Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster leaned back in his chair and cackled Monday night when the topic of slowing Clemson wide receivers DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins came up. But it wasn’t the laughter of a man who forced Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris into one of the least productive days of his career just more than a year ago.
It said more than any words could about a defense that has already been beaten for its fair share of big plays against lesser receivers this year. But it was also another reminder at the paradox Clemson’s offense has become for opposing coaches.
The Tigers stress ball control but run a no-huddle offense that is averaging more than 80 plays per game this year. And despite having perhaps the best wide receiver duo in the country and 16 passing plays of more than 30 yards through six games, Clemson has actually run the ball more than it has thrown it this year.
As Foster explained Monday, Clemson runs a new-wave spread with wishbone principles that aren’t far removed from Georgia Tech.
“That kind of an offense . . . is a booger to prepare for,” Foster said.
He’s right. Not many have had success against Morris.
In 33 games as a collegiate coach at Tulsa (2010) and Clemson (2011-12), the former Texas high school coach has directed an offense that has scored 35 or more points 20 times and gained 500 or more yards 16 times. Last year, only South Carolina and North Carolina held the Tigers to less than 20 points.
Interestingly enough, Foster is one of the few to thwart Morris, a Gus Malzahn disciple. Last year, Virginia Tech held the Tigers to 323 yards in Clemson’s 23-3 victory in Blacksburg, the second-fewest yards a Morris-led offense has gained since he joined the college ranks.
But even that was a loss, and it was all but forgotten once the Tigers piled up 457 yards and scored three touchdowns in less than five minutes during a 38-10 win over Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game.
It was an experience cornerback Antone Exum said “haunted us,” and Foster thinks Clemson’s offense is better this year. Quarterback Tajh Boyd leads the ACC in completion percentage, and the Tigers have gained more than 500 yards in four of their six games. They’ve scored fewer than 35 points just once, and the stars have been Hopkins and Boyd.
“We understand what we’re going up against, but we’ve got a little something on our end, too,” Exum said. “We’re not really backing down from the challenge at all. Whenever you’re faced with competition like this, there’s definitely an opportunity to shine.”
Foster sounds like he’ll continue to leave Exum and fellow cornerback Kyle Fuller on an island Saturday, even though the Hokies have given up five touchdown passes of 19 or more yards the past three weeks.
“You’ve got to protect deep. They can’t have yards after the catch. They’re gonna be matched up a lot,” Foster said of his cornerbacks. “We just got to go fight every snap. That’s what it’s gonna be. . . . You can’t double those guys because then they’re gonna run it up inside on you. I’m hoping those guys will step up like I think they’re capable of doing.”
But it’s clear the Hokies won’t be able to focus on the pass exclusively. Running back Andre Ellington leads the ACC in yards per game and averages 5.15 yards per carry. In fact, despite all of the weapons Clemson has in the passing game, Virginia Tech defensive line coach Charley Wiles believes stopping the run – whether it be Ellington or Boyd — is the most crucial part of holding the Tigers in check.
“If we held them to three yards or less rushing, they threw the ball for 300, I bet we’d have a really good chance of winning the game,” Wiles said.
But making Clemson one-dimensional is no easy task, and those runs open up play-action. That’s where Clemson’s receivers might be most dangerous. Watkins, who only has 16 catches and 118 yards this year, is the faster of the two and might be due for a breakout performance. Hopkins (49 catches, 777 yards, eight touchdowns) is the better route runner, according to safety Detrick Bonner.
“It comes down to the secondary,” Bonner said. “I feel like we can stick with anybody.”
For how long? Well, that part remains to be determined. Like the rest of Morris’s offense, it’s a puzzle that has yet to be solved.
“Those guys are fast guys and sometimes it’s hard to tame those guys. If you have to cover them for five, six seconds, they’re gonna find a way to get loose,” Exum said. “Hopefully we’ll get enough pressure up front, get enough pressure on Tajh, force him to make bad decisions, bad throws. Then we won’t have to cover those guys for that long. But if we have to, I think I can do that.”