Keys to Virginia vs. Clemson Game


by - Correspondent -
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Leroy Hill is tied for second in the ACC in tackles with 12.2 per game.

After losing the first 29 contests to Clemson, the Virginia Cavaliers have changed the tide since 1990. In that time span they own a 7-5-1 record against Clemson, including two straight victories under third year head coach Al Groh.


The team that used to serve as Clemson’s sacrificial lamb on homecoming, is now nationally ranked and running in high gear. They are not the type of team you want to face after a tough loss.


Consider that after a devastating loss to FSU last season, the Tigers traveled to Charlottesville and lost another tough one. That loss seemed to be what sent the Tigers into a downward spiral to end the season. They were flat for that game and it more than showed. Unfortunately, they did something no good team does; they let a loss beat them twice.


The Tigers have a lot to prove this time around. Not only are they seeking revenge for the last two meetings, they are looking to rebound after a tough Maryland loss. Coming back strong after tough losses has been a real struggle in past years. Coming out of this weekend with a 4-2 record (2-1 in the ACC) would be just what the doctor ordered.


It would also be a victory against a nationally ranked team for the first time since the Georgia Tech game in 2001. There is no denying Clemson has struggled against ranked opponents. That fact is a dark little cloud that hangs over the program.


Forget that it is homecoming. Forget the record against ranked opponents. Forget last week’s loss. Forget the previous two losses to UVA. What is in the past cannot be changed, and homecoming really means nothing to the players. They do not get to attend Tigerama, see the floats on Bowman Field, or tailgate with friends they have not seen in years.

Still, this game is very important to them. It is important because they want things to change. That was evident last weekend against Maryland. Even though the final score was not in favor of the Tigers, it seemed like a change took place.


The Tigers faced an early deficit. It was 14-0 before most of them even broke a good sweat. In the past, that meant they were probably going to lie down and die.


Last week was different.


They fought back and made a game of what could have been a laugher. The players finally showed a little attitude and resilience. They ultimately lost the game because they made some key mental mistakes in pressure situations. However, it was promising to see them claw back and somehow find a way to stick around, even though they were not operating at their highest level both mentally and physically.


OFFENSE


After watching the CSS replay, it became evident the offensive line did not block as bad as it originally seemed. Whitehurst had good protection most of the day. He did get harassed, but that will happen against good teams. He just did not handle the pressure as well as he has in the past.


The running game still looked lost but all the blame should not be placed on the shoulders of the linemen. They actually created some nice holes and running lanes for the backs at times. The problem was the running backs did not always hit the hole and see the field the way they should have.


The offense had its chances but did not capitalize. Charlie and the backs are still very young, and that showed. It did not help that the wide receivers dropped some very catchable balls. The great thing about being young is that it is easier to put the past behind you and that is just what those guys need to do.

Whitehurst is a little dinged up and his status for Saturday is still questionable according to some. What is not questionable is his leadership of this offense and how he is the guy that makes it click. As long as he does not have to be wheeled into the stadium, he will play on Saturday. How effective he is will determine the outcome.


Virginia’s 3-4 defense is extremely athletic. Their four linebackers average 6’3”, 238 lbs. Chris Canty is one of the better defensive ends in the conference and checks in at 6’7”, 280 lbs. The secondary may be the most overlooked unit of the bunch, but it features two seniors and two juniors.


In past years they have had a “bend but do not break” mentality. Their “read and react” style allowed them to make up for their lack of size and strength. Now that they are bigger, stronger, and more athletic, they still stick to that basic principle but with a little more aggressiveness. Racking up 13 sacks in 5 games is evidence of that.


There is nothing exciting about their numbers against the run and pass. They are not that spectacular in terms of national rankings. They give up 147.2 yard-per-game-rushing to rank 63rd. They give up 204.8 yards-per-game-passing to rank 52nd. They have the 55th best overall defense in the nation.


Where they make up for their middle of the road numbers is in scoring defense. They are only giving up 16.8 points per game and that ranks them 21st.


Clemson proved last week they could throw the ball against a good, experienced secondary. The wide receivers managed to find holes in the zone and get a step on the defensive backs in man situations throughout the day. The will have to do the same this week.


One point of attack may be cornerback Almondo Curry. The senior is a solid performer, but it is his size that could create an advantage for Clemson. At 5’8”, he is seven to nine inches shorter than guys like Youngblood, Hamilton, and Collins. There is no reason those three should not be able to go up and get balls against a guy that short.

As long as Charlie has some time to throw, there should be holes in the secondary. The speed of the linebackers could dictate to some degree exactly how they attack the Cavaliers. More intermediate range routes may be used in an effort to stretch the linebackers. At the same time, some play action may be mixed in hopes of delaying their drops. Either way, Clemson has to be able to pass the ball.


As for the running game, one glimmer of hope is the possible emergence of Yusef Kelly. He may provide the field vision and quickness to the hole that was sorely missed last week. He is more of a north-south runner that should fare better between the tackles. That style of running may be better suited this week simply because trying to stretch runs to the outside will be tough against those speedy linebackers. His experience and size may also pay dividends when having to pick up blitzers.


Finally, the wide receivers continue to play well but they did not necessarily improve last week. Hamilton had a couple of balls get through his hands that he should have caught. Charlie was not as sharp as he has been, but the receivers have to be able to adjust. The probable absence of Airesse Currie opens the door for Tony Elliott and Michael Collins. Elliott has proven himself time and again. Collins should view this as a shot for more playing time.


DEFENSE


You watch the Virginia offense and it almost lulls you to sleep at times.


They are boring because they rely heavily on fundamentals. You do not see a lot of long balls or 70-yard runs. What you see is a team that blocks, runs, throws, and catches very well.


Matt Schaub is very much like Charlie Whitehurst in that he is the guy that makes them an offense. You take away Schaub and they are in trouble. The senior led the ACC in completion percentage last year when he connected on an amazing 70% of his passes. He threw for 28 touchdowns and was the only quarterback in the conference to strike pay dirt in every game.


Since coming back from an injury two games ago, he has completed 49 of 67 passes (73.1%) for 610 yards and 4 touchdowns. He is good because he plays within himself and does not make many mistakes. There is nothing flashy about him. Possibly the most overlooked aspect is his size. At 6’5”, 240 lbs., he is not the easiest guy in the world to rattle.


Their offense is extremely balanced in terms of yardage. They average 204 through the air and another 184 on the ground each game. Tailback Wali Lundy currently leads the ACC in rushing with 102.4 yards per game. Running mate Alvin Pearman is currently 8th on the ACC rushing list. They are the only duo in the top eight in that statistic.


Schaub is slowly breaking in some new receivers after losing one of the most prolific pass catchers in ACC history – Billy McMullen. One guy he has been able to count on a lot is tight end Heath Miller. He was a freshman All-American last season after catching 33 passes for 327 yards and 9 touchdowns. He is off to another good start this year with 22 catches for 258 yards and 2 touchdowns.


The most eye-catching stat of all is their success in the red zone. There have been 21 drives in which they had a 1st & 10 at the 20-yard line or closer. They have scored on 19 of those drives (15 touchdowns and 4 field goals). A fumble and the end of a game were the results of the other drives.


So, what Clemson needs to do is keep Virginia between the 30s. The Cavs are more than welcome to have a track meet all afternoon as long as they keep it within that 40-yard range.


As always, the front four will have to have a big day. The basis of their passing game is to get guys out of position and create mismatches. It is tough to consistently blitz against these guys because they are so adept at running screens and throwing to their backs coming out of the backfield. That is one reason why Schaub’s completion percentage is so high.


As mentioned, there is nothing extremely fancy about this offense. The defensive line needs to get a good rush while the linebackers and defensive backs need to make quick reads on their keys. The little things that have plagued Clemson in previous weeks – missed tackles and poor angles – are a must this week.


The linebackers will also need to have a big day because they are going to be stretched. Schaub loves to throw from sideline to sideline, up to 20 yards downfield. When you figure that a lot of those passes are to his running backs and tight end, you realize the linebackers are going to have to defend the pass and run extremely well.


Finally, what could be the biggest key this week is getting off the field on 3rd down. Giving up first downs on 3rd and 1 and 3rd and 2 are tolerable…at least to a certain point. Giving up first downs on 3rd and 10 or 15 is something that winning teams cannot do. Maryland killed Clemson on long 3rd downs. They gained nearly one-third of their total offensive production on 3 touchdowns that all occurred on 3rd down.


SPECIAL TEAMS

Virginia kicker Connor Hughes is a perfect 8-for-8 this year on field goal attempts. Only one other kicker in the nation has been successful 100% of the time. He has booted kicks from 48 and 53 yards. His leg is one of the reasons why the Clemson defense needs to keep Virginia between the 30s.



Other than that, there is nothing spectacular about Virginia’s special teams. They average just over 22 yards on kickoff returns and around 7 on punt returns. They give up 21.4 on kickoff returns and 5.6 on punts. Their net punting average is low at 34.7 yards.


Meanwhile, Clemson is now leading the nation in kickoff returns with an average of 29.15. Miller and Hamilton are touchdowns waiting to happen. Their net punting average of 37.24 is quite surprising when you take into account some of the punts that have taken place. Cole Chason is young and still getting settled. As long as the coverage does a good job, this unit will be okay.


Whereas Virginia is almost assured points if they get inside the 30, the same is not true for Clemson. The field goal kicking has been off more than it has been on this year. Hunt has remained fairly accurate but does not appear to have the leg strength to make the long ones. Jad Dean should get a shot at anything outside of 43 yards this week.


Speaking of Dean, he continues to do a good job on kickoffs. It is a night and day comparison between last year’s unit and this year’s. They currently lead the conference in kickoff coverage.


The special teams seem to be pretty even. Clemson’s kickoff return unit can change a game very quickly, but they do not like being on the field. If it comes down to a specials teams battle, Hughes could easily be the man to save the day for the Cavs. He has shown he can deal with the pressure of long kicks in tight situations.


SUMMARY

The offense needs to settle in early and find a rhythm if they want to be effective. They played better than the numbers showed last week. The line took some underserved criticism for their play. By no means were they stellar, but they played good enough to win. For once, they did not get all the necessary help from the backs.


Whitehurst needs to take a step back and realize he has to carry this team, but cannot act like it. It appeared that burden got to him last week and caused him to make some decisions he does not normally make. He has performed admirably considering all that he is being asked to do. It is not uncommon for a guy as inexperienced as he is to let it get to him just a little. Despite the mistakes, he played well. One can only imagine how good his performance would have been had he been more relaxed.


He has a chance to have a very good week this week and put this offense on the right track. He knows this. How he deals with that and how much his injury limits him will determine a lot in terms of the outcome.


The defense has a tough task this week in stopping what could be one of the top quarterbacks in the country…at least in terms of numbers. The secondary will have to offer help on the short routes while not getting lulled into thinking the deep ball is not coming. Schaub will eventually go deep. How quickly they react to the short stuff will determine how much blitzing Lovett can do.


The front seven have a tough task yet again. Schaub is deadly when he is given time to throw. He also has a good running game that balances out the offense. The linebackers and defensive line have improved from week to week and are starting to gain some confidence. In some ways, it will be easier for them than the Maryland game. In others, it will be more difficult. Lovett should have a good plan. How it is executed will be the key.


From Sunday to Wednesday night, I was thinking the outcome would be Virginia winning by six. That was until I watched the CSS replay. The Tigers did not play as bad as originally thought. There is still a lot to work on, but this team can be successful if it wants to. Maryland is the second best team in the league right now and the Tigers had chances to win in College Park.


As mentioned earlier, there was a noticeable attitude change early in the game. That leads me to believe the players and coaches worked hard this week on correcting the little things and working on a solid plan to beat UVA. This is the week they must come out and prove they are ready to fight.


Strike up the Rocky soundtrack. These boys are ready to duke it out. Clemson wins 31-24.

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