When second-ranked Clemson heads to Blacksburg, Va., on Saturday to take on No. 12 Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium, it will face a defense that is much improved since last year’s ACC Championship Game.
In last year’s conference title game, the Tigers racked up 470 total yards in a 42-35 victory. But that was last year. The Hokies returned eight starters from that game and so far this year that experience has helped them improve significantly through the first four weeks of the season.
In 2016, Virginia Tech gave up 340.7 yards and 22.8 points per game. But now that they are a year older and year wiser, and opponents are averaging just 311.2 yards and 10.2 points per game. They rank third nationally in scoring defense and have already produced two shutouts.
Each of the Hokies’ last three opponents—Delaware, East Carolina and Old Dominion—have failed to total more than 281 yards of offense.
“They’re a handful,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Bud (Foster) does an awesome job in giving you a lot of different looks and disguises. They play a unique coverage called robber coverage. It’s unique to them, and they understand all the nuances of it.
“It’s just a big challenge all the way around.”
Virginia Tech (4-0, 0-0 ACC) is led by linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. He leads the team with 33 tackles, including 4.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and two caused fumbles. Last year, he started all 14 games and was second on the team with 106 tackles.
“He’s very active,” Swinney said. “I mean, the guy started fourteen games last year. He’s got a lot of experience. I mean, he’s big.”
Edmunds stands at 6-foot-5 and weighs 250 pounds. Middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka (6-0, 233) led the Hokies last year with 114 tackles and so far this year has 29 tackles, four tackles for loss, four quarterback pressures and two sacks.
Then there is Mook Reynolds (6-0, 191), who plays Foster’s “Robber” role in the defensive coordinator’s 4-2-5 scheme.
“You have to look for him all the time and see what he is trying to do. You have to see if he is playing safety or is he the (weakside) linebacker,” Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant said. “They do a good job disguising their coverages and disguising him.”
Reynolds is second on the team with 32 tackles and also has four tackles for loss, including a sack.
“I think their backers are an outstanding, very experienced group … 6, 54 and 49, all those guys have played a lot of football for them,” Swinney said. “They understand the scheme, and we’ve got our hands full with those guys.”
The Hokies have their hands full with Clemson (4-0, 2-0 ACC) as well. They know this is not Old Dominion, East Carolina and Delaware they are facing.
With Bryant running and throwing the ball, the Tigers are averaging 510.2 yards and 37.8 points per game. They are also averaging 272 yards per game on the ground.
“Well you’re not going to be able to get away with much of anything,” Virginia head coach Justin Fuente said. “If you make a mistake they’re going to make you pay.”
–PhotoCredit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports