Welcome to another edition of What We Are Hearing!
The Tigers are still ranked #2 in both polls this week, coming off a 34-7 win over Boston College that was tied after 3 quarters. Many still feel the Defending National Champs have proven more than Alabama and deserve the #1 spot. Perhaps if the Tigers can successfully navigate the last leg of their September gauntlet, the pollsters will finally bump Clemson up to #1.
Incidentally, it was 40 years ago this week that the Clemson $2 bill tradition began! Prior to 1977, Georgia Tech would only play Clemson in Atlanta every year. In an effort to show Georgia Tech how much money they brought to Atlanta every year and persuade them to return the favor on an alternating basis, Clemson fans decided to stamp $2 bills with Tiger Paws and use them for all their purchases in Atlanta that weekend in late September of 1977. The tactic worked, and that gave birth to the First Friday parade in 1978, when Georgia Tech played in Clemson for the first time. The $2 bill tradition has stuck, and Clemson fans are renowned for how well they travel and how much money they bring to opponents' and bowl hosts' local economies whenever the Tigers are in town.
This month feels eerily similar to 2011, when first-year starter Tajh Boyd took the Tigers on an unprecedented run of 3 consecutive wins against ranked opponents, again culminating with a trip to Blacksburg. Like this year, both teams were 4-0 entering that game, but the Hokies were actually favored as the #11 team against the #13 Tigers. The Tigers left Lane Stadium with a dominant 23-3 win and would later blow out the Hokies again in the ACC Championship for the Tigers’ first of three conference titles under Dabo Swinney. Could this be history repeating itself? The Tigers are looking for their third top-15 win in 4 weeks, and if they can survive this test like they did at Louisville a couple weeks ago, they will be the favorite to make an unprecedented third consecutive College Football Playoff appearance. In my preseason article, I ranked this game #4 on my list of the most dangerous games on the Tigers’ schedule (READ HERE), but that was before FSU lost its quarterback, and the Hokies have looked much better offensively than anyone expected. If I were to re-rank the games left, I would move this one to #1.
The BC game felt like a welcome pit stop amidst this early-season string of ranked opponents, but it turned out to be a dog fight for 3 quarters. The Eagles were able to come up with a good game plan defensively to confuse Kelly Bryant and did a great job making the Tigers play with a long field all day. The defense was tremendous, however, and the offense finally exploded thanks in large part to Travis Etienne rushing for over 100 yards and 2 touchdowns in the 4th quarter! The true freshman has Clemson fans buzzing, and if he can replicate in Blacksburg what he’s done so far, it could be a total game changer. For a detailed analysis of last week’s win over BC, READ HERE.
Before I get into the weeds of the VT game, I want to remind you that the #6 Men’s Soccer team is at #2 Wake Forest Friday evening at 6:00! You can watch the game live on ESPNU or on your computer or phone via WatchESPN or the ESPN app. The Tigers have aspirations of a 3rd national title this season after losing in the National Championship Game to Stanford 2 years ago and getting knocked out of the Elite Eight by Denver last year. It should be a great ACC showdown!
Now on to the good stuff…..
(Photo: John Bolton CUTigers.com)
Clemson and Virginia Tech are both former agriculture and military schools. During World War II, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech and Clemson produced more soldiers than any other non-service academy in the country......Clemson leads the all-time series with Virginia Tech 21-12-1....The Tigers won the first meeting 17-5 in 1900 in John Heisman's first year as Clemson head coach. That game was played in Charlotte....Clemson is 6-3 all-time in Blacksburg and 4-2 in Lane Stadium...Former VT head coach Frank Beamer was 5-6 against Clemson and 2-3 against the Tigers in Lane Stadium.....Dabo Swinney is 4-0 against VT with an average score of 35.3-16.....In the last 9 meetings between Clemson and VT, dating to 1999, at least one team has been ranked and both have been ranked 6 times. In 1999, Tommy Bowden was in his first year at Clemson and Michael Vick was QB of the Hokies….Redshirt freshman QB Josh Jackson is looking to be the first VT quarterback to start 5-0 since Tyrod Taylor in 2007. Clemson lost to Virginia Tech that season in Death Valley…..Clemson has won a school record 11 straight true road games. That is the third-longest active streak behind Oklahoma’s 13 and Alabama's 12....Clemson has won 9 straight games since losing to Pitt last season. That is tied for the third-longest active streak behind Oklahoma (13) and USC (12)…..Clemson has won a school record 9 straight ACC road games…..Clemson has won 7 straight games against ranked teams. That is the third longest streak in ACC history. A win this Saturday would tie Clemson with FSU (1992-93) for the second-longest streak at 8 straight ranked wins. FSU also holds the ACC record at 9 straight ranked wins from 2012-14……Clemson has the longest active streak in the AP top 5 at 29 weeks. Alabama is 2nd at 27 weeks. Clemson and Alabama are tied for the second-longest active streaks in the AP top 10 at 31 weeks. Ohio State is 1st at 42 weeks.....Clemson has an 8-7 all-time record in games featured by ESPN College GameDay. Only 14 schools have made more appearances on the premier college preview show.....
The Tigers, of course, defeated the Hokies in last year’s ACC Championship 42-35. The Tigers jumped out to a 14-0 lead and were up by 14 for much of the game, but the defense was unable to really put the Hokies away. It was an impressive first season for new head coach Justin Fuente, who was tasked with replacing legendary Frank Beamer. He won 10 games, played the eventual National Champs tough in the ACC Championship Game and beat Arkansas in their bowl game. However, the Hokies lost their junior quarterback, Jerod Evans, who surprisingly opted to declare for the NFL Draft. They also lost 3 of their top 4 running backs, 3 of their top 4 receivers and their biggest play-makers on offense in TE Bucky Hodges, WR Isaiah Ford and FB Sam Rogers. As if that wasn’t enough, they lost two of their best offensive linemen and would be starting a freshman quarterback for the first time since Michael Vick! However, 6’1, 211-pound QB Josh Jackson, the son of a coach, has played with poise and maturity beyond his years and the offense hasn’t seemed to miss a beat despite all the losses—a testament to Fuente, who is known as one of the best offensive minds in the game. Jackson may be young and inexperienced, but he has the pedigree. His father, Fred Jackson, spent 35 years as an assistant coach at several schools, including Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, Vandy and South Carolina. So it should come as no surprise that Josh has not let the pressure get to him.
The undefeated Hokies are not quite as battle-tested as the Tigers. They had a tough opener in Landover, Maryland against a ranked West Virginia team and won 31-24. Their redshirt freshman QB was terrific in that one, going 15-26 through the air for 235 yards with a touchdown and no interceptions, and he also ran for 101 yards and another touchdown on 11 carries. However, the competition since has been much lighter, blowing out Delaware, ECU and Old Dominion. Not quite the competition the Tigers have faced with Auburn, BC and Louisville on the road.
Having said that, it’s been about a good of a start as Tech fans could have hoped for with a redshirt freshman QB and all they had to replace on offense. On the season, Josh Jackson has completed 65.2% of his passes for 1,127 yards with 11 touchdowns and just one interception. He has only been sacked 4 times, and he’s rushed for 144 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries this season. Although he ran for over 100 yards, averaging 9.3 yards per carry, against West Virginia in the opener, Jackson has only rushed for 43 yards on 21 carries in the other 3 games against lesser opponents. Of course, West Virginia has not been known for its defense, and Jackson broke a lot of arm tackles in that game.
Although Tech lost big-time weapons in Bucky Hodges and Isaiah Ford from last year’s squad, they returned WR Cam Phillips (#5), who I mentioned in my preseason article. He had a big game against the Tigers in Orlando last year and is off to a great start this season. The 6’0, 200-pound senior already has 34 catches for 523 yards and 5 touchdowns in their first 4 games. He is a physical receiver and will be a great matchup for Trayvon Mullen.
The Hokies lost their best rushers from last season and are using a two-headed approach at RB this season. 6’0, 210-pound junior Travon McMillian (#34) has 162 yards this season on 5.1 yards per carry with one touchdown. He also has 3 catches for 77 yards and 2 touchdowns. 5’9, 220-pound junior Steven Peoples (#32) has 133 yards on 3.7 yards per carry with 2 touchdowns. Like McMillian, he also has 3 catches for 73 yards and 2 touchdowns. Peoples has a hurt ankle, and his status for Saturday night is unknown.
Unlike the offense, the Hokies’ defense returned almost all its starters from last season and was expected to be the strength of the team. However, they have sustained some unexpected losses on that side of the ball. Most notably, 6-3, 208-pound sophomore safety Divine Deablo is out for the season with a fractured foot. He had 8 tackles and an interception in the Hokies’ last game against Old Dominion. 6’3, 193-pound junior cornerback Adonis Alexander (#36) has been suspended for the last 2 games for violation of team rules, and his status is unknown. The latest report we have received is that he will dress and be eligible to play on Saturday. How much he plays remains to be seen. He had 14 tackles in the Hokies’ first two games. The defense is led by 6’0, 233-pound senior LB Andrew Motuapuaka (#54), who has 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks this season.
On special teams, veteran kicker Joey Slye won’t have a confidence problem on the big stage. The senior seems to have been in Blacksburg forever, and he is 8th on the all-time ACC scoring list. Quite the contrast with Clemson kicker Alex Spence, who is making his second career start and has never attempted a field goal in a game! Slye has been solid over the past 3 years, but he surprisingly already missed 5 field goals this season. He was 1/3 in the opener against West Virginia, 2/4 against Delaware and 1/2 against Old Dominion. He was a perfect 3/3 at ECU, however. Slye doesn’t have the strongest of legs. He’s 0/1 over 40 yards this season and 1/2 over 50 yards this season. Last year, he only made one field goal over 40 yards and none from 50.
The Hokies’ defensive ranks aren’t quite as good as I would have expected given their competition, but they are good where it counts—in points allowed. They are #27 in rush defense (108.0 yards per game), #47 in pass defense (203.3 yards/game) , #28 in total defense (311.3 yards/game) and #6 in scoring defense (10.3 points/game).
On offense, the Hokies rank #29 in pass offense (289.0 yards per game), #34 in rush offense (218.25 yards/game), #14 in total offense (507.3 yards/game) and #25 in scoring offense (40.0 points/game).
Dabo Swinney and Justin Fuente (Photo: John Bolton CUTigers.com)
The Tigers’ defense is obviously playing at an elite level right now. I expected it would be the #1 defense in the nation going into the season, and they are playing like just that. Their 66 sacks since the start of last season leads the nation, and the talented but inexperienced secondary has been better than most expected. The depth of talent that Dabo and Venables have stock piled is showing itself—particularly in the secondary. When they lost starting safety Tanner Muse early on the road at Louisville? No problem. Sophomore Isaiah Simmons came in with no drop off. When starting corner Marcus Edmond left early in the Auburn game with an injured foot? No problem. Mullen and Fields did a fantastic job. When Van Smith was out at safety? No problem. K’Von Wallace replaced him with no drop off. Having a defense that rivals Alabama’s makes up for a lot of mistakes and inconsistency on offense, and we saw that last Saturday when the Tigers struggled to score until the 4th quarter. We also saw it in the Auburn game, when 14 points was enough to win. There is no better security blanket on the road than a championship defense. As they say, defense travels. One of the common themes this week in talking to the players on defense has been "leave no doubt," just like the Louisville game a couple weeks ago. This defense remembers all too well how they neglected to put the Hokies away in the ACC Championship Game last year, allowing them to get within one score at the end of the game. They felt the same way about their performance against Louisville in 2016, and you saw how that turned out a couple weeks ago.
Offensively, Kelly Bryant had his worst outing against Boston College, but it still wasn’t terrible—especially given the fact that it was his 4th career start. He only has 3 interceptions in 4 games, and all 3 were somewhat unlucky. Two were on tipped balls, and his arm was hit by a lineman on the third, causing the errant pass. Bryant has done an outstanding job playing within himself, not trying to do too much and protecting the football. Let’s hope that continues on Saturday! He did fumble the ball last Saturday and was fortunate that Taylor Hearn scooped it up. Bryant has run the ball extremely well but will need to be a little more secure with the football when he runs.
The most exciting development, of course, has been the emergence of true freshman RB Travis Etienne. I told you throughout August camp that the coaches and his teammates were raving about the kid being a special talent, and now we are seeing why. He seemingly ripped off at least one long run in every practice and scrimmage in August, and when the season started it was just more of the same. He had a 54-yard run and a touchdown in the opener, didn’t play against Auburn, had an 81-yard TD run at Louisville, and against BC, he exploded for over 100 yards and 2 touchdowns in the 4th quarter after no carries until late in the 3rd! Feaster has also run the ball well in the past two games and will get the start, but it will be very interesting to see how the carries are split between the two in the first half on Saturday night. Etienne still has some learning to do when it comes to pass protection, but it’s getting harder and harder to keep an explosive back like him on the sideline. With 4 touchdowns already this season, he’s averaging better than a touchdown per 6 carries, folks! Etienne has also has a splendid personality and has quickly become my favorite interview. He’s outgoing, funny and engaging—something rarely seen in many veteran players, let alone true freshmen. Choice has fumbled the ball twice already this season and was benched after fumbling on his first carry against BC, so his carries will likely be limited in Blacksburg.
I am excited to see Clelin Ferrell and K’Von Wallace on Saturday night. Both are Virginia natives and talked about how special this game is to them. It will be the first time either have played in the state of Virginia since high school, and they will both have a lot of family and friends in the stands. Both are also very familiar with several Hokies, so you can bet there will be a lot of trash-talking going on! Linebacker Chad Smith and freshman DE Jordan Williams are also Virginia natives. Dorian O’Daniel is a Maryland native and will have family and friends in attendance as well. Star Tech WR Cam Phillips played for Dematha, O’Daniel’s rival high school. Incidentally, O'Daniel was ejected from the ACC Championship Game with a questionable targeting call and Cam Phillips went on to have a big game with 12 catches for 92 yards and a touchdown, so Dorian has been waiting for another shot at VT!
From an injury standpoint, the Tigers had a good week after the monster losses of Greg Huegel and Logan Rudolph last week. As I reported after practice on Wednesday evening, corner Trayvon Mullen (concussion) and corner Mark Fields (gluteus) are both expected to play. Corner Marcus Edmond (foot), however, will miss his 3rd straight game since spraining his foot early against Auburn. Tight end D.J. Greenlee (MCL) will not play either. The Tigers do have safety Denzel Johnson back, and Dorian O’Daniel (quad) and Adam Choice (ankle) are both fine.
This will be the toughest test for the Tigers so far and possibly for the entirety of the season. There will be several other challenges, but not in an environment this hostile. We might prefer Alabama on a neutral field to this one when all is said and done. Bud Foster is one of the greatest defensive coordinators of all time and has seen it all in his 30 years. Very few coordinators get as much out of his players as he does—especially when they are playing at night in front of a packed Lane Stadium. It is going to be an electric atmosphere in Blacksburg. ESPN College GameDay was also in Louisville two weeks ago, but that won’t compare to what the Tigers will see on Saturday night. So it could be another low-scoring affair, similar to the Boston College game, if Kelly Bryant doesn’t have his best stuff. If he plays like he did at Louisville, I don’t think the Hokies stand a chance. But you can bet Bud Foster will bring exotic formations and blitzes early and often in an attempt to confuse and rattle Kelly. We’re really going to find out how much of Deshaun Watson rubbed off on Kelly this Saturday.
The good news is that even if Kelly struggles in the passing game early, the running game is really starting to emerge, and the defense should keep the Tigers close throughout. Hopefully Alex Spence will get an easy field goal or two early with a lead to lessen the pressure on him. I asked him about being in lots of big-time games and environments and whether he thinks that vicarious experience will help him from a mental standpoint. He said that in all of those games and situations, he would watch Huegel go out for field goals and try to put himself in Huegel’s shoes, imagining what would be going through his head. We are bound to soon discover if all of those mental exercises will pay off!
A big key to every game is always turnovers, but it might be particularly critical in this one. If there has been one bugaboo of the Clemson program over this amazing run of success, it has been the turnover margin. Clemson has been one of the worst in the nation in turnover margin over the past 2 years but has won in spite of it. NO ONE would have given the Tigers a snowball’s chance in hell of going -2 against Alabama in turnovers and still winning. The Tigers have lost the turnover margin 15 times in their last 34 games, and they are amazingly 13-2 in those games. They were -3 in their first 2 games of the season and were +1 against Louisville. And that one turnover was a big one—a pick-six by O’Daniel that significantly swung momentum. They were even in the turnover margin against BC. In the last 6 meetings with VT, the team that has won the turnover margin has won the game, so turnovers will be huge on Saturday night. The Tigers can’t afford to give the Hokies extra possessions and the fans extra energy. Ball security is paramount!
This Clemson team has been in so many of these big games over the past couple years that I’ve lost count. In fact, this will be the Tigers’ 7th straight true road game at night. It will be the 13th straight night game away from home, including the last two post-seasons. So this is about as routine as it gets for a team. They are ready to face the noise and excitement and snuff it out like they did in Louisville.
The Tigers win their 5th straight against Virginia Tech for their 12th straight road win and give the Hokies something to think about when it comes to a potential ACC Championship rematch. Lane Stadium will be rocking for “Enter Sandman,” but the Tigers’ defense will put them to sleep.
The Prowl toward a record 17th ACC Title, an unprecedented 3rd consecutive National Championship Game and a repeat National Title continues……..
CLEMSON 31 Virginia Tech 20
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