While some people think second-ranked Clemson will walk into Lane Stadium tonight in Blacksburg, Va., take the win and then head back to Clemson like there will be no challenge from No. 12 Virginia Tech, the Tigers don’t believe it will be that easy.
“We played them last year in the ACC Championship game, and we all know how that game went,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “It was a down-to-the-wire game. I’ve got a lot of respect for their team and the talent on their team.”
The Tigers (4-0, 2-0 ACC) should have a lot of respect. Down seven points at the time, the Hokies were driving in the final minute and were deep in Clemson territory when cornerback Cordrea Tankersley picked of Jerrod Evans’ fourth down pass to preserve the 42-35 victory.
After the game, Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said if the Hokies (4-0, 0-0 ACC) had scored he was going to go for two points and try to win the game. This time around the Tigers don’t want to be in that situation, that’s why the mantra this week was the same as it was when they went to Louisville two weeks ago and beat the Cardinals.
“I’m sure they felt like they had a chance to win at the end last year and they are a good team, but our mindset is to play a complete four-quarter game and leave no doubt,” Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel said.
Clemson is going to have to play a complete game to leave no doubt. The Hokies are playing with a lot of confidence at the moment thanks to a season-opening win over No. 23 West Virginia and then three blowout victories over Delaware, East Carolina and Old Dominion.
“It’s a big challenge going up to Virginia Tech. They’re a heck of a football team,” Swinney said. “They are very well coached. They’re playing with a lot of physicality. You can tell that they have a great belief in what they’re doing, and they’re well coached on both sides of the ball.
“They use good schemes…they’ll challenge you in a lot of different ways.”
One way the Hokies will try to challenge Clemson is with freshman quarterback Josh Jackson, who leads the ACC in passing efficiency with a 177.4 rating. He has thrown 11 touchdowns to one interception in the first four weeks of the season.
His top target is wide receiver Cam Phillips who leads the country with 523 yards. He has caught 34 of Jackson’s 75 completions and has scored five touchdowns, which leads all ACC receivers. He is averaging 130.8 yards per game.
“Their quarterback Josh Jackson is very impressive,” Swinney said. “He’s making good decisions and taking care of the ball. He’s making plays with his legs.
“Cam Phillips is leading our league in receiving. They do a great job of getting him the ball in a lot of different ways. They have a physical mindset when it comes to running the football. That’s what they want to do…here comes all the play actions, the max protections and shots downfield.”
Defensively, Swinney described Virginia Tech as a handful. Led by defensive coordinator Bud Foster, the Hokies will try to confuse quarterback Kelly Bryant with different looks and coverages. He will bring exotic blitzes and pressures that Bryant has not seen.
Virginia Tech ranks second in the ACC in scoring defense, giving up just 10.2 per game.
“Bud does an awesome job in giving you a lot of different looks and disguises,” Swinney said. “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.”
Then comes special teams, where again the Hokies are solid. Though he is struggling at the moment, kicker Joey Slye is one of the best kickers in the conference, while punter Oscar Bradburn is averaging 44.0 yards per punt.
In the return game, punt returner Greg Stroman is second in the league averaging 11.6 yards per return, including a 61-yard return he took for a touchdown. Let’s not forget what the Hokies did to Clemson last year.
“On special teams, they had the big fake punt on us last year, which was one of the big plays of the game,” Swinney said. “Virginia Tech has always been a program that’s really prided themselves on special teams, and that’s an area that we just have to do a great job in. It could be the difference in the game.
“They’re just a complete football team when I look at them. They’ve got the mindset that you need. They’ve got good schematics on both sides, they’re well coached and they’ve got good people. This will be a heck of a matchup, and obviously, it’s a great place to play a game, so we’re looking forward to that. It’s been a while since we’ve been up there (2011). I’ve got a lot of respect for the Virginia Tech people and how they support their team, and I look forward to being a part of it.”