As Tommy Bowden said earlier in the week, the roles in this game seem to be reversed. Virginia Tech is used to being the team wearing a bull’s-eye because of a high ranking and lots of national coverage. Instead, they enter the game unranked with hopes of knocking of a top ten Clemson team who has garnered a lot of national attention in the last week.
That, of course, does not make Clemson’s job any easier.
As important as this contest is for Clemson, it is more of a statement game for the Hokies. They are not used to being out of the top 25 and fighting for a chance just to keep their championship hopes alive. Motivation will not be a concern for Frank Beamer.
And it is not as if Lane Stadium is an easy place to play. Its reputation as a hostile environment has grown considerably over the last decade.
The Hokies have won two of their last three games against top ten opponents at home. They also have an amazing 12-2 record in Thursday night games broadcast by ESPN, including a 7-1 record at home, and they have won 32 of their last 49 night games.
Clemson is also coming off one of the biggest and most emotional wins they have had in some time. The additional pressures of a short turnaround and the loss of yet another starter may have Clemson in mental state that makes them ripe for an upset.
Tech defensive coordinator has developed a reputation of being one of the best in the business during his 12 years as the unit’s leader.
Last year’s squad finished the season as the national leader in total defense and ranked among the top three in three other categories. This year’s squad is sixth in both total and passing defense and tenth in scoring.
Tech has allowed the fewest touchdowns in the country since 2004 (41) and have picked off the most passes since 2000(129). Since he took over in 1995, the Hokies have scored an astounding 53 touchdowns on defense.
Getting things going up front for Foster are tackles Carlton Powell (6’2”, 294) and Barry Booker (6’4”, 280). Powell was a spot starter last season. This is Booker’s first as a starter. Behind them are Kory Robertson (6’2”, 339) and Cordarrow Thompson (6’2”, 334).
Powell and Booker are the most athletic of the group, with Powell being the better all-around player. The Tigers could see more of Robertson and Thompson depending on how well they run the ball. Both of those guys are much better against the run because of their size.
The ends are Chris Ellis (6’5”, 260) and Noland Burchette (6’2”, 263). Ellis has all the physical tools and reminds the staff a lot of Darryl Tapp, who was one of the top defensive players in the country last year. Burchette is one of the most experienced guys on that side of the ball with 23 starts.
The linebackers are probably the strongest group of the unit. Middle linebacker Vince Hall (6’0”, 240) has started all but one of the 33 games during his career. He led the team with 112 tackles last year and is leading again this year with 59. His frame and style of play is very to reminiscent of Buster Davis at Florida State.
Teaming with Hall to form one of the best duos in the conference is Xavier Adibi (6’2”, 221). Adibi was highly sought after coming out of high school because of his size and speed. He also has a very good nose for the ball. This is his second season as a starter.
Senior Brenden Hill (6’2”, 211) is has only seven starts under his belt. He is playing his fourth position after spending time at wide receiver, cornerback, and safety. He runs extremely well and is very good in coverage. The one knock against him may be how physical he plays at times.
Tech entered the season with the youngest cornerback group in the ACC with two sophomores starting and a junior and freshman as the backups. Brandon Flowers (5’10”, 190) is the starter at boundary corner and Victor Harris (6’0”, 200) gets the nod at field corner.
Flowers has one pick, eight passes broken up, and 27 tackles this year, including three sacks. Harris was the top rated recruit in the state of Virginia two years ago and a very physical player. He had two interceptions against Cincinnati earlier this year, returning one 72 yards for a touchdown.
Safety D.J. Parker (5’11”, 194) began his career as a corner two years ago but moved to safety last year and started six games. He is the strongest of the Tech defensive backs.
Rover Aaron Rouse (6’4”, 227) would have likely been drafted last spring had he opted to enter the NFL but he chose to return. He is a fierce hitter who is great in run support but also defends well against the pass.
The Hokies came through big against UNC with four interceptions – one for a touchdown and one that set up a two-yard drive – on a day when their offense was not very productive. In fact, their offense fumbled three times but the Tarheels were not able to convert any of them into points.
They held Duke to 139 yards and racked up eight sacks. It was much of the same against Southern Miss as they racked up six sacks. The Georgia Tech score was misleading because the Yellow Jackets picked up a score from their defense and another from their special teams. They were actually outgained by the Hokies.
The Tech defense has developed a great reputation for producing top secondary players. They have had 11 drafted in the last eight years. That has allowed Foster to run plenty of man coverages and attack with his front seven.
This year has been a little different because of the youth at corner. Foster has been more apt to stick with zone coverage but still mixes in man from time to time. Some opponents have been able to pick away at their zone, especially Matt Ryan of BC.
Because Will Proctor has looked off the last few weeks and Clemson has rarely had to throw the ball, look for Foster to use more man coverage this week in order to get an extra man in the box. His goal will be to stop the run and make Proctor win the game with his arm.
That bad news for Clemson is Foster has a better front than what the Tigers saw against Georgia Tech. The Hokies’ line should do a better job of tying up blockers because they are bigger and more athletic.
The good news for Clemson is more big play opportunities are there for the taking on the ground and through the air if Tech commits and extra guy to stop the run. There is less support in the secondary, meaning Clemson’s backs and receivers are just one broken tackle away from paydirt.
There is no doubt Spence will continue to run the ball until someone stops him. If Foster is successful, look for Clemson to turn to its controlled passing game – slants and screens – as well as its play action game. Bootlegs in which the tight ends delay work well against an attacking defense such as Tech’s as long as the line gives the quarterback some time to throw.
The plan of attack against Tech is quite simple – shut down their running game and limit their scoring. Sounds like a stroke of genius, right? As simple and fundamental as it sounds, there are some pretty impressive stats that support why it is extremely important to do those things against Frank Beamer.
He is 114-12 when outrushing his opponent since 1993 and 82-6 when going for more than 200 yards. Since he took over, he is 120-17 when scoring 25 or more points and 31-64-2 when scoring fewer than 25. He is also 111-29-1 when scoring first, including a streak of 25 wins when doing so.
The offense has struggled at times this year. They are breaking in a new quarterback and all but one of the linemen. They have an excellent group of receivers that goes five deep and an established running back.
Right tackle Duane Brown (6’5”, 290) is the only returning starter up front. He entered last season as a tight end but was moved to tackle in the second week of practice. He went on to start all 13 games. Brandon Frye (6’4”, 311) is the left tackle in his first season as a starter. He did start last year’s bowl game and limited All-American Ellis Dumervil to just two tackles. Frye is one of the strongest players on the team.
True freshman Sergio Render (6’3”, 320) is at right guard. He did enroll last January and went through spring practice. Senior Brandon Gore (6’5”, 357) replaces Render every third series.
Ryan Shuman (6’3”, 318) is at left guard after spending two years at center. Listed as a co-starter is true freshman Brandon Holland (6’4”, 325), who saw his first action of the season last week against Southern Miss after being called up from the scout team.
Danny McGrath (6’2”, 290) is the man in the middle who is responsible for making all the line calls. He started seven games last year and leads the team with 21 knockdown blocks.
Running back Brandon Ore (5’11”, 202) actually withdrew from school last spring to return home in order to rehab a shoulder injury and worked in a 7-Eleven warehouse during that time. He is coming off a 207-yard, two-touchdown performance against Southern Miss, the best of his career.
Fullbacks Jesse Allen (6’0”, 247) and Carlton Weatherford (5’10”, 230) have seen their roles as blockers and receivers increase this year because of a lack of experienced depth at tight end.
The five receivers have 66 combined starts and none have played in fewer than 31 games. Eddie Royal (5’10”, 180) is considered the strongest player, pound-for-pound, on the team and runs a 4.22 forty. He went through somewhat of a slump last year after having a big freshman season.
David Clowney (6’1”, 179) has played in 42 games and is the most experienced of the group. He has the second fasted 200-meter time in school history (21.52) and has earned All-ACC honors in track. He leads the team with 24 catches for 282 yards.
Josh Hyman (5’11”, 192) is another junior that had a down year last season after experiencing a productive freshman campaign. He has already matched his numbers from 2005 with 13 catches for 102 yards.
Josh Morgan (6’1”, 219) is the most physical of the bunch and has earned the nickname “Man Child” because of his size and ability. He has 18 catches for 245 yards.
The most physically imposing of all is Justin Harper (6’4”, 204). He ran a 4.35 forty in the spring and has 13 catches for 255 yards.
Sean Glennon (6’4”, 221) entered the season as the starter at quarterback and has held on to his spot so far. He redshirted last year after seeing some action in 2004. His experience and ability as a pocket passer is why he was named the starter.
However, the lack of good protection by the line and the athleticism displayed by freshman Ike Whitaker (6’4”, 204) has it looking more like a two way race. Whitaker saw action last week in both halves and the staff says he will get his chances this week.
Much like Clemson, Virginia Tech would like to establish the run early. Ore has started to generate a little momentum and their passing game relies heavily on play action passes.
I do expect the Hokies to take some shots down field because they have such good speed at wide receiver and Clemson is still shaky at times at the corners. However, the Tigers have shown a propensity for preventing the big but leaving things opens over the middle. That leads me to believe Tech will work more of a controlled passing game similar to what Boston College does.
Glennon is excellent when given time to throw and can thrive in such a system, but his lack of mobility has hurt them against good defenses because the line is struggling. He passed for 339 yards against Georgia Tech but also had a couple of costly turnovers.
If Clemson gets the type of pressure it generated last week, I fully expect to see much more of Whitaker. He is a little more athletic than Reggie Ball and has the added benefit of being about six inches taller.
Again, the bulk of the load is going to fall on the front four. Adams and Merling were very active last week because they got a lot of help from the guys in the middle. Jackson, Scott, McKissick, and Grant all need to control the line of scrimmage once again so the linebackers can operate in space and the ends can get up the field.
The Boston College tackles were able to do just that most of the night and Tech had no answer. They gave up four sacks and were forced into making four turnovers as the Eagles were able to get pressure all night and held them to 181 total yards.
Everyone knows about “Beamer Ball” by now, so there is no need to go into it. Tech is always very good in every aspect of specials teams. If Clemson makes many of the mistakes they have made so far this year, they will pay dearly in Blacksburg.
Punter Nick Schmitt looks more like a guard but he is very good. Last week he had punts downed at the one, two, and seven-yard lines. He is averaging 41.2 yards on 26 punts after averaging 43.2 yards last year. One thing to note is he is left-footed, meaning the ball will have a little different spin on it than what Spiller and Ford may be used to.
Kicker Brandon Pace is a two-time semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award and is on the watch list again this year. He has good leg strength but his biggest asset is his accuracy. His is 28-of-31 over the last two years with a long of 45 yards.
Jared Develli handles most of the kickoffs and has 24 touchbacks in 35 attempts.
Eddie Royal is their main return guy for punts and kickoffs but they can use nearly all of the five receivers. Royal has a 58-yards punt return for a TD this year. The Hokies are averaging just over 20 yards per kickoff return, so it will be interesting to see how they fare against a Clemson unit that has struggled.
Both teams come in with good defenses and an offensive mentality that stresses the run. It sounds like a good, old-fashioned smash mouth game just waiting to happen.
What Frank Beamer has been able to do over the last 15 or so years has been pretty impressive. His teams generally play great defense and special teams, have a good play action game that feeds off a powerful ground attack, and they make very few mistakes.
It’s not always the prettiest brand of football but it wins. He is 58-8 when getting a score from his special teams and/or defense and 12-55 when allowing more than 25 points. It is the old adage of defense wins games and offense puts people in the seats.
His team has struggled at times this year because they do not have the experience in the secondary to run as much man coverage as they would like and the offensive line is trying to establish some consistency. Essentially, his attacking style of defense and clock controlling offense have been taken away from him in some ways.
Still, they are extremely talented team with the ability to win a lot of games. They still have a lot to accomplish and play very well at home. They have a slight mental advantage because they are coming in as the underdogs and had somewhat of a ho-hum game last week.
Meanwhile, Clemson fans are giddy about the prospects of an 11-1 season after the strong showing last week. The combo of James Davis and C.J. Spiller has reached god-like status in less than a week.
Both are very deserving of praise but some of the things being said about them has gotten a little out of hand. Remember, even Superman has a weakness.
This is the biggest test for the Tigers. They are still fighting injuries and special teams mistakes, likely the two biggest reasons why they are not undefeated. How long can they continue to do so?
This is normally a game in which I would pick Tech to win and probably win rather easily. Clemson has not been able to handle prosperity very well in the past. It is the perfect setting for them to do just that with ESPN having jumped on the Tiger bandwagon, a top ten ranking after spanking Georgia Tech, etc.
However, this team has also fought through a lot of adversity and made things happen when no one thought they would. They will struggle like hell in Blacksburg and may not have the offensive performance everyone has come to expect, but they will find a way to get it done. Clemson wins 23-13 in a game that is closer than the score.