Virginia at No. 1 Clemson, 8 p.m., Memorial Stadium, Clemson, ACCN
As top-ranked Clemson gets set to host Virginia tonight at Death Valley, the Cavaliers are going to be anxious to put on a better showing against the Tigers than they did the last time the two met.
Of course, the last meeting was in the 2019 ACC Championship Game, a game in which Clemson got an ACC Championship Game record four touchdown passes from Trevor Lawrence as he threw for 302 yards on 16-of-22 passing with no interceptions.
The end result was a 62-17 Clemson victory.
“Clemson’s really explosive [and] dynamic on the perimeter,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said to the media, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Getting the ball in space and letting their recruits and their athletes have success has been a great model for them not only at quarterback, not only a running back but also wide receivers. So, they have a really good formula that’s worked well for them. We didn’t tackle well in that game.”
The Cavaliers (1-0, 1-0 ACC) hope to make amends in Saturday’s rematch. They used whatever time they could after returning to campus to get better on defense, as they returned nine starters from last year’s Coastal Division Championship team.
They got off to a good start last week, intercepting Duke five times in a 38-20 victory and forcing seven turnovers overall. Former Clemson backup quarterback Chase Brice, who transferred to Duke in the spring, was picked off four times.
Lawrence said he has texted with Brice a little this week about the Cavaliers and he hopes to get a little more information from him when they speak later on. They try to talk on the phone at least a couple of times a month.
As for the Cavaliers defense, Lawrence is well aware of what they did to the Blue Devils.
“Yeah, I watched the tape and that is obviously the first game they played this year, but even just all the games from last year, too, Virginia does a really good job. They stay disciplined,” he said. “They don’t really have many guys out of place. You can tell they are really well coached, and they do a really good job for sure.”
So far, through the first two games, Lawrence has been very efficient. Actually, he is playing better than he ever has. After the first two weeks, the junior has completed 30-of-37 passes for 519 yards and four touchdowns and more importantly no interceptions. He is completing 81.1 percent of his passes.
In the Tigers’ win over The Citadel on Sept. 19, Lawrence completed 8-of-9 passes for 168 yards and three touchdowns, while also running for another score. The only incompletion was a drop from wide receiver Amari Rodgers on his first pass of the game.
Dating back to last year, Lawrence has now thrown 276 consecutive passes without an interception, the third longest streak in ACC history.
“I think the biggest thing is focusing on us and our game plan and that is staying aggressive. But at the same time, Virginia does a good job of changing up coverages,” the Clemson quarterback said. “They are really disciplined. They don’t give you too much. So, just take what they give you, but also knowing when to take your shots and when to push the ball down the field is really important.”
Trevor Lawrence vs. Virginia’s secondary: As noted above, Virginia recorded five interceptions in last week’s win over Duke. The Cavaliers are a very opportunistic defense, which they create with pressure and schemes. The Blue Devils did throw for 286 yards last week and their style of play can open up opportunities for big plays down the field. Last year, Lawrence took advantage of those opportunities, throwing for 302 yards and four touchdowns on 16-of-22 passing with no interceptions. In fact, Lawrence has not thrown an interception in his last 10 games, dating back to last season. He has now thrown 276 consecutive passes without an interception, the third longest streak in ACC history.
Virginia’s Lavel Davis vs. Clemson’s secondary: Davis, a freshman receiver, stands at 6-foot-7 and weighs 210 pounds. He is one of, if not the tallest wide receiver in the country. Clemson has no one taller than 6-foot-3 on its back seven and that is freshman linebacker Trenton Simpson. Clemson will try to jam Davis at the start of his route and will try to be physical with him. The Tigers will almost assuredly put a safety over the top as well, especially when the Cavaliers get in the red zone. Duke tried all of those things, but Davis still caught four passes for 101 yards and two touchdowns. Clemson does not have anyone in the secondary taller than 6-foot-1, which could be an issue for the Tigers.
Brent Venables vs. Virginia offensive coordinator Robert Anae: Earlier this week, Dabo Swinney explained how displeased Venables was with the performance of his defense in last year’s ACC Championship Game. Anae devised a scheme that gave his offense an opportunity to succeed against a Clemson defense that was getting off the field after three plays nearly 80 percent of the time. Virginia did better than anyone last year when it came to converting on third down against the Tigers. The Cavaliers were 10-of-18 on third down that night in Charlotte, the only team the entire season to convert better than 41-percent of his third downs on the Tigers’ defense. Getting off the field has been an emphasis all week for Venables, he has challenged his defense, and himself, to put on a better performance than they showed in last year’s conference title game. In case you are wondering, Virginia was 6-of-17 (35.3 percent) on third downs against Duke last week.
Bottom line: Under Bronco Mendenhall, Virginia has turned the corner and appears to have a program that will consistently contend for ACC Championships and upper level bowl games for years to come. However, to take the next step, Mendenhall knows his program has to prove it can compete with a team such as Clemson. A team that plays at a high level and does it with some of the best athletes and players in the country. Last year’s ACC Championship Game gave Mendenhall an opportunity to show his players how far they still have to go despite playing well in the Orange Bowl against Florida. Though it did not play its best, Clemson still beat the Cavs by 45 points. I expect Virginia to be more competitive on Saturday and keep things interesting for a while. However, Clemson still has too much overall depth, speed and athleticism for Virginia to keep up.
Prediction: Clemson 49, Virginia 17
–Clemson and Virginia Athletic Communications contributed to this story
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