Clemson Preview

Clemson vs. Virginia Tech
Date:  September 23rd, 1999
Location:  Blacksburg
Clemson's Record:  1-1
USA Today's Clemson Page
Clemson Football:  Official Site

Last year, in the second game of the season, Virginia Tech took a Hokie football team that was supposed to be rebuilding into Death Valley at Clemson. The resulting 37-0 massacre set the tone for the rest of the season for both teams, as the Hokies went 9-3 with one of the top-rated defenses in the country, while Clemson spiraled down to a 3-8 season that included losses to Wake Forest and Duke.

Certainly, last year's blowout was a confidence-builder for the Hokies and a confidence-destroyer for the Tigers. Clemson is a proud program, and getting decimated at home didn't sit well with the 72,000 Tiger fans in attendance, many of whom left at half time, when Tech had a 34-0 lead.

Tech dominated the game defensively and scored on big plays offensively. Clemson only had 9 first downs and 102 total yards. Corey Moore and John Engelberger embarrassed the Tigers' offensive line, pressuring Clemson QB Brandon Streeter mercilessly. Streeter threw four interceptions on the day, three to now-departed linebacker Lorenzo Ferguson.

On offense, Hokie quarterbacks turned in a miserable 7-for-29 performance, including 4-for-20 from starter Al Clark in the first half. The problem for Clemson is that Tech's few completions were long ones that hurt the Tigers. The Hokies had 171 yards passing on the 7 completions. Andre Davis caught a 49 yard bomb from Clark, and Ricky Hall had 2 catches for 79 yards, including a 56-yard TD.

But that was last year. What about this year?

This year, Clemson is 1-1 so far, with a 13-10 loss to Marshall and a 33-14 victory over Virginia, both at home. The Tigers have a new coach and a new outlook. Tommy Bowden coached Tulane to a 12-0 record last year, and that earned him a lucrative contract with the Tigers. He has installed a fast-breaking, no-huddle offense that often features a shotgun formation and four wideouts.

This is not your father's Clemson team. Against Virginia, Streeter amassed 343 yards passing on 24-of-32 passing.

The Virginia game tells you a lot about Clemson. The passing statistics attest to the effectiveness of their new passing game (as well as the depleted state of Virginia's defense). Clemson's passing attack currently stands at 20th in the country, registering nearly 300 yards per game against quality opposition.

However, the run statistics against UVa (43 rushes for just 104 yards) signal the weakness of the Tigers' rushing attack, which currently stands at 92nd in the country (104 yards per game).

All the talk has been about how the Hokie defense will match up against the Tiger offense, but equally important is the performance of Tech's offense against a good Clemson defense whose strength is defending the run.

Although Clemson ranks only 71st in total defense at 370 yards a game, they are 27th in rush defense at 87 yards a game. And remember, that includes a game against Thomas Jones and Virginia, although admittedly, the Cavaliers pretty much abandoned the running game after falling behind early at Clemson.

Here are the subplots to the game as I see them:

The Line of Scrimmage

Tech's defensive line embarrassed Clemson's offensive line last year … and that entire Clemson offensive line graduated, whereas Tech brings back every D-line starter.

That doesn't bode well for the Tigers, who lost several players on their offensive line two-deep roster to preseason or off-season injuries, and then lost starting guard Will Merritt to a practice injury last week.

The Clemson offensive line is designed to be small (they only average 260 pounds across the line) but quick. Certainly, with the lack of experience along their offensive line, and the experience that Tech's defensive line features, the Tigers could be in big trouble. Their salvation may come in a quick release by QB Brandon Streeter. If Streeter unloads the ball quickly, Tech's defensive line won't be able to get to him in time. If Streeter holds the ball, he could get eaten alive.

Note that Tech will not have starting defensive tackle Nathaniel (Don’t Call Me Nate) Williams for the game. John Engelberger will slide down to defensive tackle, and Chris Cyrus will start at defensive end in Engelberger's spot. This is the same approach that was used against UAB.

On the flip side, Clemson has a relatively experienced defensive line that was hurt by the loss of starter and two year letterman Gary Childress to injury. The Tigers have piled up 9 sacks in just two games against Marshall and Virginia, so they can bring the heat. A key stat to remember, though, is that Marshall and UVa threw nearly 80 passes in the first two games against Clemson, so the Tigers had ample opportunity to register sacks.

All eyes will be on the Tech offensive line to see how well they respond to a good Clemson defensive line. Thus far, Hokie running back Shyrone Stith has been able to make his own yardage without a lot of gaping holes, but that could be tougher against a Clemson team that is more talented, obviously, than JMU and UAB.

If Clemson plugs up the run, the Hokie offensive line better keep them off of Michael Vick and give the redshirt freshman Hokie quarterback time to pass.

The Quick Release and Tech's Defensive Backs

Given that Tech's defensive line has Clemson's offensive line hopelessly outmatched in terms of experience and talent, Clemson's key to not getting mauled will be to unload the ball quickly on short passing routes. This is the only way the Tigers will be able to neutralize the Hokie pass rush.

If the Tigers are successful in releasing quick passes, mostly across the middle, then the pressure falls to Tech's defensive backs and linebackers in this game. How they perform will tell us a lot about Ben Taylor, Anthony Midget, and Nick Sorensen, among others. All three of those players are critical links in the defense this year.

Michael Vick

It's show time, Michael. The 20 minutes against JMU seem like a life time ago, and for all intents and purposes, Mister Vick has never played in a college game before.

Reports out of Blacksburg say that Vick is not quite 100% (Michael himself said 95% on the Tuesday evening news), but I think that when the lights go on and the ball is snapped, he'll forget all about his ankle bothering him. He said on the TV news that it feels better taped than it does in a brace, so look for him to come out taped, play without holding back, and then take Friday-Sunday off before resuming practice next week.

The JMU debut was nice, but in much the same way that this game will tell us a lot about our team, it will tell us a lot about Michael Vick, too. If he can play well and play under control in his national television debut against a quality opponent, it will tell us that he's made of the right stuff.

The key for Michael (and you'll hear me say this a million times this year), is to not let a bad play get him down. Young players think that if they make a bad play, they have to make up for it with a spectacular play, and when they try to make that spectacular play, they only make more mistakes, and it starts to snowball. If Michael throws an interception, puts the ball on the ground, or makes a bad decision, he's got to let it go and move on without trying to cancel it out with a 75-yard TD bomb on the next play. How Vick handles that challenge will be a subplot to be watched closely.

A Summary: Keys to the Game

  • Clemson has not shown a running attack yet this year. When they try to run, the Hokies need to bury them.
  • When Clemson passes, if they're releasing the ball too quickly for Tech's rush to get to Streeter, then Tech's whip linebacker and defensive backs need to step up their play.
  • The Hokie offensive line needs to give Shyrone Stith at least a little room to run, and they need to keep the Tiger defensive line off of Vick.
  • Vick needs to play with a cool, level head.
  • It would be nice for Tech's kick-blocking prowess to rear its head, resulting in a blocked punt or two. If not that, then the Hokies need to keep returning the ball well (Ricky Hall is averaging 19 yards a return, sixth in the country).

Then there are the usual keys: avoiding turnovers, establishing the running game, and winning the special teams battle.

Final Comments

As this game approaches, I find that I'm getting totally jacked up. The Hokies have not played a Thursday night home game since Jim Druckenmiller's ill-fated debut against Boston College in September of 1995. Tech football has come a loooong way since then, and it's up to the Hokies and their fans to show it to a national TV audience.

Come early, stay late, and be loud. Frank and the boys will take care of the rest.

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