Life has a funny way of turning out some times. In 2007, I watched in the pouring rain as the the Hokies lost one of the most heartbreaking games I can remember, 14-10 to Boston College. We didn't know it at the time but it ended up keeping the Hokies out of the national title game that year. However, in the postgame locker room, team leader Macho Harris gathered the team around him and said "This is a minor setback for a major comeback". That line - from a Dirty South record by Lil' Keke - was on Macho's iPod at the time and he had listened to it before the game. He turned that line into a mantra for the team and they responded, winning the rest of their games and going to the ACC title game where they faced Boston College. They capped the season by defeating the Eagles in the rematch and Harris' prophetic words came true as the Hokies won the ACC title.
Earlier this year, after the Hokies devastating defeat to the Clemson Tigers in Lane Stadium, they were knocked out of national title contention again. Very painful, life-shortening type of stuff for old men like me. But this time in the postgame locker room, despite the fact that individual players were very emotional, they didn't have the team gathered around them. David Wilson raged and Logan Thomas tried to accept responsibility for the loss. But it wasn't a player who rallied the team, rather it was Coach Beamer who put the team on its current mission. I have never heard Beamer say anything like this to his players but he told them "I promise you, if you will stick together, don't blame this guy, or blame that guy but stick together and I promise you, go write it down, we will get another chance to play them in the ACC Championship game."
Now, in technical terms - win or lose on Saturday - Beamer's prophecy has already come true. The Hokies responded winning the rest of their games and they now face Clemson in a rematch for the ACC title game. But let's face it - he wanted another shot at the Tigers because he knew that his team hadn't played very well. The key plays came early in that game and the Hokies never rebounded. I don't think it's enough for these Tech players just to play Clemson again. I think they are going to come into this game on Saturday focused and as ready to play as they have been in a long time. The problem is that Clemson is so talented, if they also play up to their ability it is going to be one helluva tough football game to win.
Special Teams -
Now that K Cody Journell appears to have somewhat recovered from his quad injury he is kicking the ball well in from close. He has obviously lost a good 5 yards of range, but from 35 yds and in he looks money. Clemson K Chandler Catanzaro was first-team All-ACC and is obviously a good kicker as well so that's a wash. The key here is field position in the kickoff and punting game. With the return of a healthy Sammy Watkins in the return game it is nothing short of CRITICAL for Justin Myer to take his 4th best touchback percentage and eliminate Watkins from the kickoff game. And whoever punts it just simply can't kick it to Watkins. The Hokies have the edge of kickoffs and Clemson has the edge in the punting game so a mistake by either team on special teams could prove enormous.
Virginia Tech offense vs. Clemson defense
There is zero doubt in my mind that Virginia Tech is going to play better on offense against Clemson than they did in Blacksburg. I expect David Wilson to run like a man possessed and Logan Thomas is healthy. Unlike many others I didn't feel like Thomas was to blame for much of the failure of the offense against Clemson. I thought his injured shoulder hampered his running threat, but remember that early in the season he hadn't been nearly as involved in the running game. The receivers played their worst game of the season, Coach O'Cain got out of sync after those early turnovers and David Wilson had trouble hanging on to the ball. I feel as if those issues have been resolved for the most part (though Wilson still has dropped the ball a little too much for my liking).
Clemson's defense is 63rd in the country in total defense and 66th in scoring defense. Their linebacker play has been terrible though they get good push on the defensive line and they have speed in the secondary. That said, the Hokie offensive line play particularly in the passing game has been the best they've had in 6 years. I think Tech can block this front 7 and I know for a fact that the receivers have a chip on their shoulder about this game. The opportunity to score some points is there.
Clemson offense vs. Virginia Tech defense
The question is how many points will be enough? And the answer to that question is actually dependent on another question - which Clemson offense shows up for the ACC title game? If it shows up with the 5 NFL-caliber players ready to go (RB Andre Ellington, TE Dwayne Allen, WR's Sammy Watkins and Deandre Hopkins and C Dalton Freeman) like they were the first 4 games of the season, well we already know what they are capable of. They will try and run and run and run and then hit you down the seams with the TE or deep with Watkins and Hopkins.
However, if the Clemson offense that has shown up the past 3 games is what comes to Charlotte, the Hokies could be feasting. The Tigers have had turnovers, missed blocks, dropped balls and given up sacks. Even superior talent and a very clever offensive scheme can't overcome lack of execution. For that reason, I don't think I can EVER remember a game where the first quarter will be so absolutely critical. If the Hokies can come out and put up a score or two and shut the Clemson offense down for a few possessions or create a turnover, I think Clemson will fold. Their confidence is already shaken and that would likely be the nail in the coffin.
But we all know that sharp first quarters are NOT historically what Virginia Tech has delivered. The UVa game was so refreshing to see Tech play so strong early in the game. But it was rare. And if Clemson can regain some confidence by moving the ball and scoring a few times in the first quarter to early 2nd quarter, they are incredibly dangerous. I think Clemson is bringing an "us against the world" mentality to this ACC title game. I don't expect them to play very tight. I just think a few mistakes by either team in the first quarter would be enough to practically decide the game.
Coach Beamer and his staff have been here many times before playing for a conference title and there are quite a few players from last year's ACC championship squad who will play on Saturday. Coach Swinney has only been to this game once, they lost and there are almost no Clemson players who have been on this stage before. That is another edge that the Hokies bring to this game. But when the starting gun sounds, all that psychology could get thrown out of the window because it's going to be about buckling chin straps and going out and executing. Can VT get an early round knock-out of an already reeling Tigers' squad or will Clemson find it's early-season mojo and go 2-0 against the Hokies this year? We'll all see at 8:02 PM EST on Saturday night.