Virginia Tech will get a chance to avenge its only loss of the season when it faces Clemson in the ACC championship game Saturday, but it will also be another opportunity for defensive coordinator Bud Foster to match wits with an offense and a coordinator he referred to this week as “new wave.”
Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris has had a meteoric rise through the coaching ranks, spending one year at Tulsa before bringing his Gus Malzahn-influenced offense to Clemson this year. Now that there are rumors Urban Meyer may want to hire Morris at Ohio State, it’s easy to forget that before arriving at Tulsa, Morris was a high school coach in Texas for 16 years.
“It just gives hope to high school coaches around the country that look if this is your goal, it’s attainable,” Morris said in a phone interview this week.
Foster, on the other hand, is a lifer in the college game. He played for Coach Frank Beamer at Murray State and has been a part of his staff in some form or fashion for 30 years now. Since 1995, he has been Virginia Tech’s defensive coordinator and is generally considered one of the top defensive minds in the country. But while his name comes up every year for head coaching jobs, Foster has yet to get one.
It’s Foster, though, who seems to have been the first one to figure out how to slow down Morris’s spread offense. The 323 total yards Clemson put up in its 23-3 win over Virginia Tech back in October is still its second-lowest output of the year, even after the Tigers’ late-season swoon.
As we’ve discussed in this space before, Clemson’s success under Morris has been through its ability to force defenses into vanilla coverages because of the Tigers’ wide array of skill position talent. Freshman wide receiver Sammy Watkins, in particular, is a threat any time he touches the ball. He has 72 catches for 1,072 yards and 10 touchdowns this year, and this week was named a first team all-ACC wide receiver. But fellow wideout DeAndre Hopkins and tight end Dwayne Allen make it more difficult, since each have at least 46 catches this year as well.
“You can’t double the guy because they’ve got too many other weapons,” Foster said of Watkins. “But it’s having awareness of what they’re trying to do with their formations … where they’ve got to make good throws and good catches. Just can’t turn him loose.”
With the numbers quarterback Tajh Boyd has put up throwing the ball this year, the assumption is that the key to the Tigers offense is their passing game. But when I asked Morris this week to describe his offense, his response surprised me.
“We’re a two-back, run-oriented, play action football team,” he said. “That’s what we are and that’s what we strive to be. We do that through trying to put so much pressure on the defense by utilizing the tempo of the game. We strive for 80 plays a game.”
So while many have mentioned Boyd’s seven interceptions the past four weeks and his offensive line’s inability to protect him to explain Clemson’s late-season swoon, perhaps the underlying reason for the Tigers’ offensive ineffectiveness recently is “they became one dimensional,” Foster said this week. In the Tigers three losses, they’ve averaged just 66 rushing yards per game.
When the Hokies faced Clemson back in October, Foster lamented how his defense played well except for four plays. In the immediate aftermath, he specifically alluded to them as the reason why Virginia Tech gave up three touchdowns. Here’s a rundown to jog your memory:
1) Facing third-and-10 late in the second quarter, Boyd scrambled left and linebacker Bruce Taylor left running back Andre Ellington to make a play on the quarterback. But instead of running, Boyd hit Ellington for an 11-yard completion.
2) On the same drive Clemson faced third-and-eight when wide receiver Sammy Watkins found a seam down the middle for a 23-yard catch, beating safety Antone Exum on the play. It was Watkins’s only significant play of the night, but it put the Tigers in the red zone and eventually led to their first touchdown of the night
3) On Clemson’s first drive of the second half, safety Eddie Whitley lost inside leverage on Allen. Boyd threw a ball up for grabs as he was being blitzed up the middle, but Allen ended up with a 32-yard touchdown because he was so open.
4) Clemson running back Mike Bellamy burst through the left side of the line and provided the finishing touches on the Tigers victory with a 31-yard touchdown run.
Morris downplayed that either team would have an advantage now that they’re facing one another a second time. “This late in the season, I don’t know if you surprise anybody,” he said. “I think everybody’s got enough film on each other, you don’t surprise anybody.”
Neither coach, though, was very willing to divulge any part of their game plan with so much at stake. But it would seem Foster won’t change much from the first meeting and will use a similar strategy to the one Virginia Tech has employed against East Carolina’s Air Raid attack of late.
Stop the run, so Clemson finds itself in long third down situations and becomes predictable without the play action — Morris says this is a staple of the Tigers’ attack. Then, Foster can dial up the zone blitzes that he loves and challenge a Clemson offensive line that has given up 11 sacks the past two games.
“Every week there’s a new experience or a new challenge, and this offense is another challenge,” Foster said. “It’s kind of the offense of the new wave and see how we can defend it and we’ll find ways to do that and somebody will counter with something else … But these guys, like Auburn of last year, have some big time playmakers, too. Auburn, they got by a couple of games that they could have lost last year and this year Clemson just didn’t get by those. But they’ve got everybody back again and it’s a growing year for them. I just hope they don’t grow too fast.”