I don’t write for a living, which is a good thing. If had to rely on my talents as a writer to pay the bills, I’d be living in a tent somewhere above the Artic Circle.
That’s just one of the many reasons this is a tough article to write. Clemson has played four games and not much has changed. I don’t have enough experience to write about the same things over and over without it sounding like the same article each week. For that I apologize.
So, here’s basically the same thing I’ve said for the first month of the season. Like it or not, it’s as good as I can do. For everyone’s sake, I hope they give me something different to write about next week.
There have been two constants all season – turnovers and poor execution.
There are lots of teams that can survive poor execution from time to time. There are those that can survive the occasional game with a rash of turnovers. No team can do it week in and week out.
At least two of the turnovers – a hail mary to end the first half and a pass on third and long that ended up being better than a punt – should have an asterisk beside them. Still, that would leave the Tigers with a (-10) turnover margin.
Many of those are a direct result of poor execution. Essentially, nothing is going to change the direction of this team until the players decide they’re going to start making plays. Nothing fancy or exciting is needed. Just block, catch and throw. There’s enough talent around that the big plays will then start to come.
That is more important against Virginia than most teams. Their defensive philosophy is to not give up the big play. They sit back, play fundamentally sound, and wait for their opponents to make a mistake. It’s as if they lull teams to sleep.
That’s one of the reasons Clemson has had modest success running the ball against the Cavs the last couple of years. With a revamped starting line and a stable of running backs, that may be the way the Tigers get their offense back on track against Virginia.
Tommy Bowden has stated he plans on using Yusef Kelly more this week because a power running game seems to be the best option. The coaches watch more film than any of us and know what’s going on, so I’ll default to them on the game plan.
However, don’t be surprised to see Reggie Merriweather have some success if he gets to carry the ball. He has the ability to be a power back but more quickness to the hole than Kelly. This is the game where he could really make a name for himself.
As for the passing game, Charlie Whitehurst is going to need some time because success against this defense requires patience from a QB. Charlie can’t be patient if he spends most of the day running for his life. The short to mid-range stuff is going to be the key.
Finally, the offense is going to have to find a way to get in the end zone when they get close. Virginia is content giving up all the yards in the world between the 20s. By taking away the big play, they force teams to sustain drives and shorten the field when it’s time to score. It’s much easier for eleven guys to defend a field that’s 30 yards X 53 yards than one that’s 50 yards X 53 yards.
Virginia has been pretty productive on offense.
Quarterback Marques Hagans has been one of the biggest surprises in the ACC. He’s completed 76% of his passes with only one interception. He’s averaging 9.3 yards per rush when he runs the ball and has found the end zone three times. He’s ability to run has added a new dimension to their offense.
Their numbers on the ground have been stellar, having averaged 6.1 yards per carry. Wali Lundy is getting 5.1 yards per clip and has scored 10 times. Their second leading rusher, Michael Johnson, is burning opponents for more than seven yards per carry.
The focus of their passing game is to spread the ball around to as many people as possible. The running backs and tight ends play as big of a role as the receivers.
Heath Miller (6’5”, 255) and Patrick Estes (6’7”, 280) are two of the best tight ends in the conference and both are guys NFL scouts love. Miller is considered the better of the two and leads the team with three touchdown receptions.
The Cavs’ offensive line is big and athletic. Their weights aren’t as impressive as some squads but they average 6’4”. It equates to a great mix of size and speed that allows them to move big guys and cut off quicker ones.
The Tigers need to take a page out of Virginia’s book this weekend and play nearly mistake free. The game plan for their offense is to execute the small stuff with near perfection then try to keep the defense sleeping with a big play, which has been a thorn in the defense’s side all year.
The linebackers will really be tested. As always, they have to contain the run. The difference is they’ll face a really effective tight end for the first time all season. Getting back into coverage on play action passes will be a must.
The defensive line has to contain Hagans when he rushes and disrupt him when he passes. Very few teams are going to lose when the quarterback completes over 75% of his passes.
Jad Dean has gotten better and better with his kickoffs. He hasn’t had a chance to attempt a field goal since taking over the job a few weeks ago, so it’s hard to say how he’s going to do.
Cole Chason has performed pretty well so far this year. He was boom or bust against FSU, but that’s the only game he hasn’t been really consistent. One of the biggest positives is he’s had a good number of kicks downed inside the 20.
There’s really not much of a need to write about Justin Miller and the Clemson return game. Everyone knows he’s a threat. If Virginia can kick it deep, they will. If not, look for them to pooch it to an upback or kick it away from Miller.
Virginia place kicker Connor Hughes has been pretty good through his first two seasons. His numbers aren’t that great this year (3-for-6) but two of his misses have been from 40+ and the other was outside of 30 yards. He also has two misses extra points.
Sean Johnson isn’t having a great season punting the ball. He’s only had to punt eleven times, but he’s averaging just 31.7 yards.
Their return game has also been productive when other teams have gotten a chance to kickoff. Marquis Weeks is averaging 34 yards a return. His return for a TD has now become infamous for his “police” comment.
Alvin Pearman has one kickoff return for 93 yards, but he’s averaging 13.4 yards on punt returns and has scored once.
Justin Miller is Clemson’s all-purpose running leader. He single-handedly outscored the offense against FSU. Other than Charlie’s five TD passes, he’s also the team’s leading scorer. That shows just how bad the offense is struggling considering he has yet to play a down of offense.
More importantly, it shows just how much this team could be struggling if it weren’t for some timely special teams play.
Clemson has a chance to add another tombstone to the graveyard on the outskirts of the practice field. A national televised win on the road against the ninth ranked Cavaliers could work wonders for this team. Easier said than done.
When you compare how the two teams have played, things don’t look good for the Tigers. UVA is all about perfect execution on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, Clemson has struggled making the simplest of plays all year. Al Groh has to be excited about his chances.
The week off may favor Clemson more than Virginia. Clemson has been tested in all four of its games while UVA hasn’t played anyone to get very excited about. The break gives the Tigers a chance to correct many of their mistakes while serving as a momentum killer for their opponent.
If I were a betting man I would take the Tigers and the large spread. I think they’ll turn in their best all-around game of the season but it won’t be enough to steal one on the road. Virginia wins 24-21.