Virginia Tech vs. Clemson
by Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, 12/28/00
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Pancakes for Everyone!
Most pundits agree that this Gator Bowl matchup between Virginia Tech and Clemson is one of the best bowls going, BCS or not. Fans agree, as tickets have been snapped up to the tune of approximately 40,000 total by both schools, and Alltel Stadium is expected to be a sellout or a near-sellout (as of today, 1,000 tickets remain).
Virginia Tech is disappointed to not be playing in a BCS bowl, but if the Hokies want to do well against a high-powered Clemson team that is looking to avenge two straight losses to Tech, they better pay attention and play hard.
Most people think that this is a game where Tech has a lot to lose and little to gain. The fifth-ranked Hokies can lock up a top 5 season-ending ranking with a victory and enter next year with a bullet, but if they stumble, it will appear as if they didn't belong in the BCS after all. They may drop out of the top 10 at season's end and not be seen as top 10 team by college football observers (read that: poll voters) going into next year. In that scenario, Clemson will be the darling, coming out of this game with a 10-2 record and a key win over a Top 5 opponent.
Starting their second season under head coach Tommy Bowden, the Tigers were expected to do well, and their early games did nothing to curb the enthusiasm of the Tiger fans. Clemson blew out of the gate strong, and behind quarterback Woodrow (don't call me Woody) Dantzler, the Tigers outscored their first five opponents 238-48 (an average of about 48-10).
The Tigers were undefeated, ranked #4, and barreling toward a Nov. 4 showdown with the Florida State Seminoles when they got derailed by a rapidly improving Georgia Tech team just one week prior to Bowden Bowl II. After their disappointing home loss to the Yellow Jackets, Clemson dragged their tails into Tallahassee the next week and got destroyed 54-7, in a game in which Papa Bowden showed that when it's time to impress the BCS computers, even family will get run over.
Clemson recovered enough to close the season with a win over arch-rival South Carolina, and probably no Tiger fans will express disappointment with the way their season turned out. 9-2 is a great season for a program that is just two years removed from a 3-8 record, and although the shellacking at the hands of FSU might be hard to stomach, a trip to the Gator Bowl and a star-studded matchup with the Hokies and Michael Vick is better than sitting at home.
Let's look at Clemson's offense versus Tech's defense.
As you can see, Clemson has a very balanced attack. Worth noting is that their quarterback is their second-leading rusher, and their tailback is their second-leading receiver. This points to the QB and TB being the focus of their offense.
The Clemson offense is predicated around spreading the field, using the short controlled passing game, and giving speedy players like Dantzler and Zachery room to work. The Tigers have a smallish offensive line, with their starters going (down the line from LT to RT) 273 pounds, 280, 265, 270, and 290. Only one offensive lineman, backup RG Greg Walker, is 300 pounds or more, at 315.
The Tigers often run the ball from the shotgun or pass it from a short three-step drop, which means that the offensive linemen need to be quick and typically don't have to hold their pass blocks very long. With the field spread, Clemson will run a lot of quarterback draw and quick passes to Zachery, and the O-line's job is to get downfield and create some room for Dantzler and Zachery in the open field. Hence the emphasis on OL quickness, not size.
Because they tend to run a lot of 4-wideout sets, the Tigers do a lot of one-on-one blocking on the defensive ends, and in the 1998 and 1999 games against the Hokies, this spelled doom for the Tigers. In 1998, defensive ends John Engelberger and Corey Moore abused Brandon Streeter on almost every play, and in 1999, Corey Moore turned a Thursday night game against the Tigers into his own personal highlight reel.
With Moore and Engelberger gone and the more mobile Dantzler at QB, Clemson should see a big improvement in the performance of their offensive tackles against Tech's defensive ends. This time around, look for Dantzler to have the time to get rid of the ball that Streeter never had, and if Tech is able to bring pressure, watch Dantzler do a much better job avoiding it than Streeter was able to (poor Streeter served as a tackling dummy in the Clemson offense -- I will always respect him for the abuse he took and the toughness he showed in hanging in there).
In this game, unlike the previous two, the focus will shift to the Tech linebackers, who will have tremendous pressure on them to tackle Dantzler and Zachery in the open field. This could be a problem for Tech. Middle linebacker Jake Houseright is a good run stopper between the tackles, but he is not fleet of foot and will have to anticipate where Dantzler and Zachery are going to be, arrive there first, and have a good game tackling. Keep an eye on the Clemson QB draw up the middle and watch how Houseright does in stopping it.
The good news for the Tech linebackers is that they apparently won't have to cover the Clemson tight end in the passing game. Clemson tight end Morgan Woodward only caught four passes this year. The Tigers like to run a lot of 4-wide spread formation, though, so the Tech linebackers may see a lot of wideouts coming across the middle on slant patterns. Don't be surprised if you see Ben Taylor, a real headhunter, get another of his patented crushing tackles.
In short, the Hokies probably won't be as successful pressuring the Clemson QB as they have been the past two years, and they'll have to have a good day tackling in the open field. They're more likely to get "dinked" to death by the Tigers than they are to get beaten with big plays or the between-the-tackles running game.
Now, here's what Tech's offense looks like against Clemson's defense:
This looks like strength against strength and weakness against weakness. Clemson, as you can see, did a good job defending the run this year, but where they really ran into trouble was against passing teams (Florida State, Georgia Tech, and N.C. State).
The success of Clemson's run defense is built on the strength of their linebackers. LB's Chad Carson and Keith Adams recorded 146 and 138 tackles respectively. Clemson's top 10 tacklers are all linebackers or defensive backs, indicating that the defensive linemen don't play much of a role in stopping the run.
That doesn't mean that the Hokies can just run over the Clemson DL. The Tigers two-deep at defensive tackle (going by hokiesports.comthenewspaper info) consists of four seniors (Terry Jolly and Jason Holloman, backed up by Freddie James and Gary Childress). Junior Jovan Bush also figures in the mix, so Clemson has some serious experience at DT and can really clog up the middle.
As you know, the Hokies feast off of running up the middle and off-tackle, so it will be interesting to see how this battle works out. Essentially, up the middle, the same VT offensive line is going up against the same defensive tackles and linebackers as 1999, when Tech had 51 rushes for 286 yards in the Thursday night game.
The big matchup here is Tech fullback Jarrett Ferguson against Carson and Adams. Expect the Tech offensive line to do well against the Clemson defensive line, so the key will be Ferguson's ability to get through the hole and throw the blocks that will spring Tech's Lee Suggs.
If Clemson is able to force Tech into third-down passing situations, here is where the Tigers will have trouble. Defensive end Nick Eason, who is the top D-line tackler and Clemson's sack leader with 7, tore his ACL a couple of weeks ago and will not play. So did his backup, redshirt freshman Marcus Lewis (1 sack).
The Tigers are faced with moving defensive tackles to the end spot to compensate, and this will thin out their defensive line greatly. The point is, if Clemson's pass defense, which was suspect during the regular season, is further weakened by not having its leading sacker, then the Hokies could have a field day in the passing game.
For Tech, "having a field day in the passing game" doesn't mean rolling up 350 yards passing. It means being able to drop back and complete a pass when needed, as they did against UVa. If the Hokies stick with a short passing game like they did against the Wahoos, and Clemson is unable to pressure Vick (as UVa couldn't), the Tigers will have a very difficult time stopping the Hokies' offense.
Clemson had 36 sacks during the regular season, compared to UVa's 15, so that's comparing apples and oranges, to some extent. The Tigers' other leading sackers are linebackers Keith Adams (6) and Braxton Williams (4), so the Tigers like to blitz and play one-on-one man coverage. You may see Clemson come with a blitz attack similar to what Syracuse and Boston College tried against the Hokies. If Tech picks up the blitz or negates it with the short passing game, the Hokies will move the ball extremely well all day long.
The barometer for the Tigers will be their linebackers. If they can stuff the run and pressure Vick in the passing game, Clemson will be able to limit the Hokies. Otherwise, 30-40 points is reasonable for the well-rounded Tech offense to achieve.
Here are the pertinent special teams stats for both teams.
Punting: once again, the Hokies are at a disadvantage, but Robert Peaslee for Tech is actually averaging 35.3 yards per kick (the team average is brought down by 3 punts by Ben Taylor for a 33.7 yard average) and is currently kicking better than his average.
Punt returns are basically even. Tech's primary punt returner right now is Ronyell Whitaker, and he is averaging 14.4 yards per return (Andre Davis averages 22.0 yards per return, but I don't think he'll be a big factor returning punts in this game). Clemson's top punt returner is Joe Don Reames, who is averaging 12.2 yards per return.
Coach Beamer was interviewed by Bill Roth on the latest installment of the VT sports television show Virginia Tech Sports Today, and Bill correctly pointed out that special teams plays are often big in Tech bowl games.
In 1995 Bryan Still started the Tech comeback against Texas with a punt return for a TD, in the 1997 Gator Bowl UNC blocked a Hokie punt for a touchdown, in the 1998 Music City Bowl the Hokies blocked two Alabama punts, and in 1999, Florida State scored two special teams TD's on the Hokies in the Sugar Bowl. So don't be surprised if a special teams play -- hopefully a Hokie kick block or runback for a TD -- plays a big part in what should be a closely contested game.
Any reasonable Hokie fan should wonder about the level of motivation of the Tech team. Not so much because of the BCS snub, but because the Gator Bowl is a big step down, attention-wise, from last year's Sugar Bowl.
There was no question that last year's National Championship game was a life-and-death affair. The game was for all the marbles, and the scrutiny was intense, both from the local and national media. This year's Gator Bowl is a much quieter affair, and unlike last year, the Hokies can actually try to have a little fun on this trip.
"We're down here to have some fun and win a bowl game," Ronyell Whitaker was quoted as saying in the Roanoke Times. "Myself, I'm planning on having fun every night. Last year, we couldn't really do that with everything going on and playing for the national championship."
That's good, as long as the team doesn't deflate too much and have too much fun. Clemson will no doubt be gunning for the Hokies -- as I mentioned in the opening, they can make a name for themselves by knocking off Tech. If the Hokies come out a little flat, they could find themselves in a hole early, particularly if Clemson rips off a couple of big plays and gets some momentum going.
On the injury front, Vick should be close to 100 percent for the game. I still don't have high hopes for Andre Davis in this one. I've been watching the television and newspaper updates on Davis, and they're all very vague. Quotes like, "I've been pleased with his progress" and "We think he'll be doing okay by then" don't inspire confidence, and not one clip of Davis running on the practice field has been shown.
I believe that Woodrow Dantzler is also not 100 percent, due to an injury (ankle?) that caused him to miss a game or two earlier this year (unfortunately, I have not done my research on Dantzler's status and can't be more concrete than that). One quote I remembered reading had him at about 90 percent for the game. This may prevent Dantzler from pulling off some spectacular plays, but with Clemson's tactic of spreading the field, I still think he'll have a lot of room to work, even if he isn't totally healthy.
One can only hope that the packed house at Alltel Stadium and a matchup against a great team like Clemson will keep the Hokies focused and motivated. After all, the players did a great job of playing hard against UVa, despite the uncertainty surrounding Beamer's future.
In this game, I look for Clemson to have offensive success, perhaps a lot of it. They won't dominate the Tech defense, but with their balanced ball-control offense, they'll probably do well. They may tend to bog down inside the 20, where real estate becomes precious, and it's harder to spread the field and go to work.
The Hokies, on the other hand, should have consistent offensive success. They have a great running game and should also do well in the passing game. There are many factors, such as special teams play and motivation, that affect the way a game like this plays out, but all signs point to an exciting offensive shootout.
Virginia Tech 38, Clemson 27.
(By the way, for those of you who don't know, the headline "Pancakes for Everyone!" above is a play on Tommy Bowden's quote, "Michael Vick could eat pancakes off Woody Dantzler's head." It doesn't make sense, but it sure is funny.)