Stopping Clemson’s Deshaun Watson is priority No. 1 for Virginia Tech on Saturday in the ACC Championship Game.
“I think he’s the heart behind the team,” said Jerod Evans. “I think he’s the heartbeat. I think he’s the engine that makes the machine run.”
“He’s that kind of player,” said Defensive Coordinator Bud Foster. “They’re that kind of team. We’re just hoping we can slow them down. I don’t know if anybody has, when it’s all said and done. You look at what they’ve done and how they’ve won, they put a lot of points on the board, they have a bunch of dynamic athletes. The quarterback is obviously the leader.”
If Watson is the engine, that would describe why Clemson’s offense runs like a Ferrari. He’s been one of the best quarterbacks in college football for the last two seasons, throwing 69 touchdown passes and running for 16 touchdowns over the last two seasons. This season, he’s completing just over 67 percent of his passes and has the Tigers as the 12th best offense in college football.
Keeping a lid on Clemson’s offense will be key for Virginia Tech on Saturday. The Tigers average 40 points per game and make big plays on offense consistently. Foster said the defense will have to tackle well and avoid yards after the catch.
“We can’t turn a short gain into a big gain and eliminate those explosive plays over the top,” Foster said. “We’ve got to get just enough stops. People have shown that they can move the ball offensively. As long as we’re sharp, I’d like to think we can move the ball.”
“Our corners, their play will be critical,” Foster said. “Our corners and our safeties, and even Mook (Reynolds), those perimeter guys.”
Reynolds will be in an interesting position. As the whip linebacker/nickel back, he’ll not only have to play well in coverage, but also help stop Clemson’s run game.
Virginia Tech’s struggles vs. mobile quarterbacks have been well publicized. Reynolds said that it all comes down to staying disciplined on defense.
“It comes down to fitting things up,” Reynolds said. “Sometimes you can fit it up perfectly and a guy just makes a play. We just want to put ourselves in a position to be able to contain everything and be able to fit everything up the right way.”
Though Watson is always a threat to run the ball, he’s ran it far less this season than he did a year ago. Watson has carried the ball 112 times so far this season, compared to 207 times in 2015.
“They still run him in the bigger games,” Foster said. “You’ll see him run the football. Against Florida State, he ran the ball. They’ll run some quarterback counters, some quarterback draws, they’ll run an occasional power read. If they win, they’re going to the championship — I think you’ll see everything.”
The cornerbacks will have to contend with a solid, tough group of wide receivers. Mike Williams has 79 receptions this season for 1,114 yards and 10 touchdowns, while Jordan Leggett, Deon Cain and Artavis Scott have also put up big numbers. Thankfully for Virginia Tech, they’ve seen improved play from their cornerback position. Head Coach Justin Fuente said on Monday that Adonis Alexander has been one of the most improved players this season.
“Adonis Alexander continues to make improvements in his consistency,” Fuente said. “It’s something we’ve worked hard on and talked a lot about, just continuing to be consistent.”
“I think the one thing that I’ve seen Adonis do is work at it every week,” Foster said. “The kid has a tremendous amount of raw ability and Brian (Mitchell) has done a great job of working with him to develop that consistency of his technique and his fundamentals. You get at that position, obviously it’s skill driven too, from a standpoint of having a great skill set, being able to run and he’s got length and all the things that you’d want in a DB, but it’s very technique-driven.”
Fuente mentioned Alexander, as well as defensive tackles Ricky Walker and Tim Settle as players who have taken a major step forward. Both Walker and Settle will play a big role in creating pressure up front and disrupting Watson.
Walker has taken on a larger role since the injury to Nigel Williams vs. Syracuse. Even with Williams back, Walker has steadily improved.
“I put Ricky in the starting role and I knew he wouldn’t look twice, he would handle it well and he has,” said Defensive Line Coach Charley Wiles. “He’s played extremely well and I’m excited he’s a sophomore and he’ll be back and one of our leaders.”
Settle, who redshirted last season while battling weight issues, has turned into an impact player off the bench.
‘He’s impacted every game a little bit more,” Wiles said. “We finished the game with him on purpose, I finished the game with him at Notre Dame because they can’t block him. He’s hard to block one-on-one in a pass rush situation. He’s got quickness, he’s instinctive. That was by design. Tim factored down the stretch in that game too, he really did.”