Photo by Trevor Groves

Preview and Prediction for #3 Clemson vs #23 Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game

#3 Clemson looks to secure its second consecutive College Football Playoff berth by winning a record 16th ACC Title and its first back-to-back titles in 28 years!

Photo by Trevor Groves

Welcome to the ACC Championship edition of What We Are Hearing!

With a chaotic week, beginning with the NCAA Sweet 16 soccer game, a basketball game Wednesday night and having to drive to Orlando, I decided to incorporate the South Carolina grades into the WWAH.

That Palmetto Bowl was one for the ages, folks, and one we’ll all be talking about for years to come. It ranks right up there with the 63-17 massacre in Columbia back in 2003—I was fortunate enough to attend that one as well! That outcome was perhaps more unexpected, but it doesn’t make it any more impressive than what we witnessed on Saturday in Death Valley. In fact, the 56-7 win over the Gamecocks has replaced the 63-17 win as the largest margin of victory by an ACC over an SEC team in history! That’s over 60 years of ACC vs. SEC matchups, boys and girls. My WWAH score prediction last week was half tongue-in-cheek. I was expecting a Clemson blowout and thought it would be poetic to predict another 63-17 score, but little did I know the Tigers would beat that margin by 3 points! The Tigers led 35-10 at halftime of the 2003 game, and they were up 35-0 at the half on Saturday.

It was an absolutely electric atmosphere in Death Valley on Saturday night—similar to the Louisville game, but there’s always a little excitement in the air when it’s the Gamecocks on the sideline and the Clemson faithful can smell blood. This was the first time the Palmetto Bowl had that feel in quite some time. Two years ago, it was a noon kickoff and the Tigers had lost 5 straight to the Gamecocks. Deshaun Watson was starting the game on a torn ACL, so no one knew what to expect. Watson wrote a great chapter in Death Valley lore that day and began a Clemson legend, but it was a much more uneasy feeling going into the game. Last year the game was in Columbia, of course, and while we all felt confident that Clemson had the better team, there was the fear in the back of our minds that, on the road, the Gamecocks could upset the Tigers’ College Football Playoff and National Championship bid. This year, however, every fan in the stadium knew what he/she was in store for, and the Tigers did not disappoint. It didn’t take long for the rout to be on. The only hiccup was a blocked field goal on the Tigers’ opening possession, but after 4 consecutive three-and-outs by the defense and 3 consecutive touchdowns by the offense, the game was over by the 2nd quarter. As my math teacher would always say to me as I handed him my exam, “This one will be a pleasure to grade.”

 

OFFENSE: A+

Player of the game: Everyone with a winning grade

The offense was clicking on all cylinders on Saturday, without a doubt. They rolled up 622 total yards, which is seventh-best in school history. Just two week earlier in their previous game in Death Valley, the offense put up a sixth-best 630 yards, albeit in a losing effort. The Tigers were an outstanding 10 of 15 on 3rd down and 2 of 2 on 4th down. They were 7 of 8 in the red zone with 7 touchdowns. For the second game in a row, the Tigers had great balance on offense, with 250 yards rushing and 372 yards passing. They ran 89 offensive plays—9 more than their target of 80.

Watson was as sharp as I’ve seen him all year. He looked like the Watson of the National Championship Game, throwing darts all over the field. He had 4 touchdown passes in the first half alone and should have had at least one more. Two of his best passes all night were dropped touchdowns. One of them hit Deon Cain in the facemask! All told, Watson tied his Clemson and ACC record of 6 touchdown passes that he set in his first career start against North Carolina. He was 26-32 for 347 yards, and he did all that in about two and a half quarters! His only blemish was an interception that Leggett got a hand on but was unable to haul in, and the defender caught the deflected pass.

Mike Williams was an unstoppable force. It looked like Dez Bryant was playing against high school kids at times, as #7 was carrying Gamecock defenders into the endzone with him. Literally the only way the Gamecocks were able to stop him was by committing pass interference. Williams had 3 touchdown catches in the first half alone, becoming the first Clemson player in history with 3 touchdown catches against the Gamecocks! He finished with 6 catches for 100 yards even. I think the South Carolina native wanted to make a lasting impression in his final game in Death Valley and final game against the Gamecocks, and he did just that!

Artavis Scott had another big game, with 8 catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. He has really come on over the last few games, and I think the play-calling has had a lot to do with that. The coaches are definitely making more of an effort to incorporate Scott into the offense with the short screens and sweeps. Senior Jordan Leggett also had a nice farewell with 3 catches for 58 yards and a touchdown.

The Wayne Train continues to run with a full head of steam, rushing for 112 yards and a touchdown on 5.9 yards per carry. It was his second consecutive 100-yard rushing game after going several games without one. He extended his Clemson career 100-yard rushing game record to 17 games.

C.J. Fuller, who is now the #2 running back, also had a nice game with 46 yards on 7 carries. Fuller also displayed his good hands on an 18-yard touchdown catch on a wheel route to the corner of the endzone. Feaster ran for 36 yards on 6 carries, and Dye ran for 23 on 5 carries.

The offensive line not only did a good job in run blocking, but they only allowed one sack all night, and that was on Schuessler. True freshmen tackles Sean Pollard and Tremayne Anchrum continue to impress.

Even Kelly Bryant was able to get in on the act with a rushing touchdown on 3rd down late in the game.

 

DEFENSE: A+

Player of the game: Ben Boulware

It’s hard to play much better than the defense has over the past two games—allowing just one touchdown per. I think they took that Pittsburgh loss personally. The Gamecocks scored 44 points against Western Carolina in their previous game, but the Tigers would have none of it. They forced 4 consecutive three-and-outs to start the game, and the Gamecocks were unable to cross the 50 until nearly halftime. The Tigers allowed just 218 yards of total offense—107 passing and 111 rushing. They held the Gamecocks to 4 of 13 on 3rd down and 0 for 2 on 4th down. The Gamecocks did not run a single play in the red zone. The Tigers were able to rattle freshman QB Jake Bentley early and often, eventually chasing him out of the game for backup Brandon McIlwain. Venables and the defense seemed to be ahead of the Gamecocks all night long, and Jadar Johnson made a brilliant over-the-shoulder interception early in the game after baiting Bentley into the throw to the tight end. The Tigers recorded 8 tackles-for-loss and 3 sacks, including 2 by senior South Carolina native Ben Boulware, who had some choice words for South Carolina fans following the game (see below). True freshman and ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Dexter Lawrence had the other sack for the Tigers. The only score of the game surrendered by the Tigers came on a trick play.

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SPECIAL TEAMS: B

Player of the game: Chad Smith

Obviously, the biggest disappointment on special teams was the blocked field goal on Huegel’s only attempt, which happened to come on the Tigers’ opening possession. It looked like Huegel just hit it low—something he has been guilty of in the past. He did make all of his PAT’s, however. The coverage unit did a good job on Deebo Samuels, one of the best return men in the nation. He averaged less than 20 yards on his 6 kickoff returns, and Huegel had 2 touchbacks. Huegel averaged 37 yards on his 2 punts, landing one inside the 20 and another inside the 10, but the punt unit was unable to keep the latter out of the endzone. Artavis did a good job in the punt return game. In fact, he had a career-long 28-yard return in the game. With the game well in hand, the coaches were able to get Ray-Ray back in the saddle on punt returns, and he secured the catch, but you won’t see Ray-Ray return a punt against VT unless we see a similar situation arise. Finally, the punt coverage unit did a fine job sniffing out the fake in the first quarter, and Chad Smith made the big tackle short of the line to make.

What a difference a couple of weeks can make! It was just a special night in Death Valley, beginning with the final run down The Hill by the seniors and graduating juniors. I thought it was very neat for Dabo to have them make their entrance separately after the rest of the team. I could see that becoming a new tradition. How fitting, too, that Williams, Scott, Leggett and Gallman all scored touchdowns in likely their final game in Death Valley!

Before I dive into the ACC Championship Game, I just want to remind you to check the Recruiting Radar Screen forum regularly for the latest updates on the recruiting front. The big breaking news we reported on Monday night in Gary’s Recruiting Radar was that 5-star DE Xavier Thomas from Florence has decided to transfer to IMG Academy in Florida for his final season. That has rightfully raised a lot of eyebrows, as Clemson already has a 2018 commit at IMG in Mike Jones, Jr., and the move south should insulate Thomas from a lot of the outside noise and pressure that comes from both fan bases inside the state. Thomas grew up a Gamecock fan, but we believe the lopsided outcome on Saturday and the Orange Carpet treatment Thomas received had to make a significant impact on him. Stay tuned, as we continue to monitor his recruitment!

On to the ACC Championship Game….

 

MISCELLANEOUS

Clemson leads the all-time series 20-12-1. Clemson won the first meeting 17-5 in 1900, Heisman's first year as Clemson Head Coach. That game was played in Charlotte, where the two teams played in the 2011 ACC Championship Game. Clemson defeated VT 23-3 in Blacksburg in 2011, ending a 5-game, 22-year drought against the Hokies, and beat them 38-10 in the ACC Championship Game. It is the only time Clemson has ever beaten the same team twice in one season. The Tigers have now won 3 straight against VT, with the lastest meeting coming in 2012. They have outscored the Hokies 99-30 in the last 3 meetings....Frank Beamer was 5-6 vs Clemson. He was 2-2 in Death Valley and 2-3 in Lane Stadium....Clemson alum and Tight Ends Coach Danny Pearman coached under Frank Beamer for 8 seasons from 1998 to 2005, including the 1999 season in which the Hokies beat Clemson and went 11-1, losing only to Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game.....

Dabo's ACC Championship Press Conference:

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Part 2:

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CLEMSON STATUS

The Tigers are definitely peaking at the right time offensively. The running game has been as good in the last two games as it has been all season—they have rushed for 254 yards and 250 yards in the last two outings. I attribute that to the offensive line doing a better job finishing blocks, but I also think both Gallman and Watson are running with a reckless abandon we didn’t see early in the season. Perhaps they knew they would need to save some in the tank for the home stretch. Whatever it is, it seems to be working. The play calling also probably has something to do with the improvement. I think the tempo has been better, and they are doing a better job stretching defenses horizontally as well as vertically—in particular, they have been incorporating more of Artavis Scott in the run-pass-option screens and jet sweeps, and I think that was really effective in getting Wake and South Carolina on their heels.

Interestingly enough, the Tigers’ offense through 12 games has been better than last year’s numbers in a lot of areas, despite the contrary narrative we have heard all season. They have averaged 6 more yards and 2 more points per game than last year. Everyone has been worried about Gallman’s rushing numbers all season, but he has averaged 5.3 yards per carry compared to 5.4 yards per carry last year. He also has 14 TD’s already compared to only 13 last season with 3 extra games. He needs just 3 more touchdowns to tie James Davis’s single-season rushing touchdown record of 17. What about Watson? Clearly, he’s not as good as last season right? Not so fast! He has 88 yards more total offense than he had through 12 games last season and 2 more touchdowns. His completion percentage is down slightly, but he has been red-hot lately, completing 72% of his passes over the last 7 games. The biggest difference is the interceptions—he has 4 more this season compared to the first 12 games last season—but a few of those interceptions resulted from deflected passes or poor routes by the receivers.

The moral of all this is that Watson is still alive and well in the Heisman race in my opinion. A lot of people still like Lamar Jackson and his eye-popping numbers that he accumulated against terrible teams, but there are those who cannot see their way clear to handing the Heisman to a quarterback who lost 2 of his last 3 games and looked bad doing it. That segment is just dying for another vessel to put their hope in. I think if Watson can go on prime-time national television and put up huge numbers like he has the past 3 games—while Lamar Jackson is home trying on Heisman suits—things could get very interesting in the Heisman race. People will start to look at the numbers and realize Watson is the same QB they fell in love with last year. They will realize that in the ONLY 2 games he started, finished and lost in his career, he put forth incredible performances in both. He was 52-70 for 580 yards against Pitt. That’s an ACC record. He tied his own ACC record of 6 touchdown passes against arch-rival South Carolina last week. He is a flat-out winner, and Heisman voters like flat-out winners.

The Tigers are #12 in total offense (508.7 yards/game), #5 in passing offense (336.3 yards/game), #71 in rushing offense (172.3 yards/game) and #17 in scoring offense (40.0 points/game).

Defensively, it also feels like the Tigers are peaking. They’ve allowed just 20 points in the last two games after the Pitt debacle, and they are playing with an edge that I don’t think I’ve seen since last season. The Tigers are #8 in total defense (307.9 yards/game), #12 in pass defense (180.2 yards/game), #25 in rush defense (127.8 yards/game) and #8 in scoring defense (17.0 points/game).

As I reported on Wednesday night, Richard Yeargin will not be playing on Saturday due to his knee injury. Dabo was hopeful that he would be able to go, but he will sit this one out. Fortunately, the Tigers have a nice rotation at defensive end with Wilkins, Ferrell and Bryant. Dabo told me the biggest difference between this year and last year is the competitive depth they have on the defense now. He said they were really lucky to not suffer any serious injuries until Shaq went down in the Orange Bowl, and by then Austin Bryant was ready to step up. Dabo said that if Shaq had been injured early in the season, they would have been in a lot of trouble.

Finally, in case you missed it, 9 Tigers were named first-team All-ACC this week—5 on offense and 4 on defense. Wow! I can remember the days when only Florida State was capable of something like that. The Tigers had a total of 14 selected on the first two teams, a new Clemson record. They had 15 on the three teams, which was second to last year’s 17.

 

VIRGINIA TECH SYNOPSIS

The Hokies are somewhat of a conundrum, as they have been very inconsistent this season. At times, they have resembled a top-10 team, such as the first half against Tennessee or the blowout win over UNC in Chapel Hill. At other times, they have played very poorly, losing by two touchdowns to Syracuse and more recently to Georgia Tech. They were down 17 points at Notre Dame a couple of weeks ago before rallying to win a close game. However, the Hokies have some talent, and if they bring their A game for 4 quarters, they are a tough team to beat.

Head Coach Justin Fuente, of course, is in his first year taking over for Virginia Tech Legend Frank Beamer. Fuente was one of the hottest names in coaching last year because of what he did with the Memphis program. Many of you may recall that Dabo interviewed Fuente for the Offensive Coordinator position after the 2010 season. It came down to Chad Morris and Fuente, and Dabo went with the former but has stayed in touch with Fuente ever since. Fuente first caught Dabo’s attention when he was on the TCU staff in 2009, and the Horned Frogs, led by QB Andy Dalton, escaped Death Valley with a come-from-behind win in the rain and went on to win the Rose Bowl.

Fuente was just named ACC Coach of the Year and has done a remarkable job taking over for the legendary VT coach and integrating his imaginative offense in such a short period of time—especially given how conservative the offense was prior to his arrival. You can see how the Hokies’ offense has evolved and developed over the course of the season. The Hokies’ offense is the most diverse the Tigers will have faced all season. They run a power spread with some triple-option principles mixed in.

It all starts with junior QB Jerod Evans, the JUCO transfer who has had a sensational first year at Virginia Tech. Fuente coached NFL First-Round Draft Pick QB Paxton Lynch while he was at Memphis, and he recruited Evans while he was there as well. Evans followed Fuente to Virginia Tech and might be the most underrated quarterback in the nation. He’s completed 63.8% of his passes for 3045 yards and 26 touchdowns against only 5 interceptions. Deshaun Watson has nearly 3 times as many interceptions this season. Evans also has 8 rushing touchdowns and is just 2 touchdowns short of Watson’s total. Evans has rushed for 713 yards on 4.4 yards per carry. He’s not a quick-twitch speedster like Lamar Jackson, but he can be very difficult for defenses to bring to the ground. He’s reminiscent of NC State’s transfer quarterback last year, Jacoby Brissett, and I think we all remember the problems he posed for the defense. It was easily the defense’s worst performance of the season.

The next name that jumps off the stat sheet for the Hokies is their behemoth wide receiver, Bucky Hodges. He is often mischaracterized as a tight end—even by the Mackey Award people, who had him among their semifinalists this year after making Finalist last year—but the Hokies line Hodges up at WR more often than not. Whatever you want to call him, he’s a matchup nightmare, even for the Tigers. When asked how they can simulate a 6’7” wide receiver in practice, Venables replied, “You can’t.” The Clemson secondary is going to be put to the test by Hodges, so hopefully they will be ready for the challenge.

As if Hodges isn’t enough, the Hokies can also throw Isaiah Ford at you, another big-time WR. Ford and Hodges are #1 and #3 on the VT career TD reception list, and Ford needs just 63 yards to become the all-time VT reception yard leader. Hodges and Ford each have 7 TD’s on the season.

A guy who doesn’t get the credit he probably deserves is Cam Phillips, a 6’0” and 199-pound slot receiver who is second on the team in both receptions and reception yards. He has 4 TD’s on the season.

Finally, look out for the little keg of dynamite, Sam Rogers. He doesn’t impress with his physical stature, but he sure does with his play on the field. He’s a throw-back type of a player who is just blue-collar and beats you with pure grit and guts. He’s also deceptively quick, and if he catches a linebacker or DB in a moment of hesitancy, he can run around him or over him in a heartbeat. Fuente likes to use Rogers in all kinds of creative ways—in fact, he has thrown, caught and rushed for touchdowns this season. He is also coming off a career game against rival UVA in which he rushed for over 100 yards and 2 touchdowns. If you saw Venables’s eyes light up when he spoke about Rogers, you’d realize that this guy commands respect.

The Hokies are #38 in total offense (453.4 yards/game), #50 in rushing offense (191.8 yards/game), #39 in passing offense (261.6 yards/game) and #35 in scoring offense (35.0 points/game).

Defensively, it all starts with the guru, Bud Foster. He is one of the stalwarts of college football, and Venables called Foster the “Dick LeBeau of college football.” That’s high praise coming from BV. Foster runs a traditional 4-3 front and loves to bring pressure. The Tigers’ offensive line, however, is one of the best in the nation in pass protection, allowing just 1.17 sacks per game, which is #16 in the nation. The Hokies are not consistently one of the best pass-rushing teams in the country. They average just 2.17 sacks per game, but they have shown flashes. They had 8 sacks in the Miami game alone! However, getting past a sieve of a Miami O-Line to sack a slow-moving Brad Kaaya, who has a penchant for staying in the pocket too long, is quite different from sacking Watson. It should be a very interesting chess match between Foster and Tony Elliott as the game unfolds. Remember, Foster saw this Morris-descended offense twice in 2011 and also in 2012, so he will have a plan of attack in store for the Tigers. The only question is whether it will be enough. The Tigers scored 38 points in each of their last two meetings with the Hokies.

The leader of the defense for VT is undoubtedly senior DE Ken Ekanem. He leads the team with 6.5 sacks on the season. Another beast to watch on the defensive line is senior DT Woody Baron. He leads the team with 17.5 tackles-for-loss on the season and might be the Hokies’ best NFL prospect on defense. Linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka is a disruptive force from his linebacker position, and he has 2 interceptions to go along with his team-high 102 tackles. Last but not least, Tremaine Edmunds is a heck of an athlete, and Foster loves to blitz him from his rover safety position. He has 17 TFL’s and 4.5 sacks on the season.

The Hokies are #19 in total defense (332.2 yards/game), #32 in rush defense (145.8 yards/game), #17 in pass defense (186.4 yards/game) and #20 in scoring defense (21.1 points/game).

Finally, our friends at the VTZone told us that starting DB Greg Stroman will play Saturday night. He had been out with an ankle injury since the first half of the Duke game. It will be interesting to see how that ankle holds up against WRU.

 

PREDICTION

A key matchup could be the solid VT secondary, ranked #17 in pass defense, against Watson and the Tigers' pass offense, ranked #5 in the nation. Another key for the Tigers will be getting off to a fast start offensively and demoralizing the Hokies before they start to believe they have a chance. We have seen the Hokies fold up the tent at times this season when the breaks are going against them. However, they did rally back from a 17-point deficit to beat Notre Dame a couple of weeks ago. The Tigers have outscored opponents 152-20 in the first quarter this season, and in the last two games it’s 42-0! If they can repeat the starts they’ve had in the last two games—with touchdowns and three-and-outs—the Tigers can put this thing away early. But if the Tigers revert back to the sloppy play we’ve seen in several other games, it could turn into yet another one-possession nail-biter.

I don’t see that happening. This Clemson team is as dialed in as I have seen them. It sounds like a cliché, but I believe that Pittsburgh loss was truly a blessing in disguise and just what the doctor ordered to bring this team back to reality. When they put it all together and don’t turn the ball over, the game is over by halftime, and that’s exactly what they’ve done the past two weeks since the Pitt loss. I think this team is on a mission, and they can smell the finish line.

Clemson wins its first back-to-back ACC Championships in 28 years and breaks the tie with Florida State for most ACC Titles. The Prowl toward a 16th ACC Title in ’16 concludes! The Prowl toward a repeat appearance in the College Football Playoff and a second National Championship continues…..

 

CLEMSON 41   Virginia Tech 20

 

 

Photo by Trevor Groves

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