Game Preview: No. 3 Clemson Comes to Blacksburg

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Clemson Virginia Tech
Clemson players gather in a huddle after pregame drills for the game with Pittsburgh on Saturday, Nov 28, 2020. The Tigers won 52-17. (Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports)

Virginia Tech vs. No. 3 Clemson

Virginia Tech will host No. 3 Clemson this Saturday night in Lane Stadium, and the game will be televised nationally by ABC at 7:30.

There was a point in the not-so-distance past where that sentence would have excited you.  However, the Hokies are 4-5, and COVID-19 has limited attendance at Virginia Tech games to just 250 people.  The general feeling has gone from something like “I can’t wait!” to “let’s just get it over with.”

The Tigers are fresh off 52-17 trouncing of the Pitt Panthers…the same Pitt team that bombed the Hokies 47-14.  Clemson’s only loss came to Notre Dame on the road without quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and this is a team that is still very much in the National Championship race.  They’ve got everything to play for, so a letdown by the Tigers would be surprising.

Travis Etienne Clemson
Clemson running back Travis Etienne picks up yardage against Pitt (Photo by Carl Ackerman)

Stop The Run

Clemson has only been challenged in two games this season.  Boston College led most of the game before falling 34-28, while Notre Dame knocked off the Tigers 47-40 in overtime.  What did those two teams have in common?

They shut down Clemson’s running game.  Here’s how the Tigers fared on the ground against those two opponents…

BC: 31 carries, 106 yards, 3.4 ypc
ND: 33 carries, 34 yards, 1 ypc

Meanwhile, Virginia Tech ran for 350 yards and averaged 8.5 yards per carry against the Eagles.  That one is hard to explain, other than to say that the Tigers just had a bad day, but still had the overall talent to overcome it at the end.  Notre Dame, meanwhile, has a strong, tough, physical defense that is good enough to win the National Championship.

To have any sort of a chance of winning this Saturday, the Hokies must pull a Boston College or a Notre Dame and limit Clemson on the ground.  They don’t have Notre Dame’s talent level, however, so that’s much easier said than done.

Trevor Lawrence Clemson Virginia Tech
Trevor Lawrence (Photo by Carl Ackerman)

The Talent of Trevor Lawrence

Of course, the other thing Boston College and Notre Dame have in common is the fact that they didn’t have to face Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence (6-6, 220, Jr.) due to COVID-19.  The Hokies don’t have that luxury.  Lawrence will be in the NFL sooner rather than later, and he has had a dominant career at Clemson.  He was a great player over the last two seasons, and in some ways he’s even better as a junior.  Here are his year-by-year passing stats…

2018: 65.2%, 3,280 yards, 8.3 yards per attempt, 30 TDs, 4 INTs
2019: 65.8%, 3,665 yards, 9.0 yards per attempt, 36 TDs, 8 INTs
2020: 70.6%, 2,236 yards, 9.8 yards per attempt, 19 TDs, 2 INTs

As a junior, Lawrence’s completion percentage is up by nearly five points, and he has increased his yards per attempt.  He was already one of the most dominant players in college football, and now he’s even better.

Lawrence is no slouch running the football, either.  Though his runs have been limited in 2020, as a sophomore in 2019 he had 103 carries for 563 yards (5.5 ypc) and nine rushing touchdowns.  As a comparison, Hendon Hooker in 2020 has 117 carries for 627 yards (5.4 ypc) and 9 TDs.  Hooker is playing in a shortened season, but their yards per carry is nearly the same with a very similar number of carries.

In short, Lawrence is the real deal, and he is one of the best quarterbacks that any Virginia Tech team has ever faced.

The Supporting Cast

Of course, it’s not just the Trevor Lawrence show at Clemson.  He’s got plenty of help.  Most of Lawrence’s supporting cast are deserving of sections of their own, but for the sake of time and space, we’ll give you a quick recap in this section.

Tailback Travis Etienne (5-10, 205, Sr.) is the headliner.  Etienne is the ACC’s all-time leading rusher, and his career numbers are dominant….

Rushing: 650 carries, 4,730 yards, 7.3 yards per carry, 68 TDs
Receiving: 94 catches, 1,078 yards, 11.5 ypr, 8 TDs

Few college players have enjoyed as successful a career as Etienne, who surprised many by returning to Clemson for his senior season.

At wide receiver, Amari Rodgers (5-10, 210, Sr.) is Clemson’s top receiver.  He has 58 receptions for 813 yards and six touchdowns on the season.  He is one of the top receivers in the country, and combined with Etienne, the Tigers have major talent at all three skill positions on the offensive side of the ball.

Up front, Clemson’s most draftable player is left tackle Jackson Carman (6-5, 335, Jr.) who could be a first round selection whenever he decides to make the move to the next level.  The name you might recognize is right tackle Jordan McFadden (6-2, 300, r-So.).  The former Virginia Tech commit does not have the ideal height for an offensive tackle at this level of football, but his PFF grade of 83.1 is the third best of any offensive tackle in the ACC…behind only Tech’s Christian Darrisaw and Luke Tenuta.  Vance Vice must know what he’s doing.

LaVonta Bentley pressures Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports)

The Clemson Defense: Dominant Across The Board

The Clemson defense doesn’t have as many big names as the Clemson offense, but you can argue that Brent Venables’ group is every bit as efficient.  Here’s how the Tigers rank in the ACC in the major PFF defensive categories…

Overall: No. 1
Rushing: No. 1
Tackling: No. 4
Pass Rush: No. 1
Coverage: No. 4

It’s extremely difficult to run the ball on the Tigers, if not impossible.  Here’s how each opponent fared on the ground against the Tigers so far this year…

Wake: 37 yards, 1.1 ypc
The Citadel: 86 yards, 1.8 ypc
UVA: 147 yards, 3.9 ypc
Miami: 89 yards, 3.6 ypc
GT: 123 yards, 2.8 ypc
Syracuse: 150 yards, 4.7 ypc
Boston College: 67 yards, 2.0 ypc
Notre Dame: 208 yards, 5.2 ypc
Pitt: 16 yards, 0.7 ypc
Total: 319 rushes, 923 yards, 2.9 ypc

The only teams to have success running the football against Clemson this year are Syracuse and Notre Dame.  Virginia Tech has good enough players in the running game to get something going, but the biggest concern is that the Tigers won’t respect the Hokie passing game and they’ll sell out to stop the run.  If that happens, then as good as the offensive line, Khalil Herbert and Hendon Hooker have been in the running game this year, they probably won’t be able to do much if the Tigers outnumber them in the box.

Like the last game against Pitt, it’s imperative for the Hokies to be able to throw the football to help their running game.  Notre Dame beat Clemson because the Irish were balanced.  BC nearly pulled off the upset by throwing the football, but in the end they just weren’t balanced enough.  Do the Hokies actually have the personnel to be balanced offensively against Clemson?  Thus far in 2020, the evidence tells us no.

Dabo has built a national power at Clemson. (Ken Ruinard – USA TODAY Sports)

Final Thoughts

I don’t know if I’ve ever picked the Hokies to get blown out before, at least not as badly as I’m about to do so in this article.  I went back through a lot of our game previews since I began writing for TSL in 2005, and here’s what I came up with…

2012: Florida State 34, Virginia Tech 6
2013: Alabama 31, Virginia Tech 7
2019: Miami 31, Virginia Tech 10

The Hokies played quite a bit better in those three games than I expected going in, even if the VT-Alabama score didn’t reflect it.  Tech nearly pulled off the upset against FSU in 2012, and they came out on top against Miami last season.

Here’s how I ended that Miami preview…

“When [the Hokies] face adversity, which they surely will on the road against a better team, I want to see them keep their heads in the game.  Really, that’s all I’m looking for.  I’d love to win, don’t get me wrong.  But I’m not expecting it…not at all.  I just want to see the team keep their heads in it and get better.”

This game is at home rather than on the road, but I think I’ve got the same sentiments.  Just don’t look incompetent.  That’s all I ask.  When Clemson starts to take over, whether that be the first quarter or the third quarter, stay mentally engaged and fight it out to the end.  I don’t know what that would look like on the scoreboard, but I think I’ll know it if I see it.  Or maybe not.  Clemson is loaded, and they are completely capable of making the Hokies look bad no matter how hard Tech plays.

I’m not expecting this one to be close.  In fact, even if you stretched the definition of “close” as far as it can possibly be stretched, I’m still not expecting it to be close.  But maybe, like 2012 FSU, 2013 Alabama and 2019 Miami, the Hokies will do better than I expect.

Chris’ Prediction: Clemson 47, Virginia Tech 17

Will Stewart’s Take: I usually don’t read Chris’s prediction before making my own, and I didn’t this week. But I did see his first paragraph or two, and it got me to thinking about when I’ve picked the Hokies to lose big. It doesn’t happen often, but here are some examples:

2013 season opener: I predicted Alabama to win 35-10. They won, 35-10. It’s one of two times I can recall where I correctly predicted the final score. The other was the 35-24 Belk Bowl win over Arkansas in 2016.

2013 Sun Bowl: I predicted UCLA to win 30-13. Boy, did that make some people mad. UCLA won 42-12.

2019 Miami game: In the week after the Dukebacle, I predicted Miami to win 31-7. I and the rest of the universe were wrong, as the Hokies turned their season around with a 42-35 victory.

Two of those games had a common theme: Tech had a decent chance to win. The Hokies didn’t have a prayer of beating Bama in 2013, but they actually played better than anyone expected, with the defense shutting down Alabama’s offense to the tune of allowing just 206 yards. (That’s amazing.) That game was lost on special teams, as the Tide’s athletic depth mauled the Hokies’ unathletic walk-ons in the return game for two touchdowns, and Bama added a defensive touchdown.

UCLA 2013 and Miami 2019 didn’t have the Hokies outclassed like Alabama did in 2013; the game just felt wrong, so I went with big wins by the opposition.

This time around, Clemson has Virginia Tech completely outclassed. That wasn’t the case in the 2016 ACC Championship Game or the 2017 game in Lane Stadium, but just a few years later, Virginia Tech has fallen far enough that they have no chance in this game. Anything can happen, but if they play this game 30 times, Clemson wins 28 or 29 of them, maybe all 30.

Clemson is outscoring their opponents 46-19 this year. The Tigers have scored 50+ on two ACC opponents this year, 73-7 over Georgia Tech and 52-17 over Pittsburgh. The over/under on this game is 67 points, per VegasInsider.com.

I’m going Clemson, big. The Tigers are looking for style points.

Will’s Prediction: Clemson 56, Virginia Tech 17


What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-Clemson game?

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (3%, 36 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (5%, 56 Votes)
  • Clemson Wins by 1-10 (3%, 33 Votes)
  • Clemson Wins by 11+ (89%, 1,034 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,159

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Last Game’s Virginia Tech-Pittsburgh Prediction Poll Results

Game Result: Pittsburgh 47, Virginia Tech 14

What's your prediction for the 2020 Virginia Tech-Pitt game?

  • Hokies Win by 11+ (9%, 91 Votes)
  • Hokies Win by 1-10 (35%, 340 Votes)
  • Pitt Wins by 1-10 (42%, 410 Votes)
  • Pitt Wins by 11+ (14%, 132 Votes)

Total Voters: 973

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36 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Back in (I think) 1972 we played Alabama. The Roanoke Times headline on Sunday was “IT’S UNBELIEVEABLE! 77 – 6!” I’m expecting something similar.

  2. Back in the day when the legendary Frank Howard coached Clemson in the “old” ACC, the only team in Virginia they played with any regularity was their semi-annual contest at then-pitiful UVA. Howard would say, in his inimitable drawl, “We gon’ go up to va-gin-ya and get us somma‘ dat white meat!”

  3. Been a VT fan since the late ’50s and never been less excited about us playing a Top 5 team. So sad that we have become the proverbial “chicken fodder” for most everyone we play. Sad days in Bburg football wise, to say the least.

  4. Let’s Go Hokies. 😤🦃👊🏽👏🏽 I’m excited about the opportunity to play Clemson. From Twitter it seems the players are looking forward to the game. They haven’t quit like most of the fanbase.

    I’d be in the stands if I could. But I’ll be cheering you on from San Diego!

  5. I was hoping Clemson might overlook us this year, but they need it to reach ACCCG! Seriously doubt that will happen now,

  6. It’s one thing to lose, but the fact that most of the fan base (including me) is already hanging their heads like beaten dogs should be a wake up call for how far this program has fallen. Even during Frank’s dire final years many of us would have looked at this game with a “you never know…” mentality. I suggest having a Plan B ready for your Saturday night, because this one will be over by the end of the first quarter.

  7. GT loaded the box to shut down the run. . You see what that got them. A 70-7 shellacking. Let’s hope Clemson will rest their starters early for the Natl Champ schedule.

      1. Hear are all the college teams (Regardless of division/program/conference size) that have scored 100+ points since 1950:

        1952 — Southern beat Bishop (TX) 105-0

        1956 — Mississippi Valley State beat Rust 101-0

        1968 — North Park beat North Central 104-32

        1968 — Houston beat Tulsa 100-6

        1969 — Fort Valley State beat Knoxville 106-0

        1980 — Portland State beat Delaware State 105-0

        1989 — Central State (OH) beat Lane 101-0

        2003 — Rockford beat Trinity Bible 105-0

  8. Don’t get anybody hurt… play our 3rd team and save “our starters” to help avoid the UVa loss. Not pretty at all.

    1. Exactly! Let ’em run up the score early so they’ll switch to their 2nd and 3rd stringers and we can play ours also. Who cares about the score. Best to focus on beating UVA.

  9. Sadly, I look for this game to end another streak…the non-shutout one. We’re going to get boat raced and not score. 49-0 🙁

  10. It will get ugly, hopefully they can keep Clemson from scoring 60 but I wouldn’t bet on it. I’m just glad I will not have to witness this beat down in person.

  11. Hey, sometimes as a competitor you elevate your game when facing the best. Hoping the boys can do that and give these guys a run!!

    Try to get some push running the ball right at them. Run the ball inside the tackles and get #82, #86 and #89 involved in the passing game in the middle of the field.

    Load the box and man up on their receivers…make #16 beat you which of course he’s very capable of doing. Can’t let them run and toss it. Make some plays on teams.

    Smash these guys in the mouth right out of the chute!!

    GO HOKIES!!!!!

    1. That’s the spirit!!! It may be like the boxing match in Cool Hand Luke, but I want to see us keep coming at them.

      1. Is anyone thinking about the possible effect of a cold night on the vaunted Klempsin passing game? Not saying the Hokies will win, even though I voted for a narrow win in the poll just to keep my view of Hokie sports via O&M glasses intact, but this game just might be a lot closer than Vegas and our TSL experts are projecting….

        Go Hokies!!

  12. I don’t blame CC and WS for picking us to lose big, the stars are more or less aligned for just that. I think three touchdowns is about right given #2020 but I expect Dabo will look to make a statement (and possibly, unleash TL completely to try and move up in the Heisman race) so yes, this could get ugly on the scoreboard, particularly given our struggles in the secondary.

    But I agree with CC in that for me, I won’t judge this game just by the final score. We are coming off an off week and so I am expecting us to come out with some real energy and maybe with a fresh wrinkle or two scheme wise that helps narrow the gap some, at least for a little while. I want to see us stay in the game mentally for four quarters, maintain our gaps and play disciplined, and show that parts of VT (such as the offensive line) aren’t taking a back seat to anyone.

    I’m not an insider by any means but I do think this team (coaches and players) have a real sense of pride and will put it all on the line to get back the Commonwealth Cup. While we may still lose by a large margin, I am hoping to see us take a step forward and be on the front foot going into UVA week.

  13. Sad that the program we supported with pride has fallen this far
    VT should never be this big a underdog in the ACC……… Unacceptable

  14. Honestly, at this point I’m hoping Clemson puts up 70+… Something so embarrassing that it forces Whit’s hand to dump Fuente. Hate that it’s come to this, but it is what it is

  15. Clemson 48, VT 21

    Dabo goes into halftime up 35-7 and gets very conservative in the second half, running the third string tailback, no Trevor, and just wanting to get out of the cold.

    Clemson gifts VT a turnover deep in Clemson territory at some point and VT actually punches it in for one of their three scores. VT also gets a late cheap score as Clemson’s third team D is on the field for the final series.

  16. I remember in your season preview how excited you said fans would be for this early December match-up potentially fighting for the 2nd spot in conference and a potential rematch with Clemson in the Championship game. Mine how fast things can sour. Clemson can name their score.

      1. sure he will. he did against Pitt. i dont think TL played the entire fourth quarter. “calling off the dogs” = inserting the #1 overall qb prospect last year LMAO.

  17. 🎶Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…

    Just do their best. Play loose. Etienne doesn’t like cold weather per Fowler in his infamous Instagram BS chat.

    1. I myself was hoping for a blizzard!! Cold enough perhaps, but little chance of snow, and the rain is forecast to be done….

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