While the paths of these two teams seem headed in different directions, the outcome of this game will almost assuredly have major implications both nationally and in the ACC race.
Here are my 5 Keys to Crushing the Cavaliers.
1. Patience with the Running Game
Clemson is averaging a modest 5.1 yards per rush on the year while only rushing 17 times a game at the running back position. Because Clemson has fallen behind at Texas A&M and at Florida State, the coaching staff all but abandoned the running game in the 2nd half of those two games.
Virginia is a very patient and methodical team, both offensively and defensively. The running lanes will be there Thursday night. Clemson rushed for almost 200 yards last year against the Cavaliers. While the Cavs are only giving up 96 yards per game on the ground, they also have not played any quality opponents.
Virginia is also without their top end in Chris Canty, lost for the season last week. "We have to do some things differently with our line up to make sure our production doesn't fall off", Virginia coach Al Groh said Monday. "Because we had a terrific football playmaker, and now we have lost him and it means we will have to alter some schemes."
The Cavaliers' scheme is such that they are not going to let Clemson beat them through the air with the deep ball. Therefore, the running game should be available for Clemson in small chunks. It is imperative that the offensive coaches establish that running game early and stick to it as the game progresses. Even more important will be sticking to the run even if the Tigers fall behind, obviously something that has been hard for the offensive coaches to do the past two weeks. With a little patience Thursday night, Clemson could quietly have the best game of the year rushing the football.
2. Haggle Hagans
The game plan against FSU was sound…make Chris Rix beat you. Problem was, Rix got hurt and Wyatt Sexton came in and did a nice job. But a similar game plan would be just as effective Thursday night. Somehow, someway, Clemson must force the ball out of the hands of the Cavalier running backs and into the hands of the inexperienced Hagans.
Wali Lundy (99.8 yards per game) Michael Johnson (69 yards per game) and Alvin Pearman (35 yards per game) are a formidable trio. Add the great running game of the Cavaliers with the conservative passing attack to tight end Heath Miller (10 catches for 153 yards) and you have the essence of the Virginia offensive game plan.
The Clemson defense was very good in the first half against the run versus Flordia State before tiring out late in the game. A similar effort (for 60 minutes) is going to be needed Thursday night to force Hagans to do things he is not comfortable doing.
Hagans has completed 76% of his passes, but it is doubtful that he can do that versus the Clemson secondary. But things have been so easy for Hagans, partly due to the quality of competition, that he needs his confidence rattled a little bit. Expect plenty of blitzes by Clemson that will attempt to stop the run and/or put pressure on Hagans. The Cavalier wide receivers are unremarkable at best, but keep a close eye on Heath Miller. If he can have the kind of game he had last year in Clemson as a safety valve and procession receiver, it will be a long night for Clemson.
|RB Duane Coleman is back to 100% and will start Thursday night against the Cavaliers.|
3. Stop The Turnovers Part III
I might as well just copy and paste this key each week from now until the turnovers stop coming in droves. Clemson is now an astonishing -12 in the turnover category this year, and Bowden has said he hopes the worm will eventually turn. "It's got to eventually turn, it can't get any worse," Bowden said Monday.
Can it turn Thursday night? The good news is that the Tiger offense is due a couple of good breaks and one would think the dropped passes for interception will disappear. The problem on the defensive side for Clemson is that Virginia rarely self destructs. The Cavaliers have only turned the ball over 1 time, an interception. The Cavs have fumbled the ball 4 times, but have recovered each of them.
Like Bowden said, the worm will eventually turn. Will Clemson's crazy turnover worm turn around and leave us alone Thursday night? And will the Clemson defense finally find a way to get the ball in their hands on a big play? Stay tuned to the critical answer Thursday night.
4. A Much Needed Break
Normally, I'm not a big fan of worrying about time of possession. If you can score, score quick. Clemson certainly did that in Tallahassee with the kick off returns by Justin Miller.
But it was obvious that the quick scores coupled with the numerous three and outs in the 2nd half offensively wore the defense down in the 4th quarter. Having seen that, I now think Clemson at least is going to have to move the chains on offense to keep the clock moving and to keep the defense off the field.
UVA is going to grind it out on offense, which makes it even more imperative that Clemson moves the chains when the Tigers have the ball. Does that mean we should be upset if Clemson scores a touchdown on a 2 play drive that went 60 yards? Absolutely not. But those 3 play drives that go 5 yards before you have to punt need to be eliminated all together if Clemson wants to give their defense a fighting chance. With the Virginia defense predicated on not giving up the big play, it is not unreasonable to hope that Clemson can use the running game and the short passing game to chew yardage up in little bites. And that would certainly be a welcome relief to the John Lovette and the Tiger defense.
5. Nothing Easy
Florida State got 14 points by having to move the ball only 22 yards last week. That can't happen on the road against a top 10 team. The bottom line here is that Clemson is going to have to make the Cavaliers earn everything they get. That means zero turnovers deep in your own territory. That means no missed tackles that turn a 4 yard gain into a 65 yard touchdown. And that means no "throw it up fades" that Clemson gets burned on for a long touchdown ala last week.
Clemson also has a key advantage in the kicking game. Clemson's return game, as you all know, is outstanding. But the Tigers also have an advantage in the punting game. Cole Chason is averaging 40.5 yards per punt while Virginia's Sean Johnson has averaged only 31.7. That is nearly a 9 yard per punt difference, or one less first down needed on a drive. "Special teams can be the great equalizer. The impact of special teams and field position can impact a game. They have a lot of skill guys and a lot of speed." Groh said Monday.
Therefore, there is nothing wrong with playing a little field position football on the Cavaliers. Clemson needs to make UVA grind it out to score. They very well may be able to do it. But if they can't consistently move the football, Clemson is going to eventually flip the field with their return game and the poor punting of the Cavs. This could very well play a major factor in the outcome of the game…as special teams often do.
Analysis and Prediction
There is a terribly intriguing part to this game that makes it almost impossible to accurately predict. On the one hand you have a Virginia team that has not played good competition. While the strength of schedule for the Cavs is defiantly in question, they have pummeled all 4 of their previous opponents and have earned the Top 10 ranking that they currently sit at. Even Al Groh admits that the speed on the field Thursday will be much different than what the Cavaliers have seen to this point. "This is like going from triple-A to the majors," Groh said. You have seen triple-A pitching...now we are going to see major league pitching. And believe me, when you're talking about the Tigers' team speed, they have a major league fastball."
Clemson, on the other hand, has played about as tough a schedule as you possibly could play.
While the loss to Georgia Tech was a demoralizing heartbreaker, the losses to Texas A&M and Florida State do not look bad on your resume. In addition, Clemson has played just about as bad as they could possibly play; especially considering the turnover nightmare that has enveloped this team.
Both teams have had 10+ days to digest their first 4 games and to prepare for this critical match up. To be quite honest, Al Groh has out-coached Tommy Bowden in the previous games between these teams, although the Tigers won last year in Death Valley. Giving Groh more time might be a scary positive for Virginia, but giving Bowden more time might be a God-send to the Tigers.
If all things play out as they have the previous four games, the Cavaliers win this game easily. And that very well could happen Thursday night.
But if Clemson can erase the turnover problem and if Virginia takes some adjustment to the quality of opponent that the Tigers will put on the field, this could be a very close game and a Clemson win.
There is a sneaky suspicion on my part that Clemson is finally going to turn things around a play a good football game without the self destructing penalities. And if I had any idea whether or not Virginia is as good as they appear to be, it would make it easier to pick. IF the Cavs are a little overrated and IF Clemson plays well, the Tigers grab the win. But those are ifs…and therein lies the quandary of trying to pick this game.
For now, we have to assume that the Cavs are as good as advertised and until I see Clemson play the way they are capable, I have to err on the side of pessimism.
Virginia 24 Clemson 13