2006 Football Game Preview: Virginia Tech vs. Clemson

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Thursday, October 26th, 2006, 7:45 pm

TV: ESPN

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Click the “Blacksburg Weather” link to the right.
Game time forecast, as of 3:30 pm Tuesday: Cloudy with a 50 percent
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Game Preview: VT (5-2, 2-2 ACC) vs. #10 Clemson (7-1, 4-1)


by Chris Coleman, TechSideline.com

Virginia Tech played their best football game of the season on Saturday night
when they knocked off Southern Miss 36-6. The Hokies improved in some important
parts of the game, like running the football and putting pressure on the
quarterback. If they hope to beat the Clemson Tigers on Thursday night, the
Southern Miss game will have to quickly become their second best game of the
year.

Clemson is on a major roll right now at 7-1 overall and 4-1 in the
ACC. And if anyone in the ACC can be considered a cut above the rest, it is the
Tigers. Last Saturday night, Clemson hosted the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, the
team who beat the Hokies by 11 in Lane Stadium in September, and Clemson smacked
GT around, 31-7.

Clemson played old school football. They only passed the ball 16 times during
the game, opting to run two of the most explosive running backs in the nation
behind what is probably the best offensive line on the East Coast. The result
was a 21 carry, 218 yard performance from former VT recruiting target James
Davis. But that’s not all. Backup C.J. Spiller had 116 yards on 16 carries,
and also had a 50 yard reception for a touchdown.

Clemson has run through its 2006 schedule with relative ease, winning games
by scores such as 54-6 (Florida Atlantic), 52-7 (UNC), 51-0 (Louisiana Tech) and
63-9 (Temple). Their only loss came at Boston College 34-33 in overtime on
September 9 in a game where the Tigers had two extra points blocked. The Tigers
are a better football team than BC, but a lack of execution in the kicking game
cost them a chance at an undefeated season.

In some ways, the Hokies are at a major disadvantage on Thursday night. But
other factors make it seem like they have a real shot to win the game. First let’s
take a look at what Clemson has on each side of the ball.

The Clemson Offense

Clemson has, by far, the best offense in the ACC. The Tigers are averaging
456.25 yards per game on the season, while second place Boston College is well
behind at 349 yards per game. But that’s just the beginning. Clemson is at or
near the top of the ACC in just about every important category.

Top
Notch Clemson Offense
Category Stat ACC Rank National
Rank

Total Offense
456.25 1 6

Scoring Offense
42.25 1 1

Rushing Offense
260.75 1 4

Passing Efficiency
147.51 1 21

The main question mark coming into this season was fifth year senior quarterback
Will Proctor, who had to replace long time starter Charlie Whithurst. Proctor
has responded by being one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the ACC. He
plays very well within the Clemson system, and he got off to a lightning start
in 2006.

However, Proctor hasn’t been as effective as of late, probably because
Clemson lost a couple of key receivers to injuries, and opposing defensive
coordinators now have more film on Proctor.

Will
Proctor’s Recent ACC Games

Opponent

Comp.

Att.

Yards

TD

INT

Wake Forest
20 30 214 1 3

Georgia Tech
7 16 105 1 1
Average 13.5 23 159.5 1 2

Clemson played Temple between Wake and Georgia Tech, and Proctor lit the Owls
up. But I’m not counting that one. We won’t go there.

In Clemson’s most recent ACC games, Proctor has struggled. And because
Virginia Tech is one of the top teams in the nation against the pass, and Bud
Foster is a master of mixing coverages to confuse quarterbacks and force
turnovers, look for the Tigers to run the ball early and often.

Clemson features the most talented and experienced offensive line in the ACC.
They will start two juniors at left tackle and left guard, and three seniors
will start at center, right guard and right tackle. They are big, physical and
they blow everyone they play off the line. Let’s take a look at them from left
to right:

Clemson
Offensive Line

Position

Name

Height

Weight

Left Tackle

Barry Richardson

6-7
320

Left Guard

Chris McDuffie

6-5
330

Center

Dustin Fry

6-3
320

Right Guard

Nathan Bennett

6-5
310

Right Tackle

Marion Dukes

6-4
320

Average

6-4.8
320

Chris McDuffie, a junior from Danville, VA, is a new starter. The normal starter
at left guard, Roman Fry, was injured in last week’s game against Georgia
Tech, and McDuffie came in and played well. Fry was injured in the third play of
the game, so the Tigers were able to dominate the game on the ground even with
one of their important starters out.

Clemson also has two big tight ends who help in the running game in 6-4, 255
senior Thomas Hunter and 6-5, 260 sophomore Akeem Robinson.

All of those players help pave the way for perhaps the best running back duo
in the nation in sophomore James Davis (5-11, 205) and freshman C.J. Spiller
(5-11, 190). Both backs are having outstanding seasons and are capable of making
a big play at any point.

Davis is the leading rusher in the ACC and ninth in the nation with 120.13
yards per game on the ground. He is averaging 6.9 yards per carry on the season
and has scored 16 touchdowns. He is a very powerful runner, so the Hokies will
have to get their heads across his body and wrap him up when he has the ball on
Thursday night, because he will break any arm tackle that comes his way.

Davis suffered a shoulder stinger against Georgia Tech on Saturday night and
is listed as questionable for the game on Thursday. However, I’d be very
surprised if he doesn’t play. He had the injury for most of the game last
Saturday night and was still extremely effective.

Davis’ backup is exciting freshman C.J. Spiller, who has 523 yards rushing on
77 carries this year, which is a 6.8 yards per carry average. Spiller also has
seven rushing touchdowns on the year. He is equally as dangerous in the passing
game with 12 receptions for 184 yards and two touchdowns.

If there is any player in college football today that should remind you of
Reggie Bush, it is C.J. Spiller. He has great speed and the ability to make
anybody miss in the open field. The Tigers are a threat to score from anywhere
on the field when he is in the game. He had 50 yard touchdowns on the ground and
in the air against Georgia Tech, and has a long run of 72 yards and a long
reception of 82 yards on the season.

Clemson does have question marks at receiver. Chansi Stuckey is still their
leading receiver despite missing three games with a fracture in his foot. He has
25 receptions for 331 yards and three touchdowns on the season. He is supposed
to return to action on Thursday night, but don’t expect him to be very
effective.

If Stuckey could have come back against Georgia Tech on Saturday, he would
have, because it was such a big game. But he did not play, which indicates that
he wasn’t ready physically. So how much more ready will he be just five days
later? Probably not very. Plus, it’s going to be cold and possibly rainy in
Lane Stadium on Thursday night, which will tighten up his foot. Don’t expect a
lot of big plays from Stuckey.

Sophomore wideout Rendrick Taylor is also out for the season. Despite missing
two games, he is still the team’s third leading receiver. Starting for the
Tigers on Thursday will be sophomores Aaron Kelly and Tyler Grisham.

Kelly (6-4, 180) is the most dangerous. He is very athletic and can leap over
the best defensive backs.

With injuries at wide receiver and the running game heating up, look for
Clemson to keep the ball on the ground on Thursday night and play
conservatively. With as much talent as they have in the backfield, that would be
a wise strategy.

The Clemson Defense

If not for season ending injuries to starting linebackers Anthony Waters and
Tramaine Billie, Clemson would probably be undefeated right now. The
replacements got their feet wet to start the season, but have since developed
into one of the top defenses in the nation. In fact, they are just about as good
as the Clemson offense.

Clemson
Defense
Category Stat ACC Rank National
Rank

Total Defense
230.38 1 4

Scoring Defense
12.5 1 7

Rushing Defense
72 2 7

Passing Defense
158.38 2 17

Pass Efficiency Defense
95.82 1 5

Not bad, especially when you consider the loss of two senior linebackers. The
Tigers are physical, athletic, and they are by far Tommy Bowden’s best group
of defenders since he arrived at Clemson.

The Tigers start three sophomores and a senior. The best player of the group
is senior defensive end Gaines Adams. Adams is the best defensive end in the
ACC, and he spends most of the game in the opposing backfield. At 6-5, 260, he
has long arms and can get off blocks. Gaines has 11.5 tackles for loss and 8.5
sacks on the season. He also has 18 quarterback hurries, so the Virginia Tech
offensive line is going to have to play well. Adams will be a major problem if
he gets matched up on one of Tech’s young tight ends.

Phillip Merling, a 6-4, 270 sophomore, is the other defensive end, and he has
6.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks on the year. He actually has one more tackle
for loss against the run than Adams. Merling has 12 quarterback hurries on the
year, so both Tiger defense ends are a major threat.

Clemson is pretty deep at defensive end. Backups include blue chip true
freshman Ricky Sapp, who has three sacks and five tackles for loss on the year.
Brandon Cannon is a pass rushing specialist with three sacks on the season.

Clemson starts a couple of sophomores at defensive tackle. As a group, they
aren’t as effective as the defensive ends. Starters Dorell Scott and John
McKissic have combined for 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks on the year.
Backups Rashaad Jackson and Donnell Clark play nearly as much as the starters,
but have not made any tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

The linebackers are light, but they are fast and aggressive. They are
headlined by junior weakside linebacker Nick Watkins (6-2, 220). Watkins leads
the team in tackles with 61, six of which have come in the backfield. Sophomore
middle linebacker Antonio Clay has 52 tackles on the year, with 7.5 tackles for
loss. He is the biggest playmaker of the linebacking corps. The third linebacker
is Maurice Nelson, the undersized strongside linebacker at 6-2, 215.

Clemson also has some depth at linebacker, with three backups seeing at least
94 defensive snaps on the season. This group is outstanding running from
sideline to sideline. The Hokies need to establish some kind of running game up
the middle. Clemson’s defensive tackles don’t make a lot of tackles for
loss, and the size of the Tigers’ linebackers dictate that Tech should run
right at them.

Clemson came into the season with an inexperienced secondary, but they have
played much better than expected. Duane Coleman, a former running back, has
started every game at cornerback this season. He is second on the team in
tackles with 55. He is physical, but he does not have any interceptions on the
year.

Three different players have started at the opposite corner spot, including
C.J. Gaddis, Chris Chancellor and Haydrian Lewis. Gaddis will get the start
against the Hokies. He is capable of playing safety or cornerback, making him a
very valuable member of the secondary.

Cornerback Crezdon Butler leads the team in interceptions with three, despite
not starting a game all season.

CAT safety Michael Hamlin has started just five games this year because of
injury, but he is a very good player. He started last season as a freshman. At
6-3, 200, he has prototypical safety size. Sophomore Chris Clemons will start at
free safety, and he is fourth on the team with 51 stops.

Special Teams

Clemson is pretty good in the kicking game, especially returning kicks. True
freshman sensation wide receiver Jacoby Ford has made a big impact with the ball
in his hands. Ford is averaging 36.1 yards on seven kick returns, including one
94 yarder he returned for a touchdown. He also averages 12.5 yards per punt
return. He brought back a punt 92 yards for a touchdown.

After having several punts blocked last season, Cole Chason has rebounded
with a much better 2006. He is averaging 42.1 yards per punt. He has punted just
22 times in eight games, which shows the talent level of Clemson’s offense.

Kicker Jad Dean has had a strange season. Dean had a field goal and several
extra points blocked early in the season, which cost Clemson the game against
Boston College, and nearly cost them a second game against Florida State. Dean
is perfect from inside 30 yards this year at 5-of-5. He is just 1-of-3 from
30-39 yards, but 2-of-2 from 40-49 yards. Dean has not made a kick from beyond
50 yards.

Conclusions

Ok, so Clemson is very, very good. But they aren’t invincible. Not by a
long shot. Boston College has already proven that. Florida State nearly did. And
Wake Forest had a victory over the Tigers all but wrapped up until they fumbled
it away. What do those three games have in common for the Tigers? They were all
on the road.

Clemson has a history of putting up some stinkers on the road under Tommy
Bowden. They have lost a lot of big road games, many in blowout fashion, such as
30-10 at UVA, 41-22 at Florida State, 27-6 at Texas A&M and 45-17 at Wake
Forest. They even lost at Duke in 2004, and only beat the Blue Devils by three
in 2002 in Durham. Simply put, Clemson has a knack for losing big games, and
games they aren’t expected to lose, especially on the road.

The Tigers find themselves in the spotlight every year, because of their
reputation and the pressure their rabid fan base puts on coach Tommy Bowden.
Pretty much every year they come up with some huge wins, but they have also lost
some games they should have won. This year they have managed to avoid losses to
teams they should beat (BC is pretty good in case you didn’t notice). History
says they are due for such a game.

There are still a few other factors that could give Virginia Tech an
advantage. Clemson played a big game last Saturday. College Gameday was in town,
and it was a very emotional moment for the Tigers. Can they possibly be as
intense just five days later in Blacksburg? Can they possibly play as well as
they did against Georgia Tech? Probably not, as the Tigers have had trouble
staying up emotionally under Tommy Bowden.

Also, Clemson has to travel to Blacksburg on Wednesday. They won’t be able
to get as much preparation time for the Hokies as they would like. And
unfortunately for Clemson, this is a week where they need extra time to prepare
for Tech. VT showed new looks last Saturday with Ike Whitaker in the game, and
blitzed a lot more with the defense. The Tigers have less time to prepare for
all of that.

Bear with me, because I’ve got more signs that point to a VT victory.
Clemson is 1-6 under Tommy Bowden in Thursday night games. Again, this harkens
back to my point that Clemson has not performed well overall in the limelight
under Bowden.

And finally, Frank Beamer and Virginia Tech thrive in the underdog role. The
Hokies aren’t underdogs at home very often. The last time a visiting team was
favored in Lane Stadium was 2003 when Miami came to town, and the Hokies walked
away as 31-7 winners.

Virginia Tech has a lot of things going their way heading into this game,
besides the fact that they are coming off their best performance of the season.
That said, I can’t pick against Clemson. They are simply too experienced up
front on offense, and too explosive in the backfield and kicking game.

Prediction: Clemson 24, Virginia Tech 16

Will Stewart’s Take: Like Chris, I can see how Virginia Tech can win this
game, I just don’t think it’s likely.

I’m not a coach, I don’t play one on TV, and I didn’t even stay at a Holiday
Inn Express last night. But the formula for beating Clemson seems clear: stop
the run, pressure Proctor into mistakes, and capitalize. That’s a simple
strategy if you’re playing chess (pardon the Al Groh reference) and attacking
pawns with bishops, rooks, knights, and queens. But it’s more the other way
around here. Clemson is peaking with talent and experience this season, while Tech is retooling with youth.

The problem for the Hokies is that “stopping the run” is much
easier said than done. The Tigers are deep on the offensive line, and James
Davis and C.J. Spiller are amazing talents. Like Branden Ore, you can have them
bottled up, only to give up a big play. Unlike Branden Ore, Davis and Spiller
are rarely bottled up. The Clemson o-line is adept at opening big holes and
creating running lanes. Clemson did it against a Georgia Tech defense that is
pretty good, though not as good as the Hokies.

To stop the run, the Hokies need to do three things: crowd the box, blitz the
run gaps, and tackle well. It’s that third thing that gives me pause, because
the Hokies haven’t been tackling well this season, and many plays will have to
be made one-on-one in this game. Xavier Adibi is slowed with a shoulder stinger (nothing will kill your tackling faster
than a weak shoulder),
Vince Hall has a thigh bruise, and Brenden Hill is not nearly as physical as his
predecessor, James Anderson.

I don’t like the combination of Clemson’s strong o-line, their two-headed
tailback system, VT’s spotty tackling this year, and Tech’s dinged-up
linebackers.

Offensively, the Hokies’ biggest problem is that Clemson is bringing a
big-boy defense to Lane Stadium, not a bunch of adolescents dressed up as a
defense for Halloween. We’ve seen the Hokie offense turtle-up on the road
against both UNC and BC, and while this is a home game, Clemson is good enough
on defense that the instinct to go into the shell and throw those flanker
screens, in an effort to avoid mistakes, will be strong on the Hokie offense.
Mounting long drives will be a serious, serious challenge for VT.

To the Hokies’ credit, they could have the advantage in the kicking game,
where Brandon Pace is perfect and Nic Schmitt is finally on a roll. If the
Hokies can control field position and make some special teams plays, it will
alter the game drastically. If it comes down to Jad Dean vs. Brandon Pace, I
like Tech’s odds.

But I just don’t think it will get to that. I think the Hokies will feed off
the Thursday atmosphere and the home crowd, and they’ll hang around, but Clemson
will pull away with a couple of devastating touchdowns late.

Will’s Prediction: Clemson 30, Virginia Tech 10

(Don’t like it? Tune in next week, when I pick VT to win on the road at Miami
— gasp!)

2006 TSL Football Game Predictions
(Through S. Miss; Closest Prediction Highlighted)

Game

Chris’
Prediction
(2 wins)
Will’s
Prediction
(2 wins)
Phil’s
Projection
(4 wins)

Result

N’Eastern 65-0 63-7 49-3 38-0
UNC 23-10 27-10 24-9 35-10
Duke 34-0 30-3 37-0 36-0
Cincinnati 34-6 31-3 38-3 29-13
GT 13-16 10-17 24-9 27-38
BC 30-17 27-20 20-17 3-22
S. Miss 24-6 23-10 27-6 36-6

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