Since becoming an offensive coordinator in the college ranks for the 2010 season, Clemson’s Chad Morris has had three games in which his offense has gained more than 600 yards and nine games in which it’s gone for over 500 yards. Just twice has an opposing defense held his unit to less 400 total yards.
Over the course of 17 games (13 at Tulsa last year, and now four with Clemson this season), Morris’s units have scored less than 28 points just once, not a bad track record for someone who spent the previous 16 years, and won three state titles, as a Texas high school coach.
So when Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster sat down with reporters Monday night after practice, he seemed resigned to the fact that Saturday night won’t be a game in which his unit can hold the opposition to six rushing yards, like the Hokies did at Marshall, or 112 total yards, a feat Virginia Tech accomplished at East Carolina.
“You try to contain them. I don’t know if you can stop them,” Foster said. “Keep them to a minimum, but I don’t know what that minimum is. Can you keep them to 20 points? I don’t know. They’re just a talented group.”
Foster was quick to point out Monday that the Tigers don’t have good skill players, “they got great skill kids.” And certainly the Hokies’ secondary, and even the linebackers and defensive line for that matter, face their stiffest test of the year, because Clemson will trot out all-conference-level players like quarterback Tajh Boyd, wide receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins, tight end Dwayne Allen and running back Andre Ellington.
But the matchup that could a play a bigger role in dictating the outcome Saturday night will be the sideline chess match going on between Morris and Foster.
Morris’s spread attack is an off-shoot of Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, even though the two have never worked together on the same staff. The mixture of a quick pace, read-option plays that feature Boyd or Ellington running the ball, a dynamic passing game – especially on third down – and a desire to possess the ball for long stretches of time is what Foster calls “kind of like their spread version of the wishbone. They’re trying to keep ball control and all those types of things. We’ve got to get off the field. That’s critical. We’ve got to get them in third and long, and get them behind the sticks.”
Morris favors no huddles, something Foster said he preferred after Virginia Tech’s win over East Carolina because it allows him more time to look at an offense’s formations. But Clemson’s no-huddle approach is even faster than the Pirates, Foster said Monday, and he isn’t sure if he’ll be able to recognize formations quickly enough.
Morris, meanwhile, tends to signal the play into Boyd once he’s at the line of scrimmage and an opponent sets up in their defense. Ultimately, Foster says, Clemson’s goal is to have so many moving parts and such a quick tempo that a defense is forced to simply play a vanilla base defense.
So the most important battles Saturday could happen pre-snap, as Foster and the Hokies try to determine whether they have enough time to switch their coverages or change in-and-out of blitzes once Boyd is under center reading the defense for his keys.
“If they change a play, maybe we’ve got a chance to change our defense, too. We’ve done that the last few weeks. We’ll see how the tempo is going,” Foster said. “We’ve got to break it down and see if we can pick out certain things they do by alignments and formations and maybe we can get tendencies.”
Foster said there was a twinge of disappointment when he watched the film of the Marshall game, because he didn’t think the Thundering Herd’s offense was very good and “they shouldn’t have scored on us when it was all said and done.” The worst came when the Hokies allowed Marshall’s no-huddle offense to score a touchdown in three plays just before halftime, a drive Foster thinks he unit took off “both mentally and physically.”
Even though his game plan is just in its infancy with four days remaining until Saturday, Foster has already told his unit it won’t be able to get away with such lapses this week against Clemson’s formidable attack.
“I think this offense is a combination of everything we’ve seen to date, maybe all in one a little bit,” he said. “The preseason is over right now, and that’s kind of what I’ve told the kids defensively. Are we the type of defense and type of athletes we think we are?”