Saturday, December 16News That Matters

Clemson survives Virginia Tech, defeating its third top-15 opponent of the season


Does any team bring its A-game as reliably in big games as Clemson?

The defending national champions took in the Lane Stadium atmosphere and a great “Enter Sandman” entry by host Virginia Tech, then almost instantaneously went up 10-0 against Justin Fuente’s Hokies. The Tigers have been only briefly challenged since. They lead 24-3 after three quarters.

Early on, the game was decided on third down

Clemson went 6-for-15 on third downs. Tech: 2-for-13.

Clemson’s first three third-down conversions were all massive. Kelly Bryant completed third-down passes of 27 and 16 yards on the Tigers’ initial field goal drive, then found an uncovered Tavien Feaster for 60 yards on third-and-4 on Clemson’s second drive. That built the 10-point cushion.

Still, the Hokies settled down after the early barrage, did a better job in the field position battle, and briefly held Clemson at bay. They finally put together a few first downs on a mid-Q2 drive and got a field goal out of it.

At the end of the first half, Clemson pulled a Clemson

  • In Week 1, Clemson drove 55 yards in two minutes to effectively end the game against Kent, scoring with a minute left in the half to go up 28-3.
  • In Week 2, the Tigers trailed Auburn 6-0 late in the first half but drove 88 yards in three minutes and scored with a minute left in the half to go up 7-6.
  • In Week 3 at Louisville, they drove 49 yards in 2:49 and nailed a 49-yard field goal with 28 seconds left in the first half to go up 19-7 on the host Cardinals.

Virginia Tech got to within 10-3 with 3:10 left in the half, but that was too much time to give the Tigers. In just two minutes, C.J. Fuller capped an easy, relaxed, 75-yard drive with a one-yard plunge. Tech responded with a decent drive, but Joey Slye missed a 45-yard field goal at the first-half buzzer.

The third quarter was one of missed opportunities

Down 14, Tech needed a fast start and got it. The Hokies quickly forced a three-and-out, then took over at their 45 following a shaky punt. Time to seize the opportunity? Not so much. Travon McMillian fumbled on the second play of the drive, and Clemson responded with a 10-play touchdown drive that included conversions of third-and-4, third-and-1, and fourth-and-1.

Tavien Feaster’s one-yard score made it 24-3 and effectively ended the game, but Tech kept pushing. The Hokies drove into Clemson territory, but a fourth-and-3 attempt got swallowed up behind the line of scrimmage. They then drove to the Clemson 20 but failed on an ill-advised fake field goal.

Finish, basically.

In the 2016 ACC title game, Clemson jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and extended it to 35-14 in the third, but the Hokies went on a 28-7 run to get within a touchdown, then advanced inside Clemson’s 30 with about a minute left before an interception saved the Tigers.

As I mentioned on Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody this week, part of the reason for that comeback was, according to Virginia Tech coaches, conditioning.

I talked to somebody associated with Virginia Tech over the summer, and he said one of the things that they think they’re doing a really good job of at Virginia Tech, compared to other schools, is the conditioning part.

If you think back to last year’s ACC title game, he said, you could tell with about 10-20 minutes left, around the time that Virginia Tech was thinking about making a late comeback and screwing up Clemson’s national title plans, Clemson was hands-on-knees, Clemson was gassed, Clemson was making a lot more substitutions because they were gassed. And Virginia Tech was just getting started.

I think that’s kind of what they’ve adopted as their thing. “We are 60 minutes here.” There’s always a chance that they just can’t score because Clemson’s Clemson and Virginia Tech has a very good freshman quarterback but a freshman quarterback. There’s a chance that they just kinda get suffocated. But if they keep it close through the first half, this could be a very, very tense game late in the game.

Maybe the Hokies did have a conditioning advantage. But they were also scoring touchdowns. Tech put the ball in the end zone four times during that run.

Clemson created five scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent’s 40) tonight, but Tech created six. That would typically result in a tight win, one way or the other. Instead, the Tigers won by 14 because the Hokies were mostly awful in Clemson field position.

Scoring 10 points in your first five chances would get you in trouble with Coastal Carolina, much less Clemson. Doing that and giving up a fourth-quarter pick six will do you in.

ABC

Tech quarterback Josh Jackson did settle down and found success throwing downfield. On passes thrown at least 12 yards downfield, he was 5-for-10 for 115 yards. Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, however, dialed up the pressure late in the third quarter, and Tech’s last scoring chance of the third quarter was killed by two big sacks. (Well, it was killed by the fake field goal, but it was all but dead already.)

Tech’s play-calling was clearly stunted by the increase in pressure. After the two-sack drive, Jackson barely looked downfield. The Hokies threw mostly screen passes over the next few drives, and it’s hard to move the ball on Clemson by going side to side. Jackson responded with a lovely 30-yard strike to Sean Savoy for a late touchdown, but it was too little, too late.

No one had ever done that.

Two weeks ago, when Clemson blew out Louisville in Louisville, I began to wonder, are the Tigers even better than they were last year?

Clemson was always going to be good this year. Of course. You know who the Tigers lost from last year’s breakthrough title — quarterback Deshaun Watson (the No. 12 pick in the NFL draft), running back Wayne Gallman (no. 140), receivers Mike Williams (No. 7) and Artavis Scott, tight end Jordan Leggett (No. 150), center Jay Guillermo, defensive tackles Carlos Watkins (No. 142) and ScottPagano, linebacker Ben Boulware, safety Jadar Johnson, and cornerback Cordrea Tankersley (No. 97) — but they still returned plenty of talent from head coach Dabo Swinney’s recruiting machine. They still had monsters for defensive coordinator Brent Venables to deploy. They still had speedsters for offensive co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott to break in.

But come on. There’s supposed to be a breaking-in period.

The Tigers now have a third quality win, and the season’s only beginning to gear up. Swinney now has to guard his team against a different type of challenge: letdowns. There’s not another big-time foe on the schedule until November, either when Clemson travels to NC State or hosts Florida State. The Tigers do host solid Wake Forest and Georgia Tech squads, but if they maintain this level of play, those games shouldn’t be problematic.

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