There were a number of reasons why Clemson became the only team ever to beat Virginia Tech twice in the same season last year. But among the most perplexing was the Hokies’ inability to solve a Tigers’ defense that allowed seven teams to score 30 or more points last year, including a 70-point outburst by West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
Virginia Tech play-caller Mike O’Cain heard about one Clemson player saying the Tigers knew what was coming from the Hokies’ offense in the ACC championship game. So when Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney fired defensive coordinator Kevin Steele after last season, O’Cain gave Steele a call and asked about stealing signs. The answer he got: “Absolutely not.”
“Now, did we have a few little tendencies here or there? Yes,” O’Cain added. “Everybody does. But he had no signals. They did a good job. They had a good plan against us.”
But with Clemson’s offense clicking better than ever, and its defense giving up more points than last year, it is paramount that Virginia Tech and quarterback Logan Thomas find a solution in Death Valley. Here are some other story lines to watch:
Score early, often
Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer indicated this week that his plan is to keep the ball away from Clemson’s offense with a ball-control approach. Fortunately, the Hokies are coming off their best rushing performance of the season against Duke last week, when freshman J.C. Coleman exploded for 183 yards. But Virginia Tech has been a slow-starting team this year and much better at quick strikes than sustained drives recently. Led by wide receiver Marcus Davis, the Hokies are tied for third in the country in plays of more than 40 yards this season. They’ll need all the offense they can get.
Last year, Clemson’s press coverage wreaked havoc on Virginia Tech’s passing game. The Hokies’ receivers couldn’t get any separation, but wide receivers coach Kevin Sherman thinks his group will be better prepared for it since most teams this year have taken a similar strategy.
It also helps that Davis and Thomas appear to be on the same page these days.
“He has faith in me now, in the boundary in one-on-one coverage, he has faith in me down the field,” Davis said about Thomas this week. “It was more of a confidence thing, him having confidence in me and me having confidence in him.”
The Big play
Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster thinks this Clemson offense is better than the one that blew open last year’s ACC championship game with three touchdowns in less than five minutes. But he indicated this week he still plans to load up his front to stop the Tigers’ rushing attack, leaving his defensive backs to fend with dynamic wide receivers Sammy Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins. Giving up receptions to those two is acceptable, but the key Saturday will be whether Hokies cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum can avoid allowing explosive plays.
The redemption factor
Virginia Tech has mostly played down the significance of facing Clemson again, saying it’s a new year and a new team. But the sting of last season’s losses still resonate, and combined with the team’s slow start this season, the Hokies view Saturday as a chance to show this team can be nationally relevant. Virginia Tech doesn’t need a win over Clemson to win the ACC’s Coastal Division, but it would do wonders for a fan base that’s still unsure how good these Hokies can be this year.
My prediction: Clemson 45, Virginia Tech 34
But what do you think. Can Virginia Tech pull off the upset. Or will Clemson score a third-straight win over the Hokies? Vote in the poll below and let me know what you think in the comments section.