The ACC once again took center stage on Saturday night, as defending national champion Clemson visited Virginia Tech in a key early season conference battle in Blacksburg, Va.
Dabo Swinney’s second-ranked Tigers went up against Justin Fuente’s No. 12 Hokies in a battle of unbeatens. And it was clear from the get-go that the champs fully intend to make it awfully difficult for any team to put a blemish on their mark in 2017.
Behind the strong first-half play of first-year starting quarterback Kelly Bryant and its standout defense, Clemson put an exclamation point on its very impressive first month of football, closing out September with another win over a quality opponent. The 31-17 decision over Virginia Tech was its third win over a top 15 opponent before the month of October, which had never been done before by any program.
On Virginia Tech’s opening possession, Clemson immediately made clear that it intended to make quarterback Josh Jackson uncomfortable all night, getting pressure on him from the opening snap and forcing a three-and-out. After a poor punt, Bryant connected with Ray-Ray McCloud on a 27-yard completion on third-and-6. But the drive stalled, and the Tigers settled for an Alex Spence 23-yard field goal, which was his first career attempt after he took over for veteran Greg Huegel, who was lost for the season because of an injury.
The Tigers stretched their lead on the ensuing possession after Jackson was stopped on third-and-1 by Clelin Ferrell for a second consecutive three-and-out. A blown assignment by linebacker Tremaine Edmunds led to a Bryant touchdown pass to Tavien Feaster, who snuck out of the backfield to take a 60-yard reception to the house on third-and-4. For all of the talk about star true freshman tailback Travis Etienne, it was Feaster who provided early fireworks for this offense.
An illegal formation penalty negated what would have been a Hokies first down when they took over possession, and another punt followed. Not being able to generate much offense was unfortunately the norm for the Hokies in the first half, which is the fate of most offenses when dealing with a Brent Venables-coordinated defense. There weren’t many creases for Jackson to make plays with his legs, and the Tigers pass rush made life difficult for the young signal caller. After a quarter of play, Clemson had outgained VT 145-35.
Meanwhile, Bryant began to take over the game with his legs on a second-quarter drive that ended with a Spence missed 41-yard field-goal attempt to keep the lead at 10. That’s an element to this offense that is crucial to Clemson’s success, even though Bryant has shown that he can make plays through the air. He will only continue to get better with his reads on run plays, and his ability to complement the deep stable of running backs as well as sidestep the rush makes this offense even more difficult to contain. He finished with 94 yards on the ground.
The Hokies finally made it onto the scoreboard following a late second-quarter drive in which they had more yards than their first five combined. It ended with a 43-yard Joey Slye field goal, and the drive covered 10 plays and 52 yards over 4:37.
But the Tigers answered right away. Bryant connected with Deon Cain on passes of 35 and 20 yards to set up a C.J. Fuller 1-yard scoring plunge. It was once again a perfectly executed Clemson 2-minute drive, and it gave the Tigers a 17-3 lead.
Fittingly, after being able to move the football for a second consecutive drive, VT failed to score any more points before the half when Slye missed a 45-yard field-goal attempt. It was that kind of night for Fuente’s team, which was held to 149 total yards after two quarters and went 4 of 15 on third downs for the game.
The Hokies brought the pressure on Bryant to start the second half, forcing a Tigers punt on the opening possession. But the first turnover of the night for either team occurred on VT’s ensuing drive, as Travon McMillian lost a fumble on the second play, just the Hokies’ third turnover of the season. It was forced by Dexter Lawrence and recovered by Dorian O’Daniel, who had a pick-6 of Lamar Jackson in the win at Louisville. And it was a deadly giveaway.
The fumble recovery set up a Feaster 1-yard scoring run, which occurred when Swinney elected to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1. It stretched the lead to 24-3, and it was rather clear that Clemson was going to pass yet another early season test. Tech tried just about everything, including a fake field-goal attempt toward the end of the third quarter. Nothing worked.
Tech was able to find the end zone very early in the fourth quarter after Greg Stroman returned a Will Spiers punt 43 yards to the Clemson 2-yard line. Sean Savoy ran for it in on the next play to make it 24-10. The defense then forced another Tigers punt, but O’Daniel was in the right place at the right time once again. A Jackson pass went off the hands of Henri Murphy, and the linebacker returned it 22 yards for a score to extend the lead back to 3 touchdowns. And it served as the final nail in the coffin.
Despite the loss, the Hokies may not be eliminated from College Football Playoff consideration. While their schedule up to this point has not been too strong — Delaware, East Carolina and Old Dominion were the victims the past three weeks — Tech has a win over a solid West Virginia squad, which checked in at No. 23 in the AP Top 25 poll this week. And keep in mind that these teams could potentially meet again in the ACC title game with a possible bid from the selection committee on the line. Of course, these programs met in last year’s conference championship game, where Clemson used 5 Deshaun Watson touchdowns to score a 42-35 victory.
Tech entered its contest at Lane Stadium at 4-0 for the first time since 2011. In that year’s fifth game, the Hokies fell to Clemson. Despite suffering a similar fate on Saturday night, Tech will have a chance to have victories over WVU, at Miami and possibly against Clemson in a title game rematch. Of course, a lot of improvement will have to be made between now and then.
We’ll see if Fuente can get his Hokies to regroup and recover in order to compete for the Coastal Division crown and the right to have a likely rematch against the defending champs.
But it was clear on Saturday night that Clemson is in a league of its own in the deep and much-improved ACC. Much like the situation Alabama is enjoying in the SEC.
The post Eye of the Clemson Tigers stays focused as class of ACC appeared first on Diehards.
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