2012 Football Game Preview: Virginia Tech at #14 Clemson

, TechSideline.com, on October 17, 2012
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Coming off their best three quarters of the season against Duke, the Hokies embark on a new challenge. They’ll take on #14 Clemson in Death Valley this Saturday at noon.

We all know what happened last year. Clemson beat the Hokies twice: first a 23-3 win in Lane Stadium at the beginning of October, and again 38-10 two months later in the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. Last year’s performances against the Tigers probably don’t make you feel too confident about this year’s game.

It gets worse. The Hokies have been an absolute disaster outside of Lane Stadium this season.

Record: 0-3
Points per game: 25
Yards per game: 373.3
Points allowed per game: 36.7
Yards allowed per game: 521.7

Tech has allowed over 500 yards of offense in two of their three games away from Lane Stadium, with Cincinnati narrowly missing the 500 yard mark (495 for the Bearcats).

The Hokies will take that porous road defense to face a team that is averaging 525.8 yards per game. On paper, this is an awful matchup.

Let’s get familiar with the Tigers on both sides of the ball.

The Clemson Offense

The scariest thing about the Clemson offense is their star power. The Tigers have weapons at every position on offense, more so than any other program in the ACC. Let’s take a look, position by position, starting with the wide receivers:

Sammy Watkins (6-1, 205, So.): Watkins has played in just three games, thanks to a two-game suspension and a virus. After a bye week last weekend, he should be 100% against the Hokies. He is arguably the most dynamic player in America when he’s 100%. He is a threat in the passing game, the running game, and the kicking game.

DeAndre Hopkins

DeAndre Hopkins (6-2, 205, Jr.): Hopkins is arguably the best wide receiver in America that people haven’t heard of. As a pure wide receiver, he could be better than Sammy Watkins. He has carried the load of the passing game with Watkins missing so much time, catching 49 passes for 777 yards and eight touchdowns through the first six games of the season. Those are All-American numbers. Unfortunately, Hopkins gets overshadowed by his 5-star teammate, but he’s a great player in his own right.

Jaron Brown (6-2, 205, r-Sr.): There is a drop off behind Hopkins and Watkins, and Jaron Brown is Clemson’s most experienced receiver. He has made four starts this year, catching 12 passes for 190 yards.

Charone Peake (6-3, 200, So.): Peake has 17 catches for 119 yards, and an unimpressive 7 yards per catch average. He was a top 100 player coming out of high school.

Adam Humphries (5-11, 190, So.): Humphries is a quality possession receiver who has 18 catches for 144 yards.

Clemson goes 5-deep at wide receiver, and though three of can’t be classified as playmaking threats, this is a good group. Hopkins and Watkins on the field at the same time is difficult for any defense to gameplan against.

Quarterback Tajh Boyd (6-1, 225, r-Jr.) makes things go offensively. He has been sharp this season, completing 68.2% of his passes for 1,748 yards, with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. This is his second year in the system of offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Boyd also has 224 rushing yards this season, and to me he looks faster and more explosive than he did a year ago. He has 71 carries on the year (10 of which were sacks), so look for the Tigers to try and feature him in the running game.

Boyd played his high school football at Phoebus High School in Hampton, VA. He’s quite familiar with many of Virginia Tech’s players from the 757, particularly James Gayle, who played at nearby Bethel High School, as well as Tyrel Wilson, who played at Hampton. They were all seniors together on the peninsula.

Clemson is blessed with a quality running back, and their running game makes their offense balanced.

Andre Ellington (5-10, 195, r-Sr.): Ellington is an underappreciated back who is averaging 99.5 yards per game, and 5.1 yards per carry. He is also a good receiver out of the backfield. However, 231 of his 597 yards came in the season opener against Auburn (who is a bad team this year), and he hasn’t been nearly as productive since.

Roderick McDowell (5-9, 195, r-Jr.): McDowell has just 30 carries this season, but he has rushed for 154 yards and five touchdowns. He has been productive when he’s touched the ball, though he doesn’t get to touch it often.

Clemson’s running game is much more effective with Sammy Watkins in the lineup. Look for him to get handoffs on end arounds this Saturday, and that’s something the Hokies failed to stop in the ACC Championship Game. He has eight carries for 99 yards and a touchdown through three games in 2012.

Here’s how Clemson’s offensive line looks:

LT Brandon Thomas (6-3, 305, r-Jr.): 16 career starts, veteran at guard and tackle
LG David Beasley (6-4, 315, r-So.): 5 career starts
C Dalton Freeman (6-5, 285, r-Sr.): 42 career starts
RG Tyler Shatley (6-3, 295, r-Jr.): 6 career starts, DT last season
RT Gifford Timothy (6-6, 310, r-So.): 4 career starts

With the exception of Dalton Freeman (who seems like he has been around forever), this isn’t the most experienced offensive line. Brandon Thomas has plenty of snaps under his belt, but is he a true tackle or a true guard? Tyler Shatley was a defensive tackle last season. Right tackle Gifford Timothy is probably Clemson’s least consistent player up front.

However, this group seems to be blocking effectively for an offense whose numbers speak for itself.

Rushing offense: #32
Passing offense: #11
Total offense: #13
Scoring offense: #11
Pass Efficiency: #21
Sacks allowed: #53

Clemson runs the most complicated scheme the Hokies will have faced thus far. There is lots of misdirection, and they are very balanced between the run and the pass. They also have an impressive group of skilled position players, plus a good quarterback. This will be the biggest challenge the Tech defense will face this season.

To be successful against this offense, the Tech defensive line has to come out and play at a high level. They have to stop Clemson’s rushing game, and put the Tigers in third and long situations. If Clemson is balanced offensively, then they’ll have the opportunity to put up a lot of points. The Hokies also have to be disciplined in the face of Clemson’s misdirection. The Tech defenders must trust each other to play their assignments, and not try to overcompensate. If anyone tries to overcompensate, you can bet the Tigers will make them pay.

The Clemson Defense

Clemson does not have a good defense. They haven’t been able to stop anyone with a pulse all season. Of course, it was the same story last season. Virginia Tech was the only good offensive team that Clemson managed to slow down in 2011. Here are their numbers for 2012:

Rushing defense: #99
Passing defense: #78
Total defense: #97
Scoring defense: #69
Pass efficiency defense: #79
TFL: #69
Sacks: #104

That’s bad. But again, Tech couldn’t do anything with a similarly-bad Tiger defense last year.

The Hokies had trouble blocking the Tigers up front last season, but that shouldn’t be as much of an issue this year. Tech is more athletic at offensive tackle, and Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson are gone. Those guys really gave the VT offensive line trouble a year ago. This year, that Tiger defensive line is much younger, with three true sophomores in the starting lineup, and numerous young backups.

DE Malliciah Goodman (6-4, 270, r-Sr.): The only true veteran on the defensive line for Clemson, Goodman has 11 tackles and 2.5 TFL on the season.

NG Grady Jarrett (6-1, 290, So.): The true sophomore has 27 tackles and 2.5 TFL.

DT DeShawn Williams (6-1, 285, So.): Williams has been Clemson’s most disruptive defensive lineman, with 4.5 TFL and 2 sacks.

DE Corey Crawford (6-5, 270, So.): Crawford has 21 tackles and 2.5 TFL.

Clemson’s backups are very young, and not particularly productive.

DE Tavaris Barnes (6-4, 275, r-So.): 9 tackles, 0.5 TFL
NG D.J. Reader (6-3, 335, Fr.): 19 tackles
DT Josh Watson (6-4, 285, r-So.): 21 tackles, 0.5 TFL
DE Vic Beasley (6-3, 225, r-So.): 6 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks

Clemson only has seven sacks as a team. Only four of those come from defensive linemen, and only two of them come from starting defensive linemen. The inexperience and lack of playmaking ability up front is a big reason the Tigers are allowing over 200 yards per game on the ground, and well over 400 yards per game overall. Every decent offensive line has been able to block this unit in 2012. If Virginia Tech can’t get it done, it’s their own fault.

Like most teams these days, Clemson rotates between a base defense and a nickel defense. The two linebackers who are always on the field are Stephone Anthony (6-3, 235, So.) and Jonathan Willard (6-2, 225, r-Sr.). Anthony (51 tackles, 2.5 TFL) is a former 5-star recruit who chose Clemson over Virginia Tech. Willard (41 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack) is Clemson’s most experienced linebacker. These two players are good, though they play behind a defensive front that doesn’t allow them to be as productive as they could be.

The other Clemson linebacker is Quandon Christian (6-2, 225, r-Jr.), and he has 25 tackles, 3 TFL and a sack this season. Against spread formations and on obvious passing downs, Clemson will bring in nickelback Travis Blanks (6-1, 190, Fr.). As a true freshman, Blanks must be attacked. He is Clemson’s third leading tackler, which shows that teams are going after him a lot.

In my opinion, the Clemson secondary is the strength of their defense. They have some talented players, and guys who can play multiple positions. (note the number of starts and snaps listed are for this season, not for each player’s career)

CB/FS Xavier Brewer (5-11, 190, r-Sr.): 5 starts, 279 snaps , 1.5 TFL

CB Garry Peters (6-0, 195, r-So.): 1 start, 114 snaps, 1 interception

FS Rashard Hall (6-2, 210, r-Sr.): 2 starts, 280 snaps, 2 TFL, 3 interceptions

SS Jonathan Meeks (6-1, 210, Sr.): 6 starts, 390 snaps, 1 TFL

CB Bashaud Breeland (6-0, 195, r-So.): 4 starts, 279 snaps, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack

CB Darius Robinson (5-10, 175, Jr.): 5 starts, 260 snaps, 1 interception

Any of those six players could start Saturday’s game, and we could see Xavier Brewer at either cornerback or free safety. In my opinion, the most talented player in the secondary is Bashaud Breeland, though he’s also one of the younger players. He did a great job against Tech’s older receivers last season.

Clemson is athletic up front on defense, but they aren’t particularly experienced. They were gouged on the ground by Auburn and Ball State, and completely blown off the ball by Florida State. After showing no ability to stop anyone with a pulse from running the football, there aren’t any excuses this week — the Hokies should be able to get something going. I’d like to see the Hokies come out and try to establish the running game early, to try and keep that Clemson offense on the sideline.

Special Teams

Clemson’s special teams have not been particularly special this year.

Net punting: #39
Kickoff returns: #84
Kickoff return defense: #82
Punt returns: #106
Punt return defense: #72

Those return numbers aren’t impressive, but remember that Sammy Watkins has been either suspended or out sick for half of Clemson’s games. He has 8 kickoff returns for only a 16 yard average, and he has no punt returns at all. It wouldn’t shock me to see him returning punts against the Hokies this week, and a guy like Watkins is capable of breaking a big kickoff return at any time.

Clemson does have arguably the ACC’s best kicker in Chandler Catanzaro (6-2, 195, r-Jr.). He is a perfect 11-of-11 this season, with a long of 50 yards. Spencer Benton (6-1, 195, r-Sr.) is only averaging 38.7 yards per punt, though he’s only had to punt 20 times through six games.

I believe Virginia Tech will have to win the special teams battle to win this game. They need to use field position to create short scoring drives, and be good in the kicking game to force the Tigers to have to drive the length of the field.

Final Thoughts

I can’t stop thinking about how many playmakers the Tigers have on offense. I also can’t stop thinking about how bad Clemson is on defense. Their scrimmages must have been pretty ugly in the preseason.

I know Virginia Tech should be able to move the football against Clemson. Everybody else does, so why not the Hokies? I don’t have an answer for they didn’t. Some will say matchups, and I don’t completely buy that. Here are the numbers Ball State put up on the ground against the Clemson defense this year: 40 carries, 252 yards, 6.3 yards per carry, 3 touchdowns. Ball State averages 195 yards per game on the ground for the season, so they were well above their average against a Clemson defense who, as usual, can’t stop anyone with a pulse.

I do believe the Hokies will do better on the offensive side of the ball this year. Clemson wasn’t good defensively last year, but they are most definitely worse this year. But even though they are averaging a little over 440 yards per game over the last three weeks, I still can’t put a lot of trust in this Tech offense. Much of their offense is generated through big plays. They haven’t been consistent enough driving the football down the field to make me confident that they can score enough to beat Clemson.

Here’s what I do know: the Tech offense will have to play four quarters. They can’t afford to take a quarter or a half to make adjustments, as they’ve done so much this season. If they don’t make adjustments until the second quarter, Clemson could already be up 14-0. At that point Tech would have to turn the game into a shootout, and I think we all know who would win in that type of environment.

Defensively, I believe the Hokies will play better than they did in their three previous games away from Lane Stadium. I think the defensive line will continue to play good football, and the linebackers have been strong all season. However, that still doesn’t mask the problems the Hokies have had in the secondary. There is simply too much youth back there right now, there are too many problems to cover up, and Clemson has the skilled position players needed to exploit them for big yardage.

This is a game Virginia Tech can most certainly win. After all, everyone knows Clemson’s reputation. You never know exactly which team is going to show up, and I love that this game is a noon start, rather than a night game. That said, I haven’t seen the Hokies play a four quarter football game all season. Until it happens, I can’t pick them to go on the road and beat a team like Clemson.

Chris’ Prediction: Clemson 38, Virginia Tech 24

Virginia Tech’s Macho Harris crushes Clemson’s Jacoby Ford in their 2007 meeting, won by the Hokies, 41-23.

Will Stewart’s Take: It’s hard to picture Virginia Tech winning this game. The last time the Hokies traveled to Clemson, in 2007, VT won 41-23 in an avalanche of special teams and defensive scores. The Hokies had a suffocating defense (#4 in the nation) that brutalized the Tigers that day, as Jacoby Ford (right) will attest.

Virginia Tech doesn’t have that defense anymore, and Clemson no longer spends all game throwing flanker screens to little wide receivers who have no protection. This Clemson team has a lot more firepower and can stretch the field.

Sure, you can envision how the Hokies could win this one. A couple special teams breaks here and there, an improving offense going up against Clemson’s sieve-like defense … maybe the Hokies could win a shootout. But we thought the same thing twice last year, and the end result was 61-13 in eight quarters of play. That’s a confidence destroyer.

To win, the Hokies are going to have to fire on all offensive cylinders all game long, something they haven’t done yet this year. They’re going to have to play well away from Lane Stadium, something they haven’t done yet this year. They’re going to have to hold Clemson to 35 points or fewer, something that hasn’t been done to the Tigers since their 26-19 win over Auburn in the opener.

There’s just a lot that has to line up for the Hokies. Tech’s one saving grace is Clemson’s maddening (to Tigers fans) inconsistency, and their ability to lay an egg at any given moment.

It’s not just me saying this. According to this message board thread, there’s very little confidence among the Hokie faithful in Tech’s ability to win this one. It could happen, but I have to go with what I think will happen, not what I hope might happen.

Will’s Prediction: Clemson 41, VT 20

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