Oh my. Oh my goodness. This. Is. A. Big. Game.
This is the level of Miami coming here in 2003 and 2005, Clemson coming to Lane on a Thursday night in 2006, or FSU and Boston College visiting in 2007. Clemson's 2011 squad is every bit as good as those aforementioned teams and except for the final 2 minutes of the Boston College game in 2007 and the Miami game in 2005, every one of those teams came in on this enormous stage and left not only in a loss, but got MANHANDLED by the Hokies. The Boston College ending was the result of a superhuman effort by a Heisman-worthy QB in Matt Ryan. The 2005 Miami game? We'll come back to that later.
The point is that Lane Stadium at night is no stranger to huge games and it has been one hell of a tough place to come in and get a win for opposing squads. Believe me when I tell you that Saturday night, Lane Stadium is going to be as raucous and "TerrorDome" as it has ever been. And after reviewing the Tigers' game footage in their wins against Auburn, Wofford and Florida State you also need to believe me when I tell you that the Hokies are going to need every bit of that intensity to help them in this game.
Let's start by taking a look at the unheralded matchup of the two special teams units in this game because I genuinely believe that despite getting no press in the lead-up, the hidden yardage and points from special teams could play a big role especially if the game is a close-fought affair.
The FG kicking looks like it's about a wash here. Clemson's Chandler Catanzaro is 4-of-6 but only had 1 big FG on the season that he's made and that was in the Florida State game last week. He has a history of missing kicks in big games from last season and going up against the Hokies FG blocking unit, on the road, at night is not the easiest circumstance to nail a FG. Unfortunately Hokie kicker Cody Journell has never kicked in a big game in his college career and while I think he has the talent to get it done, he's only 4-of-7 on the year in kicks and we won't find out what he's made of until Saturday.
The kickoff unit is a definite advantage for the Hokies. Justin Myer has a nearly 50% touchback rate on his kickoffs which is preposterous. On kickoff returns, the Hokies average 24.5 yds/return (not counting the returns from all-time VT kickoff return leader Dyrell Roberts who's out for the season). Meanwhile, Clemson's kickoffs only are touchbacks 28% of the time and they are getting 21 yds/return on the kicks that they are fielding themselves.
The real concern here is in punting. Clemson's senior punter Dawson Zimmerman is averaging 43 yds/kick. Meanwhile Hokie P Scott Demler inexplicably keeps trotting out as the starting punter as he's done yet again this week somehow, despite being benched for WR Danny Coale against Marshall. Look, I know putting a freshman punter in Michael Branthover out there sounds crazy, especially in the first home night game, but this is Coach Beamer's FAULT!!! He's had multiple opportunities to give Branthover a chance to kick in games where a botched punt wouldn't cost the Hokies the game and he hasn't done it. Demler's only averaging 35 yds/kick and that just doesn't cut it at this level of football, PARTICULARLY at a school known for its special teams. Yes, the Hokies are 2nd in the nation in punt return coverage (allowing -4 yards/return) but that is misleading. Most of the punts aren't returned as they are just going out of bounds 25-30 yards downfield and then there was one return for huge lost yardage in the ECU game where their returner muffed the punt.
So looking at the special teams, on paper, both teams have advantages/disadvantages in different areas but all it takes is one screw-up on special teams to completely change the complexion of this big game. A made or missed FG, an electric return by Jayron Hosley or David Wilson in the kicking game, a poor punt by Demler, any of these can turn this game on its head. And I'm sweating about it already, like at near sauna levels of sweat.
Let's next turn to the Hokie offense vs. the Clemson defense (just to build the suspense for that matchup that everyone's talking about between the Hokie defense and Clemson offense). It is at this time that I'd like - actually I wouldn't like, but I feel compelled - to dig up a painful memory: the 2005 Miami game. That game featured an undefeated Hokie squad hosting #5 Miami in a similar atmosphere. The Walk for that game was the most epic one I've ever seen. The Hokies were very potent on offense that season and despite already feeling a sense of dread about Coach Stinespring as offensive coordinator, we felt like the reins might eventually be turned over to QB coach Kevin Rogers (get better soon Coach) and the bottom line is we were all very psyched up about the Hokies and how they matched up with their opponent on defense.
But the size of the moment was too big for that Hokies' squad. They played some of the worst football I've seen any Hokie offense play and if you have followed this blog for not even a month, you should have a sense of just how bad that was. The Hokies had 8 penalties that night, 3 of which were holding calls and they fumbled the ball a nearly incomprehensible 5 times (losing 4 of them) despite not a drop of rain. It was as if all the good things we'd seen up to that point in the season didn't matter. QB Marcus Vick, who had an otherwise stellar season that year, played like it was his first game ever. It was just a comedy of errors and it happened at night. In Lane Stadium. In a big game.
That's the cold shower that tempers my excitement about this Hokie offense. They certainly look like they matchup well against this Tiger defense. The defensive line for the Tigers is solid, but their back seven is either inexperienced or not playing very well. I thought the Hokie pass blocking up to this point has been absolutely phenomenal. If they give QB Logan Thomas time, he has the arm and seems to be making great reads on most of his plays (while still having a few boneheaded throws towards the end of some recent games) which could really hurt Clemson. And it looks like WR Jarrett Boykin will be back against Clemson, which helps the depleted but talented receiving corps. But I'm going to go ahead and spring the biggest key to this entire game and here it is buried in the middle of the review. It's like a hidden treasure if you think about it (or would be if I could write worth a damn).
The single biggest key to this game boils down to the Hokie's possessing the ball. They are 2nd in the nation in time of possession at 36 minutes per game. And it hasn't been by moving the chains with the running game other than in the 2nd half of the East Carolina game. It has been through a possession-based, 3rd-down-converting passing game. The focus hasn't been on huge plays in the passing game, but in just keeping the chains moving. The reason this is so critical against Clemson is two-fold.
First of all, the obvious is that it keeps the potent Clemson offense off the field while simultaneously keeping the Hokie defense rested. But more subtly, it wears down the Tiger defense. And right now, the Hokie offensive line isn't getting enough push at the point of attack to run the ball effectively early in games. It has been painfully obvious against both Arkansas State and Marshall, that the line of scrimmage didn't move forward and in some cases, was even pushed backwards. OK so Arkansas State had some real talent and experience on their d-line but MARSHALL?!! Their line was a joke and a rested RG Jaymes Brooks and C Andrew Miller seemed to be the only two who could consistently move their opponent around on running plays. So if the Hokies are going to have any success running the ball it is going to come at the end of the game against a hopefully exhausted Tiger defense. Remember that the Tigers' offense is not on the field for very long usually. They are a deep-shot, big-play offense and then BAM their defense is back on the field. If the Hokies can string together some long drives, it could really open up the running game in the 4th quarter when RB's David Wilson and Josh Oglesby could start pounding away on the Tigers for one of those will-crumpling drives that can either protect a lead or take a lead if need be.
Time of possession also hinges on that crucial point that I was making about the '05 Miami game - focus. The Hokies just cannot turn the ball over against Clemson. They have got to play physical, mistake-free football on offense and churn some clock in order to give Tech a chance in this game. The moment hopefully will not be too big for these players and it's one of those deals where, despite liking what I've seen out of Thomas, Wilson and the rest thus far this season, we won't know how they'll respond until they take the field on Saturday.
And now we come to the main event, the top of the card, so to speak. When the speedy, talented Clemson offense takes the field against the speedy, talented VT defense. I have already alluded to the quick-strike capability of the Tigers. And the disadvantage for a defense playing against the Tigers is that you know they're going to take deep shots, but you don't know when, and in the interim they are going to be bashing you with a running game featuring jet sweeps, draw plays, handoffs out of the I-formation, oh and one more thing, they don't ever huddle and try and run 80 plays/game. I like the middle of the Hokie defense (the Hopkins' brothers at tackle and Bruce Taylor at MLB) getting a good push. And I like the Hokies on the edge with Tariq Edwards and Kyle Fuller (who will play the majority of this game at nickel). I think Antone Exum and Bigtime Eddie Whitley are really going to be tested in this matchup to properly read the run vs. pass especially with All-Universe Freshman WR Sammy Watkins running around like a jackrabbit. But I don't think that's the key when these units are on the field.
No, my Calm and Beloved Reader, the key is going to involve Coach Foster having to do something that I don't know if he is able to do but in order to win this game, he may have to. That key is - trust the 2nd stringers. We've all heard about the dropoff of the first string to the second string from Coach Foster and the other coaches. However, there are positions that I feel good about the backups. You may be thinking to yourself "No big deal MadJay, Coach Wiles rotates defensive linemen regularly, we can do this."
Actually, it IS a big deal, because from what I can see, the way the Tiger offense works, as soon as the ball is spotted, they line up. Yeah, they might not snap the ball until the play clock shows 19 seconds or so (which is still fast) but they are actually lined up on the ball with the clock still showing 26-27 seconds. Then their offensive coordinator Chad Morris looks at the defense and makes the playcall out of the formation they're in and sends it in to QB Tajh Boyd. You almost never have time to change out players mid-drive because they could always just go to a quick snap and catch you completely out of position or maybe not even set-up yet.
What this means is that, in the first half, I view it as mission-critical to get a player like Telvion Clark in for Tariq Edwards and Jack Tyler or Barquell Rivers in for Bruce Taylor for an entire series. Maybe not all at the same time, but get them a break nonetheless. And while I am not the world's biggest James Hopper fan, I'd even give him a series in the first half to sub out for either Exum or Whitley since he knows both positions and he's been in big games before (like the ACC Championship last season). Those snaps could be huge late in the game, especially if the Tiger defense starts to wear out and the Hokie defense can be more fresh as a result of getting a break in the first half. I recognize this is a risk, but all it takes is a moment of exhaustion to cause a coverage bust or being unable to make a tackle on a game-deciding third down. That's worth the risk of a backup not making a play that the starter could in the 2nd quarter. And I think, particularly in the case of Clark and Tyler/Rivers, that these guys aren't much of a dropoff to the starter and if they're on the field with the rest of the starting defense, I view it as a low risk vs. the huge reward of having starters that can play at their very high level late in the game. It also gives these backups meaningful snaps if god-forbid there are any injuries to the starters later in the season.
This game and season are marathons, not sprints and Virginia Tech isn't going to win or lose the ACC Championship on Saturday no matter what the outcome. Having said that, I do believe we are going to learn a lot about the make-up of the team because Clemson is going to come in here swinging. I am proud to know so many Superfans who are going to be at this game, I wish so much that I could be there with them this weekend, because these are the kinds of games that made Lane Stadium famous. In fact, it was 1999 when Clemson came in to Blacksburg at night and an unknown defensive end named Corey Moore went nuts and basically singlehandedly won the game for the Hokies that the term TerrorDome was coined. Who will help Tech carry on that legacy on Saturday night? Or will Clemson and their amazing speed both in players and game tempo come in and run VT into the ground? My stomach is already getting ulcer-ific and it's just Wednesday. Get excited for Saturday and....