CHARLOTTE – ACC Network analyst EJ Manuel says Clemson is a national power, and not only the ACC’s premier program, as the third-ranked Tigers get ready to play for their fifth straight conference championship Saturday against No. 23 Virginia.
“It’s going to be a good game,” Manuel said to reporters Friday. “Obviously I think Clemson is a powerhouse in the country and not just the ACC. So, I’m sure Coach Bronco (Mendenhall) is definitely making sure his team is ready to go, and I think UVA is going to look at it as an opportunity to kind of get some more respect for themselves as a program.”
While Clemson’s offense generates a lot of buzz with its wealth of star power, Manuel — a former Florida State and NFL quarterback — pointed to Brent Venables’ defense as a fundamental reason for the Tigers’ success.
“I think so many times people harp on the offense because they’re the ones putting up the numbers and scoring touchdowns and pretty points,” Manuel said. “But I think at the end of the day, the defense is what gives that offense the field. They give them more opportunities with the ball. They give them shorter fields, so it’s easier to score. I just think the DNA of Coach Venables as their defensive coordinator … I played against him when I was in college and they weren’t necessarily the Clemson they are now, but I know how they operate and you see it week in and week out. Tough, mean and just gap sound, they’re smart, nobody’s trying to be a hero – they play complementary football, and I think that’s the best thing that you can say about Clemson.”
One of the keys to the Tigers beating the Cavaliers will be containing Virginia star quarterback Bryce Perkins, the ACC’s second-leading passer (2,949 yards) who has thrown for 16 touchdowns to go with 11 rushing touchdowns and 687 yards on the ground.
“I would assume they’re going to probably spy him with one or two guys,” Manuel said. “I know a guy like Isaiah Simmons – freak athlete, speed, mentally tough — he’s always in the right spot to make a play. So, I wouldn’t be shocked if they have him spy Bryce just in case he breaks out of the pocket.
“Surprisingly, when you watch the (Virginia vs.) Virginia Tech game, they didn’t really key in on his running ability and that’s why he was able to get so many yards on the ground. But I think if Clemson says hey, we can stop this guy, at least cut his numbers in half on the ground, we have a really good shot to beat them. So if they can hold him under 50 yards rushing, I think they’ll have a really good chance.”
Clemson (12-0, 8-0 ACC) enters Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. game as a 28.5-point favorite over Virginia (9-3, 6-2).
In order for the Cavs to be competitive after the contest kicks off at Bank of America Stadium, Manuel believes the Tigers will have to help their opponent out by coughing up the ball.
“I think if they can create turnovers early in the game, they’ll have a better shot of keeping it close,” he said. “I think Clemson feeds off of that kind of stuff. They feed off that momentum. They’re going to have a ton of fans here. They’re not too far from Clemson, South Carolina. So that big momentum, if it gets on their side early, it might be a little tough for UVA. But I’m sure their fans are going to pack this thing out too. They’re not too far from Charlottesville, too. So, if they can create turnovers early and limit their own turnovers, I think the game will be a little tighter in the first half than it should be.”
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