiting him to just
three receptions for 38 yards.

DeAndre Hopkins (6-1, 200, So.) – Hopkins is perhaps the most underrated
performer of the Clemson offense. He caught 55 passes for 779 yards and four
touchdowns this season. He was limited to just one catch for 15 yards in
Blacksburg.

Andre Ellington (5-10, 190, r-Jr.) – Ellington has rushed for 937 yards
this year and averaged 4.9 yards per carry despite missing one game and being
banged up for several others. He is a quality back, but had just 40 yards on 16
carries in the first meeting.

Tajh Boyd (6-1, 225, r-So.) – Despite his recent struggles, Boyd is still
a very effective player. Tech did very well against him in the first meeting. He
was just 13-of-32 for 204 yards, with a touchdown and an interception.

If Ellington and Watkins are back to full speed this week, then the Hokies
will face a much more explosive offense than recent Clemson opponents. Tech
needs to shut down the run again and force the Tigers into long yardage
situations.

The Clemson Defense: Talented but Soft?

The Tigers have two players on their defensive line who are projected to go
in either the first, second or third rounds in April’s NFL Draft. They have a
lot of speed all over the field. That said, the Clemson defense has allowed 27
points to Wofford, 24 points to Auburn, 30 points to FSU, 45 points to Maryland,
38 points to UNC, 31 points to Georgia Tech, 28 points to Wake Forest, 37 points
to NC State and 34 points to South Carolina.

The Tigers haven’t allowed fewer than 28 points since they faced a very bad
BC offense on October 8, and only Wake Forest has failed to score 30 points
since then. However, the one good game the Clemson defense played this year was
in Blacksburg on October 1 when they held the Hokies to three points. Since that
date, the Tech offense has put up big numbers.


Clemson
Defense vs. the ACC

Category

Stat

ACC Rank
Rushing 169.2 ypg 9
Passing 196.4 ypg 2
Total 365.6 ppg 4
Scoring 28.2 ppg 9
Pass Eff. 127.5 6
Third Down% 38.1% 4
Sacks 18 4

Average

5.43

As a comparison, the Tech defense has an average ranking of 2.43 against ACC
offenses, and they rank fourth or better in every category in the table above.

The Tigers have an underrated secondary that allowed fewer than 200 yards
passing per game through the air, and which finished fourth in the ACC in pass
efficiency defense. However, despite having NFL picks in their front seven,
Clemson’s numbers against the run were bad, despite playing teams with no
running games like FSU, Boston College Maryland, Wake Forest and NC State. All
of those teams finished in the bottom half of the ACC in rushing offense against
conference opponents.

With Clemson’s talent level up front, that shouldn’t happen.

Andre Branch (6-5, 260, r-Sr) – The r-senior Virginia native abused Tech
for five tackles for loss and three sacks back in November. Most of that came in
the fourth quarter when the Tigers knew the Hokies had to throw the football.
Branch led the ACC with 10.5 sacks, and he finished second on the team with 72
tackles.

Brandon Thompson (6-2, 310, Sr.) - Clemson’s talented noseguard could go
in the first or second round in April. He racked up 69 tackles on the season,
despite being an interior defensive lineman.

Rennie Moore (6-3, 265, r-Sr.) – Moore is an undersized defensive tackle,
but he’s got a very good motor. He had eight tackles for loss and three sacks,
and after Branch he was Clemson’s top playmaker on the defensive line.

Clemson’s lack of depth up front does hurt them, as the Tigers don’t have a
reliable two-deep. However, that’s not any different than most teams throughout
college football. With the three players listed above on the defensive line, the
Tigers should be better at stopping the run.

Linebacker play isn’t a great strength of the Tigers either. Jonathan Willard
is the leading tackler of the group, but even he ranks just fourth on the team.


Clemson
Linebackers

Name

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.

Tackles

TFL

Sacks
Jonathan Willard 6-2 220 r-Jr. 68 2.5 0
Corico Hawkins 5-11 230 Jr. 66 4 0
Quandon Christian 6-2 220 r-So. 33 1.5 0
Stephone Anthony 6-3 235 Fr. 25 4 1

That hasn’t been a particularly productive group. They are especially lacking
in tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and they’ve also combined for just one
sack on the season.

Clemson’s strength is in the secondary, where they will use nickel formations
to get more defensive backs on the field.


Contributors
in the Secondary

Pos.

Name

Ht.

Wt.

Yr.

Games

Starts

Snaps
CB Coty Sensabaugh 6-0 185 r-Sr. 12 12 830
FS Rashard Hall 6-1 210 r-Sr. 11 10 640
SS Xavier Brewer 5-11 190 r-Jr. 11 11 621
CB Bashaud Breeland 6-0 185 r-Fr. 12 5 487
CB Darius Robinson 5-11 170 So. 9 6 319
SS Jonathan Meeks 6-1 210 Jr. 12 8 621
CB Martin Jenkins 5-9 175 So. 12 2 213

Sensabaugh is their top playmaker, breaking up 10 passes this season.
Jonathan Meeks leads the team with two interceptions, while nine other players
have one each.

Clemson’s secondary represents the biggest challenge for Logan Thomas and his
receivers since they faced … Clemson back on October 1. That group of
defensive backs has been very consistent for the Tigers all season.

With Logan Thomas healthy this time around, I think we’ll see Tech run more
read option at that Clemson front seven. David Wilson had a successful night
against the Tigers in the first meeting (20 carries, 123 yards), but his vision
has gotten much better since then, and he’ll have the opportunity to have a big
game on Saturday night.

Special Teams

Here are the names to watch on special teams for the Tigers:

Chandler Catanzaro (6-2, 200, r-So.) – 19-of-24 on his field goal
attempts this year, including a long of 47 yards. He is 7-of-10 from beyond 40
yards. Catanaro is a very good kicker.

Dawson Zimmerman (6-2, 205, Sr.) – Zimmerman averages 42.1 yards per
punt, with a long of 59. 16 of his punts have landed inside the 20.

DeAndre Hopkins (6-1, 200, So.) – Hopkins returns punts for Clemson, but
only averages 5.8 yards per carry.

Sammy Watkins (6-1, 200, Fr.) – Watkins is averaging 26.4 yards per
kickoff return, and has returned one kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown.

Virginia Tech’s special teams have not been good this year, until last week
against UVA. Danny Coale handled the punting duties and averaged 47.5 yards per
punt, and he got great height on his kicks. Tech’s coverage teams were
outstanding, and Jayron Hosley nearly broke a punt return for a touchdown as
well.

Expect Coale to do the punting for the second week in a row. Will he be
consistent? With a week of film study, will the Tigers come after him? If the
Tech offense has as much success as other offenses have had against the Clemson
defense this year, we might not have too many chances to find out the answers to
those questions.

Clemson is a reeling football team. The Hokies need to play well on special
teams and not hand the Tigers any easy touchdowns. It’s that type of thing that
could jumpstart Clemson once again.

Final Thoughts

It would be simple to pick Virginia Tech to easily dispatch a slumping
Clemson team for the ACC Championship. The Hokies are playing their best
football of the season, and everything is clicking for Logan Thomas, David
Wilson, the wide receivers and the offensive line. Bud Foster has managed to
push the right buttons of his banged up defense all season as well. Meanwhile,
Clemson has lost three of their last four games, and if not for a late comeback
against Wake, would have lost four in a row.

However, there is reason for the Tigers to believe. They beat Virginia Tech
23-3 in Lane Stadium on October 1, and while this is a bit of a redemption game
for the Hokies, Clemson can redeem themselves for their recent bad stretch of
football by beating Tech for the second time this season. All it would take is
one win, and many people would forget about that late season slide (except for
that South Carolina loss; Clemson fans aren’t happy about that one).

Clemson still has some outstanding football players. Dwayne Allen is the best
tight end in college football, and the Tigers can use him in so many ways. Andre
Ellington is a very good running back who was banged up a bit down the stretch.
Sammy Watkins, the ACC Freshman of the Year, also missed time at the end of the
season with an injury. If those two guys are 100% against the Hokies, we’ll see
a different offense than the one NC State, South Carolina, Georgia Tech and Wake
Forest saw.

That being said, Clemson is going to see a much different offense than the
one they saw on October 1. Logan Thomas was banged up that day, and still very
inexperienced. Now, Thomas is healthy and not so inexperienced. He has played
better than any quarterback in the ACC since that loss, and Mike O’Cain is going
to be able to unleash the entire VT offense, including the read option, this
Saturday.

I always hammer the toughness of the Clemson players and program. Even though
the Hokies lost to the Tigers back on October 1, it was actually VT that had the
advantage in the trenches with David Wilson running for 123 yards. The Hokies
are the tougher team, and this
Clemson writer
agrees with me. He makes some interesting comments about the
Clemson strength and conditioning program.

When I look at the Tigers, and I look at their big wins, they all have
asterisks next to them.

Clemson 38, Auburn 24: Auburn isn’t very good. They are 7-5, and that 14
point loss to Clemson was actually their closest loss of the season. They lost
to Arkansas by 24, LSU by 35, Georgia by 38 and Alabama by 28.

Clemson 35, Florida State 30: E.J. Manuel was hurt, and the Noles had to
start a r-freshman at quarterback. FSU has just one win over a team with a
winning record, 7-5 NC State.

Clemson 23, Virginia Tech 3: Logan Thomas was banged up, as were several
receivers, and if the Hokies had been playing a 1-AA team or a Directional
Michigan, its possible Thomas wouldn’t have played at all.

You can really go back further than the last four games to see how poorly
Clemson has been playing. The Tigers beat UNC 59-38 on October 22, but the
previous week they had to rally late in the game to beat an awful Maryland team
56-45. I think it’s accurate to say that in five of Clemson’s last six games,
they haven’t played good football.

I have a lot of respect for Clemson’s talent, but for as long as I can
remember they’ve never been a team that punched you back when you pushed them
against the wall. Instead, they generally collapse into the fetal position due
to a lack of mental and physical toughness. That seems to be what they’ve been
doing for the last month or so.

If Virginia Tech plays well early in this game, and they get Clemson down, I
don’t see the Tigers being mentally strong enough come back and win.

Chris’ Prediction: Virginia Tech 34, Clemson 20

Will Stewart’s Take: This year’s Clemson team reminds me of the 2005
Florida State Seminoles. That year, the Noles were reeling too, just like the
Tigers this year. FSU was 7-4 and had lost four of six games coming into the ACC
Championship Game against the Hokies. The Seminoles were playing like they just
didn’t care anymore, and they squeaked into the title game with a mediocre 5-3
ACC record. Virginia Tech, meanwhile was 10-1 (7-1), ranked #5 in the BCS, with
their lone loss coming to Miami.

Very familiar setup, eh? A one-loss Hokie team, ranked #5 in the BCS, going
up against an Atlantic team on a skid?

Just for grins, I went back and looked at my prediction for that 2005 ACCCG,
and I was conservative, picking VT to win 20-10. I cited Marcus Vick’s
inconsistency at quarterback, Florida State’s ability to get “up” for
any given game, and Bobby Bowden’s choke hold on Frank Beamer as reasons to not
pick the Hokies by a score like 35-7. Still … I picked the Hokies. They lost,
27-22, after falling behind 27-3.

This matchup bears a strong resemblance to that one, but it has its
differences, too. Logan Thomas is more consistent, steadier, a better leader,
and a better person than Marcus Vick was. Thomas is young, but he hasn’t folded
under pressure like MV2 did. (Marcus was the polar opposite of his brother in
that regard.) And Dabo Swinney does not have Frank Beamer’s number like
Bobby Bowden did.

But the Tigers do have some great playmakers, just like the Seminoles did. In
2005, FSU’s Willie Reid blew open a 3-3 game with an 83-yard punt return that
started an avalanche. Sammy Watkins is capable of that kind of thing. FSU
defensive tackle Broderick Bunkley lived in Tech’s backfield, registering 2.5
TFLs (1.5 sacks) and recovering a fumble. The Tigers have defensive linemen who
can get on a roll like that. Tajh Boyd could find the magic again, and Dwayne
Allen is a serious threat. You get the idea.

So you must throw out the past and respect the Tigers’ ability to rise up and
play one good game. Don’t assume their recent skid will continue.

I think you can, however, assume that Clemson will get Virginia Tech’s best
shot. They did not get VT’s best shot back in October, so that game is
meaningless. My take is that the Virginia Tech coaching staff didn’t know their
young players well enough to have full confidence in them at that point in the
season, so when the two early turnovers occurred, the VT coaches lost trust,
tightened up and went conservative. It all went downhill from there. That won’t
happen again, because the Tech coaches know exactly what they’ve got, and
they’ve done a better job pushing buttons and pulling levers on this team than
I’ve ever seen from a Tech coaching staff. Frank Beamer is my ACC Coach of the
Year.

That’s all a lot of vague generalities, but those of you who read my stuff
know that I don’t delve into deep analysis, often just going with a gut feel.
And I feel good about this one.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 35, Clemson 17

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