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Ever since Will Grier’s last second pass hit the ground at 11:26 p.m. on the night of Sept. 3, Virginia Tech fans have been thinking about this moment. Ok, the truth is they were thinking about it well before September 3. But the Hokies had to get through West Virginia for the Clemson game to mean as much as it does. They did, and after brushing aside Delaware, East Carolina and Old Dominion, the biggest home game in many years is rapidly drawing near.
ESPN College Gameday is coming to town. The Hokies will host their first Saturday night home game since Saturday, Nov. 26, 2005 when they took on North Carolina in Lane Stadium. Clemson is unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in the country, and the Hokies come in at No. 12. In fact, this is the first time ever that two unbeaten top-12 teams have faced each other in Lane Stadium. Suffice to say, this one is a pretty big deal.
After hammering hapless Kent State to begin the season, Clemson notched back-to-back quality wins over Auburn (14-6) at home and Louisville (47-21) on the road to show that they are legit National Championship Contenders yet again. They then dispatched Boston College 34-7 last week, though that game was 7-7 going into the fourth quarter.
I’ve had the opportunity to watch Clemson play against Auburn and Louisville, and my opinion is that their offense isn’t as good or as explosive as it has been the last few years. However, their defense is better than it was a year ago, and it was already very good. Let’s take a closer look at the Tigers.
The Explosive Travis Etienne
Travis Etienne (5-foot-10, 200 pounds, Fr.) is probably the scariest player in the country with just 23 offensive touches. Despite his lack of usage, he leads the team in rushing with 292 yards. Check out the numbers of their top three rushers…
Travis Etienne: 23 carries, 292 yards, 12.7 ypc, four touchdowns
Kelly Bryant: 66 carries, 268 yards, 4.1 ypc, seven touchdowns
Tavien Feaster: 39 carries, 249 yards, 6.4 ypc, one touchdown
That’s not something you see very often. Etienne probably won’t touch the ball all that much against the Hokies, but when he does, Tech’s defense cannot afford to let him break free.
In case you’re wondering why Etienne isn’t getting more carries, and why he’s currently listed as the fourth running back on the depth chart, my guess is that like most true-freshmen he has been slow to adapt to pass blocking. He hasn’t caught a pass this year, so it seems as if the Clemson coaching staff doesn’t want him involved in the passing game at all at this point.
Kelly Bryant is a Much Different Player Than Deshaun Watson
I thought Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was arguably the best quarterback in college football last season. He was a passer first and foremost, though he could hurt you with his legs as well. He’s now the starting quarterback for the Houston Texans in the NFL.
Watson had a lot of talented offensive players around him at Clemson. He had explosive receivers such as Artavis Scott and Mike Williams, and Wayne Gallman was a very good running back. All four of those guys declared for the NFL Draft after last season.
Kelly Bryant isn’t as natural a passer as Watson, and he doesn’t have a Mike Williams on the outside. Nor does he have anybody at running back who is as consistent as Gallman. Overall, this Clemson offense just doesn’t seem as dangerous to me as last year’s version. But, Bryant’s running ability concerns me a lot.
As we all know, mobile quarterbacks have given the Hokies trouble over the years, especially bigger mobile quarterbacks like Bryant (6-foot-4, 220 pounds , Jr.). In fact, last December I wrote a big TSL Pass article that detailed Tech’s difficulties stopping mobile quarterbacks. I’ll sum it up like this…
Opposing quarterback rushing average in Tech wins since the start of 2013: 26.9 yards per game
Opposing quarterback rushing average in Tech losses since the start of 2013: 78.2 yards per game
The Hokies are 0-10 since the start of 2013 when the opposing quarterback has rushed for 100 yards or more.
Bryant has that capability. In fact, he went over 100 yards against a solid Boston College defense this past weekend. He can be a workhorse, and he carried the ball 22 times for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns against the Eagles. A quarterback that can be a weapon in a power running game negates the numbers advantage that the defense has against a traditional running game. Virginia Tech fans know all about that, with what they saw from Jerod Evans last season.
Bryant has been an effective passer this year, though hardly a dominant one. Here are his game by game stats…
Kent State: 16-of-22, 236 yards, one touchdown and one interception
Auburn: 19-of-29, 181 yards
Louisville: 22-of-32, 316 yards, one touchdown
Boston College: 17-of-26, 140 yards, two interceptions
He looked very good against Louisville, but he also looked mediocre against Auburn and bad against Boston College. Considering that there is no dominant receiver like Mike Williams on the outside for Clemson, I’m expecting Bud Foster to load the box and play tight man coverage against the Tiger receivers. His top priority in this game will be stopping the Clemson running game, which is spearheaded by Bryant.
The Clemson Defensive Line
The most dominant unit on either team will be Clemson’s outstanding defensive line. Here are the starters…
DE Clelin Ferrell (6-foot-4, 260 pounds, r-So.): No. 3 DE in the 2020 draft by NFL Draft Scout
DT Dexter Lawrence (6-foot-4, 340 pounds, So.): No. 1 DT in the 2020 draft by NFL Draft Scout
DT Christian Wilkins (6-foot-4, 300 pounds, Jr.): No. 2 DT in the 2019 draft by NFL Draft Scout
DE Austin Bryant (6-foot-5, 265 pounds, Jr.): No. 4 DE in the 2019 draft by NFL Draft Scout
That’s four starters who are rated among the top four players at their position in their respective draft classes. You can’t find too many defensive lines like this one throughout the history of college football. It’s essentially an NFL defensive line.
The old Miami lines that Virginia Tech used to face back in the Big East days were extremely talented. So was that unit the Hokies faced in Baton Rouge back in 2007. But I’m not sure that any of them were as good as this particular defensive line.
Austin Bryant is arguably the least talented of the starting group, but he leads the team with 6.5 tackles for loss and five sacks. He’s a dominant football player, but by NFL terms he might only be the fourth best defensive lineman on his own team.
How deep are the Tigers? Let’s take a look at the numbers of snaps each starter plays in comparison to his primary backups…
DE Clelin Ferrell: 203 snaps
DE Chris Register: 39 snaps
DE Xavier Kelly: 22 snaps
DT Dexter Lawrence: 133 snaps
DT Jabril Robinson: 65 snaps
DT Nyles Pinckney: 43 snaps
DT Christian Wilkins: 172 snaps
DT Albert Huggins: 48 snaps
DT Sterling Johnson: 33 snaps
DE Austin Bryant: 184 snaps
DE Justin Foster: 16 snaps
Clemson isn’t quite as deep at defensive end as some would have you believe. Defensive end Logan Rudolph (26 snaps) was lost for the season after two games, and that hurt depth. Those backups haven’t played very many snaps at all. However, their backup defensive tackles have experience. Those guys are needed because Dexter Lawrence can only play so many snaps at tackle at 340 pounds.
Last year, the Hokies managed 102 rushing yards against the Clemson defense, which is almost miraculous considering their talent level up front. Justin Fuente and Brad Cornelsen like to use a lot of misdirection, which helps against an attacking front like Clemson. Misdirection will be needed again on Saturday night, both in the passing game and the running game. I view Clemson’s defensive line as the key to the game. If the Hokies can manage to not get dominated up front, they’ll have a chance to win.
Susceptible in the Secondary?
Clemson is dealing with some injuries in the defensive backfield right now.
CB Marcus Edmond (6-feet, 180 pounds, r-Sr.): Knee.
CB Travyon Mullen (6-foot-2, 190 pounds, So.): Concussion.
CB Mark Fields (5-foot-11, 180 pounds, Jr.): Glute.
Edmond is a backup who has been out since the early part of the game in Clemson’s win over Auburn. No injury report has been released yet (that will happen Thursday), but he seems doubtful at this point. He played quality snaps as a backup last year, though I don’t consider him to be a big loss unless Mullen and Fields can’t play. Fields has started one game this year and played 78 defensive snaps, while Mullen has started all four games.
We know that Ryan Carter (5-foot-9, 180 pounds, r-Sr.) will start at one of the cornerback positions no matter what. He has started four games this year, and 13 a year ago. Right now, he is Clemson’s most experienced healthy cornerback.
What concerns me about Clemson’s injury situation is that it will likely provide an opportunity for their most talented defensive back, former 5-star recruit AJ Terrell (6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Fr.). Terrell has played 85 snaps this season, and nobody has completed a pass on him thus far, according to the advanced stats provided by Pro Football Focus. (Apparently they focus on the college game, too.) He’s a very gifted player, but he’s also a true freshman, and there’s a reason he is currently listed at No. 3 on the depth chart.
Van Smith (5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Jr.) starts at free safety, with Tanner Muse (6-foot-2, 225 pounds, r-So.) at strong safety. The versatile K’Von Wallace (6-feet, 196 pounds, So.) is a Virginia native who can line up at a number of spots. Wallace grew up a Virginia Tech fan and wanted a Virginia Tech offer, but he did not receive one until very late in the process, after the transition from Frank Beamer to Justin Fuente. He has worked at safety and cornerback during his Clemson career, but with the current injuries at corner, he is most likely to be used at that position this weekend. He has started one game this year and played 129 snaps on the season.
I do believe Clemson is susceptible in the secondary. The statistics do not show it, as the Tigers rank No. 2 nationally in passing success rate and No. 8 in Passing IsoPPP (big plays) according to Football Study Hall. However, a quick study shows that Clemson hasn’t faced major competition when it comes to the passing game. We all know about Boston College’s struggling offense, and Auburn’s offense has been below average since Nick Marshall left. It’s true that Lamar Jackson is a great college player, but his weakness right now is the precision passing game.
I believe Virginia Tech’s passing game is better than any that Clemson has faced thus far, and I think Josh Jackson is better than any quarterback they’ve faced in terms of pure passing ability. Lamar Jackson has a ton of arm talent, but he’s not as advanced as Josh as a natural passer. The Hokies can present some problems for the Tigers in the passing game, but they can only take advantage of it if they can keep Josh Jackson upright. As I said early, slowing down the Clemson defensive line is the biggest factor in this game for Virginia Tech’s offense.
Playing a “Clean” Game
The Hokies rank 14th in the country in total offense, and their defense ranks 11th nationally in S&P+. However, perhaps more important for the Hokies is playing a “clean” football game on Saturday night. By that, I mean winning the turnover battle, not committing silly penalties and outgaining Clemson in hidden yardage.
Through four games, Virginia Tech has been dominant in each of those phases. The Hokies have committed just two turnovers this season, while their opponents have committed seven. Meanwhile, Clemson is minus-2 in turnover margin this season.
Where Tech has really been dominant is in penalty yards and hidden yards. Let’s look at it on a game-by-game basis.
West Virginia: plus-47 penalty yards, plus-101 return yards, total of plus-148 yards
Delaware: plus-74 penalty yards, plus-54 return yards, total of plus-128 yards
East Carolina: minus-29 penalty yards, plus-8 return yards, total of minus-21 yards
Old Dominion: plus-10 penalty yards, plus-74 return yards, total of plus-84 yards
Total: plus-102 penalty yards, plus-237 return yards, total of plus-339
The Hokies are outgaining their opponents by an average of 84.75 per game in hidden yardage. When you combine that with a plus-5 turnover margin, you’ve got a very efficient football team.
Virginia Tech will have to be efficient with hidden yardage and turnovers against Clemson again on Saturday night. If they can get an extra field goal or touchdown because of field position, and perhaps finish plus-1 or plus-2 in turnover margin, they will have an excellent chance to win the game. However, that is easier said than done against a team with the overall talent of the Clemson Tigers.
In case you are wondering, I calculated the same numbers for Clemson. Here they are…
Kent State: plus-34 penalty yards, minus-24 return yards, total of plus-10 yards
Auburn: minus-20 penalty yards, minus-22 return yards, total of minus-42 yards
Louisville: plus-5 penalty yards, minus-69 return yards, total of minus-64 yards
BC: plus-10 penalty yards, minus-75 return yards, total of minus-65 yards
Total: plus-29 penalty yards, minus-190 return yards, total of minus-161 yards
Those numbers are a bit misleading. Clemson has scored a lot, and they don’t have a kicker who can put the ball through the end zone on almost every kickoff like Virginia Tech’s Joey Slye. That means opponents will rack up a number of kickoff return yards. Still, Tech’s numbers have been impressive, and they will present a challenge for the Tigers in this phase of the game.
Breaking it down a little further shows that Saturday night’s game will feature two of the most disciplined teams in the country.
Virginia Tech: 34.5 penalty yards per game, No. 13 nationally
Clemson: 36.3 penalty yards per game, No. 16 nationally
Both of these teams have done a great job of not shooting themselves in the foot.
We won’t spend too much time covering special teams, because you saw a lot of the return numbers above, plus the return game can be a crapshoot at times.
Both of these teams are certainly capable on special teams, but both have some issues as well. For Clemson, starting placekicker Greg Huegel tore his ACL on a tough luck play in practice last week. His replacement, Alex Spence (6-foot-2, 200 pounds, r-Jr.), has never attempted a field goal in a college game, and he missed an extra point last week against Boston College.
On the other hand, Joey Slye has had a tough year for the Hokies. He missed two short field goals against West Virginia, and another against Old Dominion, despite the fact that he was automatic from inside 40 yards his first three years. The battle between Spence and Slye could be key.
Both teams have athletes, and both teams are capable of breaking a big return at any point. Virginia Tech kickoff returner James Clark missed last week’s Old Dominion game with an injury, and its unknown if he’ll be available this week.
Clemson’s most dangerous return man is kickoff returner Travis Etienne, who we discussed earlier. Fortunately, Joey Slye has put 96.7 percent of his kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks, a mark which is a full 16 percent ahead of second place Austin Seibert of Oklahoma. Slye’s leg should be able to neutralize Etienne in the kickoff return game.
I didn’t think Dabo Swinney was a good hire for Clemson back in 2007, but he sure proved me wrong. Swinney is a great recruiter, and I realize everybody likes to talk about that, but the best thing he’s done during his tenure at Clemson is create a new culture. X’s and O’s are important, and talent is important, but I’d argue that developing the right culture is more important than any of that.
I’ve watched Clemson play football for a long time and outside of perhaps that 37-0 shellacking the Hokies laid on them in Death Valley in 1998, I’ve never seen a Clemson team that didn’t have good players. In fact, most Clemson teams have had a lot of good players. Recruiting hasn’t been their problem. Toughness was their problem. The Hokies used to regularly beat up on the Tigers, and Clemson looked soft in the process.
Swinney changed that. He didn’t do it overnight. First he hired Chad Morris to fix the offense, and later he hired Brent Venables to fix the defense. I expect it was Venables who also helped develop the Tigers into a tougher football team, similar to what Phil Elmassian did at Virginia Tech back in 1993.
Building Clemson into a national contender hasn’t been an overnight process. The Tigers went 7-6 in Swinney’s first full season, and 6-7 in his third full season in 2010. They won the ACC in 2011, beating Virginia Tech twice that year, but they were smashed by West Virginia 70-33 in the Orange Bowl. In 2013, they had their first big opportunity at primetime football when they were ranked third in the country and No. 5 Florida State came to town. ESPN hyped the program, the pregame bus ride, the Howard’s Rock entrance, etc. The nation’s eyes were on the Clemson Tigers that night, and they had a chance to show that they were ready to take the next step.
Florida State annihilated them 51-14. Clemson won the National Championship last year, and almost won it in 2015 as well. Yet in 2013, they were losing by 37 in their own house. Sometimes it takes a while to build a program and establish a culture. It took Swinney a while, but he kept plugging away, he made the right hires, and now they are a legitimate national contender and one of the physically toughest programs in the country.
Justin Fuente is further along in his second year as a head coach than Dabo Swinney was. Fuente didn’t have to come in and completely change the culture. It won’t take him years to establish toughness, because the Hokies were already a pretty tough team when he took over. In many ways, he’s in a better position than Swinney was back in the 2008 and 2009 timeframe.
But in other ways, he is further behind. Fuente didn’t inherit the same type of talent that Swinney inherited back in 2007, nor has he had a full decade to build up that talent and nurture it. His program is in its infancy. Swinney’s is grown up and developed. If the Hokies can manage to pull off this win just 21 months after Justin Fuente took over the program, it would be a pretty incredible feat.
If the Hokies don’t win on Saturday, don’t be disappointed. Even if they lose by some crazy score like 51-14, don’t let that get you down, because that’s exactly what Clemson did in a similar situation back in 2013. It can take a while to build up a program into a legit contender. Ask Frank Beamer. Ask Dabo Swinney. Those guys know.
I think Virginia Tech has a solid chance to win the game. I trust the Hokie coaching staff. I think they can give Clemson some problems in certain areas. But I can’t in good conscience pick Tech when I know that the Tigers have an advantage in the trenches, and I know they have an advantage in overall talent. I think it will be a good one, but…
Prediction: Clemson 24, Virginia Tech 20
Will Stewart’s Take: Let’s get the mystery out of the way early: I’m not going to pick Virginia Tech to win.
Sure, the Hokies could win, and it won’t surprise me if they do. Virginia Tech is an exceptionally well-coached team, and well-coached teams always have a chance. Tech nearly pulled it off in the ACC Championship Game last season.
Chris has already detailed some of the ways in which the Hokies can give themselves a chance: primarily, win the turnover and special teams and hidden yardage battles. Maximize your advantages and minimize your disadvantages. Keep it close, and let fate take over the rest and see where things end up.
But if they played this game ten times, Clemson would probably win seven or eight of them. The Tigers are much farther along the curve as a program and are more battled-tested than Justin Fuente’s Hokies, who are working up to it, but aren’t there yet. Fuente’s program is still rebuilding — and doing a darn good job of it — but has a ways to go.
Saturday night is an important step along the path, win or lose. It will be a great showcase for Blacksburg and for Virginia Tech football, and an important milestone in the evolution of the program under Fuente. Win or lose, this is a victory. You don’t hear that very often, but I firmly believe it.
So, Hokie fans, enjoy the moment. This is a big step for the program. Do your part to make Lane Stadium a pit on Saturday night. (Pace yourself during the day, know what I mean?)
I see this one as a close battle most of the way, with Clemson pulling away at the end. I hope I’m wrong, because that (being wrong) would be fun.
Will’s Prediction: Clemson 27, Virginia Tech 13
Ricky LaBlue’s Take: Let me take you back to the 2014 season.
Virginia Tech was unranked, and was making their first appearance in The Horsehoe vs. Ohio State. The Buckeyes were a top-10 team that year, and Tech really had zero business being on the field for that game. Still, Virginia Tech dialed up the right gameplan defensively, and Michael Brewer played a gritty game in Tech’s 35-21 win.
I bring that up, because I see some similarities in this game. Clemson’s talent is better than Virginia Tech’s at nearly every position. The Tigers are perennial national championship contenders, while Justin Fuente and the Hokies are honestly just getting off the ground. Virginia Tech, on paper, should not win this game.
But the game isn’t played on paper. It’s not played in recruiting rankings, it’s not played in computer-based stats and it isn’t based on last year’s results. The game is played on the field. And because of that, I’m picking Virginia Tech to win this game.
Think about it. Clemson’s offense scored seven points in three quarters, at home, vs. Boston College. Their offense is not even close to the level it was last season, as Chris Coleman pointed out earlier on. That gameplan Bud Foster used vs. Ohio State in 2014, I’m expecting that exact same gameplan on Saturday night. Foster is going to force Kelly Bryant to beat him with his arm, and I don’t think Bryant can do it.
Call me a fool, that’s fine. I’ll take the heat. But I have more confidence in Brad Cornelsen’s ability to manufacture points against this Clemson defense, which lost talent from last season as well, than I do Bryant lighting up Virginia Tech on the backend. So, I’m rolling with Tech.
Ricky’s Prediction: Virginia Tech 24, Clemson 17