By Ed McGranahan.
By Ed McGranahan
Imagine the digital meltdown if Dabo Swinney had spoken with substantially less respect of the Virginia football team.
What if, as former legendary coach Frank Howard had done, he referred to Virginia as “the white meat” on the Clemson schedule?
There was a time.
From 1955 through 1989, Clemson won the 29 games played with Virginia. When five, six, seven wins might be the max, Howard depended on Virginia for one. Maybe even took it for granted.
An immortal, irreverent line it hasn’t any pertinence to the game in Charlottesville Saturday because, as Swinney knows, there’s not a lot of tender and sweet on a football schedule these days. Duke became bowl eligible in October, for gosh sakes, by beating a top 25 team for the first time in 42 years.
Further back up the road this was one of those potholes in the Clemson schedule that seemed to grow more troubling the closer it got. This isn’t a team without some pieces that could make Clemson’s trip to Scott Stadium even more edgy than last week’s to Maryland, or “dark meat” if your choose to continue the metaphor.
If a team such as Maryland with half its starters on crutches can generate turmoil, what can be expected of one going nowhere with a 2-6 record, looking to make the season memorable with a Buster Douglas uppercut?
From 1990, when Virginia beat Clemson the first time, the series has been even, eight wins apiece and one tie. Swinney’s team won 13-3 five years ago, its last previous visit to Charlottesville, a game most reminiscent because it was obvious during pre-game that Willy Korn was not going to be throwing passes for Clemson soon if ever.
If Virginia fans can remain patient, keep from spilling red wine on their khakis and bowties, Mike London may have turned the corner. More than half the players on the depth chart are freshmen and sophomores from good recruiting class. They may not understand Virginia isn’t supposed to beat the No. 8 team in the nation.
One of statistics making the rounds in Charlottesville this week was that Virginia’s eight wins have come when holding Clemson to under 200 rushing yards. Interesting but it means nothing to this team.
However, it’s a reasonable hook to hang optimism given that while Clemson rushed for a season-high 247 at Maryland it wasn’t a
bludgeoning. Most of the yardage came off the edge because Clemson’s offensive line couldn’t move Maryland off the ball.
And if you’ll forgive a moment of channeling Kevin Steele logic, back out the 394 rushing yards from last week’s game with Georgia Tech, which averages 100 more than anybody else in the ACC, Virginia allowed an average 153 first seven games.
The template for defending Clemson has become quite simple in broad strokes. Keep the big plays to a minimum. Do not allow Sammy Watkins behind the secondary or Martavis Bryant over the top. Read Tajh Boyd’s eyes because chances are he’ll tell you where the ball is going. And hit him often.
Patience could be its own reward. Clemson has fewer red zone touchdowns than Duke (25-24). And Clemson has committed 13 turnovers.
Still too many big plays, but defense makes Clemson a palatable top 10. Clemson shares the ACC lead for creating turnovers, leads in sacks and third-down efficiency and is second in the red zone.
Virginia would seem willing to test the secondary if running back Kevin Parks can keep the pass rush off David Watford’s butt. Last week Watford threw 61 passes in the Georgia Tech game and broke Matt Schaub’s school record with 43 completions.
With Clemson’s pass rush and nose for the ball, it’s a recipe for a big day for somebody.
In this world of 15 teams plus Notre Dame, the ACC schedule doesn’t put Clemson and Virginia on the same field for seven years after Saturday. A big man with an enormous appetite, Frank Howard wouldn’t be happy without a little white meat every season.
Just hope Virginia doesn’t beat the stuffing out of Clemson and trigger a meltdown.