The Roanoke Express is about to hit the highway for Clemson, where the Hokies will try to get a little bit of redemption, both for last year’s poor performances against the Tigers and to make up for their slow start this season.
Here’s a look at the matchups. Feel free to offer your own thoughts on the game in the comments section below. Be sure to leave your predicted score and reasons for it.
Virginia Tech at No. 14/13 Clemson
- Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson, S.C.
- When: Saturday, 12:07 p.m.
- TV: ABC/ESPN2
- Records: Virginia Tech 4-3, 2-1 ACC; Clemson 5-1, 2-1 ACC
- Series: Clemson leads 19-12-1
- Last meeting: Tigers won 38-10 last year in ACC title game in Charlotte
- Line: Clemson by 8.5
When Virginia Tech passes
The Hokies are finding their rhythm in the passing game. In his last 10 quarters, Logan Thomas has 815 passing yards and five touchdowns, with another touchdown on the ground. He and Marcus Davis are on the same page on deep balls. Davis caught three long passes against Duke, part of a 144-yard receiving day that included two touchdowns. With 585 receiving yards, he’s on pace for a 1,086-yard season in 13 games, which would make him the first 1,000-yard receiver in Virginia Tech history. The tight ends got involved in the action last week, with Ryan Malleck and Randall Dunn catching three passes for 78 yards. If Dyrell Roberts and Corey Fuller get going, this passing game has a lot of potential. The line allowed three sacks against Duke, but has been OK in pass protection this year.
Teams have moved the ball on Clemson in the air. Florida State threw for 380 yards. Boston College followed with 369 the next week. Heck, even Auburn, which is 111th nationally in passing offense, threw for 194 yards in the season opener. It’s not as though the Tigers are young on the back end. Strong safety Rashard Hall and cornerback Xavier Brewer are graduate students and cornerback Jonathan Meeks is a senior. The bigger problem might be up front. After losing Andre Branch and Brandon Thompson from last year’s line, the Tigers have only seven sacks through six games (t-104th nationally). They do have seven interceptions, but it hasn’t been enough to deter teams from throwing at will on them.
Edge: Virginia Tech
When Virginia Tech runs
Finally, signs of life from the running game. J.C. Coleman moved up to the No. 1 tailback spot and rewarded the coaches with the team’s first 100-yard game this year. The true freshman went for 183 yards on only 13 carries, with two long touchdown runs. Coaches haven’t committed to him being the featured back going forward, although running backs coach Shane Beamer said he’d be stupid not to notice the lift Coleman and Tony Gregory gave the team. The line will have some adjusting to do, with center Andrew Miller lost for the year after breaking his fibula. Michael Via will play center, Brent Benedict right guard and either David Wang or Matt Arkema at left guard. Laurence Gibson is the only other viable option at guard with Caleb Farris out with an ankle injury, so the Hokies can’t afford any more injuries on the interior line.
Remember how teams can pass against Clemson? Well, they can run it against the Tigers too. Clemson is allowing 202.7 rushing yards per game (99th nationally). Opponents are averaging 5.4 yards per rush this year against the Tigers, meaning it doesn’t look like all too much has changed under new defensive coordinator Brent Venables. Clemson has some pieces up front. Linebackers Stephone Anthony (51 tackles, 2.5 TFL) and Jonathan Willard (41 tackles, 2.5 TFL) and defensive tackle DeShawn Williams leads the team with 4.5 tackles for a loss and two sacks. But overall, the front hasn’t been nearly as disruptive as last year, when the Tigers threw the Hokies out of whack in both contests by manhandling the offensive line.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
When Clemson passes
It’s tough to find a more productive group than Clemson’s passing game. Quarterback Tajh Boyd has thrown for 1,748 yards and 14 touchdowns midway through the season, and he’s done it mostly without the help of Sammy Watkins, the all-everything receiver from a year ago who has yet to get going after serving a two-game suspension for an offseason drug arrest and missing another game with an illness. Watkins has only 118 receiving yards and no receiving touchdowns this year, although it’s only a matter of time before he breaks out. DeAndre Hopkins has been a shining star in his place, with 49 catches, 777 yards and eight receiving touchdowns, all of which lead the ACC. Tight end Brandon Ford (20 catches, 234 yards, 4 TD) is doing a serviceable Dwayne Allen impersonation, so the Tigers have plenty of weapons. And the line, which was supposed to be the weak link, has only given up 10 sacks this year.
The Hokies had their best pass rushing effort of the year last week, with five sacks against Duke. Defensive tackle Luther Maddy, back from an ankle injury, gave Tech some push from the inside and James Gayle had one of his best games from the outside. Virginia Tech will need more of that (especially from one end spot, where J.R. Collins and Corey Marshall have combined for only four tackles for a loss this year and no sacks). That pass rush will be critical, so the Hokies cornerbacks don’t have to cover Clemson’s wide receivers all day long. Antone Exum is expected to match up against Watkins most of the afternoon, with Kyle Fuller on Hopkins. Tech doesn’t give safety help a whole lot, so they’ll be on an island. That didn’t work so hot against Duke in the first quarter last week. It did the final three quarters. But Clemson ain’t Duke.
When Clemson runs
The Tigers aren’t a one-trick pony. Andre Ellington has rushed for 597 yards and six touchdowns this year, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He had 228 yards in the opener against Auburn, so he’s capable of carrying the team. Boyd can run it too, though. He has 224 yards and two touchdowns (totals that are slightly skewed because of sack yardage). As a team, Clemson runs for 201.2 yards per game, fourth most in the ACC. The Tigers might spread things out, but they are still a power running team. They’re like North Carolina in that regard. And remember what the Tar Heels did to the Hokies a few weeks ago, spreading things out and letting their talented running back go to work up the middle?
Virginia Tech held Duke to next to nothing on the ground last week (in fairness, the Blue Devils aren’t a big rushing team) But the fact remains that the Hokies are still allowing 171.7 rushing yards per game (73rd nationally), and the Gio Bernard debacle is still fresh in many peoples’ minds. Linebacker Jack Tyler (68 tackles) and safety Kyshoen Jarrett (50 tackles) continue to lead the way in tackling, with linebacker Bruce Taylor (42 tackles) not far behind. But it will take a total team effort to slow the Tigers down. Virginia Tech went back to the open field tackling drills that it did at the start of practice last week, stressing fundamentals. Clemson will get Virginia Tech out in space with its athletes and try to slip a tackle to get a big play. The Hokies can’t allow that.
It was a fairly quiet day on special teams for the Hokies against Duke, but they remain solid here. Kicker Cody Journell has made 19 of his last 20 field goals going back to last year. Punter A.J. Hughes has a 40.6-yard average. Kyshoen Jarrett is back at the top of the national rankings in punt returns (20.22 avg.). Demitri Knowles (28.8 avg.) is 15th in kick returns. The only coverage unit that is lagging is kickoffs (73rd nationally). The Hokies haven’t blocked any punts, but the rest of the special teams have been solid.
Clemson has been strong in the kicking game. Punter Spencer Benton has a 41.2-yard average and kicker Chandler Catanzaro is a perfect 11-for-11 on field goals. The Tigers have struggled in the kick return game, however, despite having Ellington and Watkins back there. Watkins is the same guy who had a 25-yard average and a touchdown last year, so the threat remains. Where Clemson has really struggled is punt returns (3.3 avg., 108th nationally) and on their coverage teams, which are both mediocre at best.
Edge: Virginia Tech.
Dabo Swinney stole the ACC belt from Frank Beamer last year, twice beating the Hokies and claiming the biggest prize, the ACC championship. This year, Swinney has the Tigers up to No, 14 and 13 in the polls, despite the Florida State loss, while Beamer is off to his worst start in 20 years. In the battle between the highest-paid coordinators on each team, Chad Morris came out on the winning end against Bud Foster last year (although to be fair, Foster’s crew held its own in the first game and really struggled in the title game, in part, because of injuries in the secondary). Virginia Tech’s offensive struggles against Clemson last year are well-documented. Mike O’Cain and Bryan Stinespring will have to do something to not allow another underachieving Tigers defense to shut them down.
It will be high-scoring, which doesn’t favor the Hokies. Clemson is not a team you want to get in a shootout with, but honestly, trying to simply out-score the Tigers is about the only way to beat them (they’ve been held to less than 37 points only once). Florida State did it, scoring 49 points in a win in September. I think Tech probably has to score 35 to start thinking about winning this game. I just can’t imagine a scenario where the Hokies completely shut down the Clemson offense now that it’s humming in Year 2 under Morris. Tech wants to control the ball but has been at its best when it scores on big plays this year, an odd dynamic that doesn’t seem like it meshes with what it wants to do against the Tigers. This just doesn’t seem like the kind of game Virginia Tech is suited to win, particularly at Clemson. I like the Tigers in a shootout.
Prediction: Clemson 41, Virginia Tech 31.