Tigers looking for D against Hokies

Clemson defense coordinator Kevin Steele says his group's dominant showing the last time it faced Virginia Tech won't have much bearing on Saturday night's Atlantic Coast Conference title game.

He better hope he's wrong.

The 21st-ranked Tigers (9-3) have rarely looked better this season on defense than they did that chilly October night in Blacksburg, Va., two months ago in a 23-3 victory over the Hokies.

Clemson takes on No. 5 Virginia Tech for the ACC championship in Charlotte, N.C. The Hokies are trying for their fifth ACC crown in eight years while the Tigers, back as Atlantic Division winners for the second time in five years, look for their first league championship since 1991.

To get it, Clemson's defense must look more like it did back on Oct. 1 at Lane Stadium than how it's been the second half of the season.

Clemson held Virginia Tech to a season low 258 yards and without a touchdown at home for the first time since 1995. That win gained national headlines and was part of the Tigers 8-0 run into the top 10.

In the last six games, though, Clemson's defense has given up more than 410 yards and 35 points a game. And it's no surprise that the Tigers have gone 3-3 during that stretch and enter the ACC championship losing its last two in blowout fashion to North Carolina State (37-13) and rival South Carolina (34-13).

''It's basically, do your job,'' Steele said of his unit's breakdowns. ''It's something that we work on and it's simple.''

Yet apparently hard to grasp at times for Clemson's defenders. Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw threw for 210 yards and ran for 107 in his seventh career start.

The Tigers are 63rd nationally in yards allowed and 92nd in the country against the run with more than 186 yards per game.

Next up comes the league's top rusher and ACC player of the year in Hokies tailback David Wilson. He was about the only one on the Virginia Tech offense who didn't struggle that first game with Clemson, gaining 123 yards on 20 carries. Wilson, though, had a critical fumble with his team ahead 3-0 and driving for more points.

Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas said an injury to his left, non-throwing shoulder in the Clemson loss kept him from too many long passes or from more straight-out QB runs. Thomas ran for just 8 yards and threw for only 125.

Thomas said his health wasn't why Virginia Tech lost. ''I would say that as a team we didn't play well enough. I definitely didn't play well enough,'' he said. ''I'm thankful we get another shot.''

Steele believes the talented Hokies offense has added confidence that comes from seven straight wins since the Clemson loss. What worked back in October won't necessarily do the trick on Saturday night. That's a message that's gotten through to the Tigers.

''We're preparing for the ACC championship,'' Clemson safety Rashard Hall said. ''So anything that's happened before then to this point is pretty much out the window.''

And that includes last weekend's awful showing against South Carolina. The Tigers were thoroughly battered through the air and on the ground in the season-ending rivalry. Shaw's first of three touchdown throws came to Bruce Ellington as two Tigers chased in close pursuit. Shaw too frequently broke free for sizeable scrambles that kept the Tigers offense off the field and made it impossible for Clemson to rally.

Clemson right tackle Landon Walker said the offense hasn't been doing its share to help out the defense, either. The Tigers were averaging nearly 500 yards and more than 40 points a game through their undefeated start. They've averaged just 228 yards and 13 points in losing the last two.

When the offense is clicking, Walker says the defense gets fired up to lock down opponents. ''It's really a game of motion and momentum and I think we haven't had that on our side the last couple of weeks,'' he said.

Steele knows why that is with his defense: Too many missed tackles and badly played coverages.

''We got to teach tackling better. We got to teach double coverage better. We just got to teach them better so they're making the plays,'' Steele said. ''They're there, but we're not making the plays. Enough said.''

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