2011 Football Game Preview: Virginia Tech vs. Clemson

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  • Date: Saturday, October 1st, 2011
  • Time: 6:00
  • TV: ESPN2

Note: All photography is courtesy of Mark
McInnis Photography
via TigerNet.com.

Finally, the exhibition schedule is over. Clemson is coming to town, and I
don’t know of anyone outside of South Carolina who believed the Tigers would
start 4-0 this season and be ranked in the top 15 at the beginning of October.
But they are, and they’ve beaten Auburn and Florida State in back-to-back weeks.
They’ll head on the road for the first time this week and look to knock off
#10/#11 Virginia Tech in Lane Stadium.

Virginia Tech has a history of trouncing the Tigers. Dating back to 1998, the
scores of the last five games have been 37-0, 31-11, 41-20, 24-7 and 41-23.
Clemson hasn’t been able to get within two touchdowns of Virginia Tech, and
their average margin of defeat during that span has been just over three

None of that matters this year. This is a different Tech team, and these are
different Clemson players. The Tigers beat Auburn 38-24, and they knocked off
Florida State 35-30. We know they are a good team who, like almost everyone
else, has strengths and weaknesses. Whichever team maximizes its strengths the
most, while minimizing its weaknesses, will win on Saturday.

What are Clemson’s strengths and weaknesses? Well, their offense is certainly
strong …

The Clemson Offense

The Tigers brought in offensive coordinator Chad Morris during the offseason,
and so far he has put a charge into the Clemson offense, and they haven’t been
contained by any defense they have faced.

Clemson Offense



Rush Off. 190.25 ypg 36
Pass Off. 315.5 ypg 16
Total Off. 505.75 ypg 13
Scoring Off. 37.75 ppg 23
Pass Eff. 170.45 12
TFL Allowed 5.5 per game 58
Sacks Allowed 2.25 per game 80
Third Down % 53.03% 13

The Tigers have been pretty balanced, and they have playmakers at running
back, wide receiver and quarterback. Morris introduced a high-tempo, no-huddle
type of offense. He wants his offense on the field for a lot of plays. That
didn’t happen against Troy and Wofford, and the Tigers didn’t play well in
either game, and in fact nearly lost to Wofford.

However, Clemson’s offense was exactly what Morris was looking for against
Auburn and FSU. Against the Auburn defense (which is a very bad defense, to be
honest), Clemson ran 92 plays to Auburn’s 63, and won the time of possession
36:15 to 23:45. Against Florida State, they had 85 plays and controlled the ball
for over 37 minutes.

The purpose of this offense is to create a good pace and score a lot of
points, and to also wear out the defense in the fourth quarter. That has worked
to perfection the last two weeks. Time of possession in the fourth quarter
against Auburn was 12:29 for Clemson, and 11:07 against Florida State, as those
defenses were wearing down after being on the field for so many plays.

Here’s what the Clemson offense has done so far, game-by-game. The chart
includes yards per play, and total number of plays run in each game.

Offense, Game by Game






Troy 197 271 468 6.8 69
Wofford 215 261 476 6.7 71
Auburn 238 386 624 6.8 92
FSU 99 344 443 5.2 85

An offense can’t operate that efficiently without a good quarterback at the
helm. Clemson’s quarterback is former VT recruiting target Tajh Boyd (6-1, 225,
r-So.). Boyd has done an excellent job running Clemson’s spread offense,
completing 66.2% of his passes for 1,255 yards, with 13 touchdowns and just one
interception. He can scramble if needed, but he’s much better sitting in the
pocket and making throws to Clemson receivers who are operating in space.

best of those receivers is Sammy Watkins (6-1, 200, Fr.). Watkins is a former
5-star recruit who has already had a huge impact at Clemson, catching 28 passes
for 433 yards and six touchdowns in just four games. He is arguably the best
wide receiver in the ACC already, and he has an usual blend of good size and
exceptional speed. Watkins also has 15 carries for 92 yards on the season, and
Chad Morris looks to get him the ball in a variety of ways. He is Clemson’s best
player already, which says a lot.

DeAndre Hopkins (6-1, 200, So.) and Jaron Brown (6-2, 200, r-Jr.) are the
only other wide receivers who have proven to be threats this season. Hopkins has
21 catches for 269 yards and two touchdowns, while Brown has nine receptions for
116 yards and one touchdown.

Besides Watkins, the most versatile receiver on Clemson’s team is tight end
Dwayne Allen (6-4, 255, r-Jr.). Allen can line up tight, but he does a lot of
his damage split out wide as a receiver in four-receiver sets. His versatility
makes it confusing for opposing defensive coordinators. When Bud Foster sees
Allen and three wide receivers on the field, he won’t know whether it will be a
3-WR or a 4-WR set until the Tigers line up.

On the season, Allen has 14 receptions for 216 yards and three touchdowns. He
has excellent hands, and he’s pretty athletic in the open field. Allen is a
future NFL player, for certain.

Clemson is also capable of making big plays on the ground. Andre Ellington
(5-10, 190, r-Jr.) has 371 yards in four games, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
He’s not a particularly big back, and neither is his backup, highly-touted
freshman Mike Bellamy (5-10, 175, Fr.). Bellamy has 135 yards on just 18
carries, though 75 yards of them came on one run. Clemson could also play D.J.
Howard (5-11, 195, r-Fr.).

The Tigers don’t have any big tailbacks, and when Virginia Tech gets beat on
the ground, it’s almost always by a bigger, more physical back. The Hokie
defense usually excels in stopping smaller, big-play backs, such as former
Clemson tailback C.J. Spiller, who had just 44 yards on 16 career carries
against the Hokies, including six carries for only three yards in 2007.

So far in 2011, opposing tailbacks have 60 carries for just 102 yards against
the Virginia Tech defense, well under two yards per carry. Clemson obviously has
more talented backs than the Hokies have faced so far, but it’s clear at this
point that Tech is very good against the run.

The Tigers have an offensive line with good size and solid experience.

Clemson Offensive Line





LT Phillip Price 6-5 315 r-Sr.
LG Brandon Thomas 6-3 300 r-So.
C Dalton Freeman 6-5 285 r-Jr.
RG Antoine McClain 6-6 335 Sr.
RT Landon Walker 6-6 305 r-Sr.

If David Smith (6-5, 310, r-Sr.) can play, the line will be even more
experienced. Smith is the regular starter at left guard, but he was injured
earlier in the season. Brandon Thomas has started in his place and done a solid
job, but Smith could be back for Saturday night’s game. The Tigers also have
Mason Cloy (6-3, 310, r-Sr.), a former Virginia Tech recruiting target who has a
lot of experience at both center and guard.

Overall, this will be the most athletic and physical offensive line the
Hokies have faced so far. However, Tech is most similar to Florida State
defensively amongst all the teams Clemson has played, and the Noles managed to
hold the Tigers to 99 yards on the ground.

helps that the Tech defense has faced a spread offense in each of their first
games. They’ve seen the spread as a run-based attack (Appalachian State), an air
raid offense (East Carolina) and something in between (Arkansas State and
Marshall). Clemson will use the same formations and many of the same
philosophies, but they will have better athletes, and they will use more
misdirection than the Hokies have seen thus far.

It might seem like Tajh Boyd is throwing the ball a lot, but in reality
Clemson runs the ball over 50% of the time. The Tigers have 171 rushing attempts
and 146 passing attempts (I’m counting sacks as passing attempts, unlike the
official stats). They will focus on picking up first downs and grinding the
clock, though obviously they will take the big play if it’s there.

The key for Virginia Tech is to continue their domination up front and shut
down Clemson’s running game. The Hokies are #2 in the nation against the run,
and if they can shut down Andre Ellington and make the Tigers one-dimensional,
then they should win the game.

Most Recent VT Losses




2010 Stanford 247 287
2010 JMU 114 121
2010 Boise State 168 215
2009 UNC 181 131
2009 GT 309 51
2009 Alabama 268 230

That is a list of Virginia Tech’s last six losses. With the exception of the
Stanford game, all were close losses that could have gone either way, but the
opposition was able to establish a running game and win in the fourth quarter.
Whether or not Clemson can do that could decide the game.

The Clemson Defense

The Clemson defense has not been as successful as their counterparts on the
offensive side of the ball. In fact, the Tigers rank in the bottom half of
college football in almost every important statistical category.

Clemson Defense



Rush Def. 175.75 ypg 85
Pass Def. 229.75 ypg 73
Total Def. 405.5 ypg 90
Scoring Def. 25 ppg 66
Pass Eff. Def. 133.66 82
TFL 3 per game 118
Sacks 1 per game 98
Third Down % 36.84% 51

Here’s a closer look at what the Clemson defense has done on a game-by-game
basis, including yards per play.

Game by
Game, Defense





Troy 165 258 423 5.4
Wofford 272 127 399 6.1
Auburn 237 198 435 6.9
FSU 29 336 365 6.9

The only team that Clemson has been able to stop on the ground was Florida
State, and the Noles are an awful running team, averaging just 79 yards per game
and just three yards per carry.

From a yardage/competition standpoint, it appears that the Clemson defense
improved against Auburn and Florida State. However, they allowed nearly seven
yards per play in those two games, and plenty of yards despite being on the
field less than 24 minutes in each game. As a comparison, the Virginia Tech
defense has allowed just 3.9 yards per play against competition similar to Troy
and Wofford.

A big problem for Clemson is that they haven’t been able to get much
penetration into the offensive backfield. The Tigers rank 118th nationally in
tackles for loss, with just 12 tackles behind the line of scrimmage over four

The starting defensive line looks like this: DE Andre Branch (6-5, 260,
r-Sr.), DT Rennie Moore (6-3, 265, r-Sr.), Brandon Thompson (6-2, 310, Sr.) and
Malliciah Goodman (6-4, 280, Jr.). They play two backup defensive ends and one
backup defensive tackle regularly: DE Kourtnei Brown (6-6, 255, r-Sr.), DE Corey
Crawford (6-5, 280, Fr.) and defensive tackle Tyler Shatley (6-3, 295, r-So.).

Branch, Rennie Moore and Brandon Thompson are the players to watch. Branch is
originally from Varina High School in Richmond, VA. He didn’t have a
particularly productive high school career, finishing his senior season with
just seven tackles for loss and three sacks. He didn’t qualify until late in the
process, and was never offered by Virginia Tech.

His college career has been better than his high school career. He has 18.5
tackles for loss and eight sacks in his career, and could be a third or fourth
round draft pick as a DE/OLB in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Rennie Moore is an undersized defensive tackle, but he plays very hard.
Virginia Tech’s interior linemen will have to match his intensity. Moore has to
be intense because of his size, and he can get driven off the line, but he’s a
solid player overall. Brandon Thompson is a big nose tackle who will line up
over Andrew Miller. He will be Miller’s biggest challenge to date.

Clemson’s linebackers have struggled to make plays so far this year. Quandon
Christian (6-2, 220, r-So.), Corico Hawkins (5-11, 230, Jr.) and Jonathan
Willard (6-2, 220, r-Jr.) have combined for just two tackles for loss on the
season. Virginia Tech’s Tariq Edwards already has 5.5 TFL’s, and Bruce Taylor
has 2.5.

The Tigers do have a couple of 5-star true freshmen in their 2-deep. Former
Virginia Tech target Stephone Anthony (6-3, 235, Fr.) is #2 behind Corico
Hawkins at middle linebacker, while Tony Steward (6-1, 245, Fr.) backs up
Jonathan Willard on the weakside. Anthony only had one play against Florida
State, while Steward didn’t play at all, and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele
has said he needs to get them in the game more. That could happen this Saturday
at Tech.

Though Clemson did lose three starters from their secondary, the Tigers have
always rotated their defensive backs during games, so they have experienced
players yet again this season.

Defensive Back Experience







Coty Sensabaugh CB 6-0 185 r-Sr. 820 7
Xavier Brewer CB 5-11 190 r-Jr. 957 13
Rashard Hall FS 6-1 210 r-Jr. 1280 22
Jonathan Meeks SS 6-1 210 Jr. 564 5

Rashard Hall and Xavier Brewer are the best players. Brewer was the 12th man
award winner last year, meaning he was the best defensive reserve. Hall is the
only returning starter in the secondary, and he is one of the most experienced
players on the Clemson defense.

The Tigers will use nickel and dime packages as well, and several other
defensive backs have started games this season. Bashaud Breeland (6-0, 185,
r-Fr.) and Darius Robinson (5-11, 170, So.) are the backup cornerbacks. They
have both started games this year, and have played over 100 snaps. Robert Smith
(5-11, 210, Fr.) is a talented true freshman who backs up at strong safety, and
he has 38 plays and one start on the season.

Statistically, this Clemson defense is having a down year. They haven’t been
able to stop anyone who has a balanced offense. Considering the amount of time
their offense held the ball against Auburn and Florida State, the defense gave
up way too many yards and points in those two games.

That said, the defense is more talented than their stats indicate. There is
no De’Quan Bowers or any of those stud defensive ends on this team, but they
will be ready to stack the line and make Logan Thomas beat them on Saturday

The Clemson Special Teams

Tigers have the ability to make big plays in the return game. Either wide
receiver Sammy Watkins or DeAndre Hopkins can return punts, and Watkins is also
dangerous as a kickoff returner. Neither player has a return for a score so far
this year, but both are very capable. We could also see true freshman Mike
Bellamy return kicks, though the depth chart says Jaron Brown will line up next
to Sammy Watkins this week.

Clemson has some unknown in the kicking game as well. Placekicker Chandler
Cantanzaro (6-2, 200, r-So.) is 4-of-6 on the season, with a long of 46 yards.
His leg is strong enough, but after going 14-of-22 last season, his consistency
is a question mark.

Dawson Zimmerman (6-2, 205, Sr.) is one of the better punters in the country,
and this is his fourth season as Clemson’s starter. He is averaging 43 yards per
punt, with a long of 56 yards. The Tigers are 23rd nationally in net punting,
and their coverage teams are solid overall.

Special teams could go either way in this game, and could eventually decide
the outcome. Tech is very bad in net punting, but they are #1 in punt coverage
defense. Opposing punt returners actually have negative yards against the Hokies
this season.

Final Thoughts

It’s been nice watching Virginia Tech get four wins to begin the season. I
wish the Hokies were unbeaten heading into October every year. They are one of
three remaining undefeated ACC teams, they are ranked in the top 10 in one poll,
and just outside the top 10 in another. If Virginia Tech wins this game, they’ll
get heavy coverage heading into the matchup with Miami, who, as usual, isn’t
quite “back”.

The fun factor for this game is just about as good as it gets. Two top 15
teams with similar fan bases, in Lane Stadium, in a Saturday night. Tech and
Clemson are similar schools, though the Tigers never seem to reach their
potential as a program. Dabo Swinney was on the hot seat coming into this
season, and so far his job is safe, but how will things end?

This is the type of game we were excited about back when the Hokies joined
the ACC. Unfortunately, thanks to the perennial disappointing seasons in
Clemson, Tallahassee and Coral Gables, we haven’t gotten many matchups like
this. Thankfully Clemson has decided to do what everyone least expected, yet
again. Only this time they weren’t projected to be very good, and here they are
at 4-0.

You can slice and dice this game in a number of ways.

  • Option 1: Clemson has played a tougher schedule, so the Tigers win.
  • Option 2: This is Tajh Boyd’s first road start, so Tech wins.
  • Option 3: Virginia Tech has a history of blowing out Clemson going back to
    1998, so VT wins.
  • Option 4: Tech is probably better, but their special teams will hand
    Clemson the game.
  • Option 5: Tech has a better defense, but Clemson has a better offense.
    Special teams decides the game. It’s a toss-up.
  • Option 6: Clemson never plays well three games in a row against good
    teams. They are due to play poorly. Tech wins.

When picking this game, I’ve gone through all of those scenarios, and I could
see them all playing out.

In the end though, I don’t see Clemson being balanced enough to beat Virginia
Tech. The Tigers run the ball over 50% of the time, but against the only good
run defense they have faced, they were limited to just 90 yards. I think the
Hokies will be the more balanced team in this game, and they’ll pull out a close
one in the fourth quarter.

Chris’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Clemson 20

Will Stewart’s Take: Both teams are entering uncharted territory, and
with that newness comes unpredictability. Clemson and their young QB, Tajh Boyd,
have been world-beaters at home but haven’t played a game on the road yet.
Meanwhile, Virginia Tech is 4-0 with a highly-ranked defense, but it hasn’t come
against a team with the talent of Clemson.

This is one of the more intriguing matchups I can remember in years. Can
Clemson’s irresistible force (their offense) overcome Virginia Tech’s immovable
object (their defense)? Will the Hokies have consistent rushing success against
one of the worst run defenses they have faced this year? Will Virginia Tech’s
shaky kicking game finally be their downfall? Which team will get bitten by the
turnover bug?

Who’s going to make the plays that win the game?

It doesn’t take a hall of fame coach to figure out Virginia Tech’s strategy
in this one. Clemson wants to run 80 or 90 plays a game and wear down a defense.
They beat FSU and Auburn due in large part to a huge time of possession
advantage late in the game.

If you’re VT (the #2 team in the nation in time of possession), you counter
those goals by running the football and controlling the clock. For the Hokies,
it’s fortunate that Clemson has the second-worst rushing defense (#85) the
Hokies have faced this year, better than only ECU (#98) on Tech’s schedule so
far. You remember what VT did against East Carolina from the middle of the
second quarter on, don’t you? Ran the football.

Clemson’s offense showed they can pick up yards and points against Florida
State, who entered that game ranked #5 in the nation in total defense. So it’s
not a foregone conclusion that the Hokies will be able to hold Clemson under 30
points; FSU was good on defense, and they couldn’t. But again … that game was
in Death Valley.

So what about the intangibles? Clemson is playing with confidence, but
they’re going on the road for the first time, and young players can be rattled.
Yes, Clemson is confident, but college teams rarely can hold a consistent mental
edge. College players are prone to lapses in intensity and inconsistent effort.
When it comes to emotion and intensity, the Hokies are much fresher.

My first inclination coming out of last week’s games was to pick Clemson to
win, but then I remembered that college teams are very up and down from week to
week. The mental and emotional arc these two teams are on favors the Hokies, I
think. That’s counter-intuitive, because everyone is talking about what a roll
Clemson is on, but I’ll take “Teams that are worn out emotionally and need
a breather” for $200, Alex.

I also remembered three other instances where I gave up on VT heading into a
big home game:

  • 2004: A 2-2 VT team coming off an 8-5 season that had coughed up ten
    to NC State hosted #6 West Virginia. I picked the Hokies to lose
    24-17, but they won 19-13 with a stellar defensive effort.
  • 2006: The unranked Hokies were 5-2 with no impressive wins. They had lost
    at home 38-27 to Georgia Tech and had been embarrassed 22-3 in Chestnut Hill
    by Boston College. #10 Clemson came to town, and I picked the Tigers to win
    by a large margin (30-10). Tech throttled Clemson 24-7 on Thursday night.
  • 2009: The Hokies were 2-1 and ranked #11, but they had barely squeaked out
    a win over Nebraska, and undefeated #9 Miami came into Lane Stadium. I
    bought the Jacory Harris hype and picked the Hokies to lose 24-10, but they
    annihilated Miami 31-7 in a very soggy Lane Stadium.

Moral of the story: Don’t underestimate the Hokies at home. Those were three
examples of shaky looking Tech teams that entertained seemingly unbeatable
opponents, only to dismiss them all fairly easily.

So do I know how it’s going to happen? No. Do I think I know what’s
going to happen? Yes. Clemson is a scary opponent, but I’m not betting against
the Hokies this time.

Will’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Clemson 23

Note: All photography is courtesy of Mark
McInnis Photography
via TigerNet.com.