What worked for the Tigers? Persistence, poise and, most of all, 3rd-down defense

Tigers pound away with the run, win special teams game, match-and-better physical VT up front

Clemson linebacker Jonathan Willard (46) tackles Virginia Tech running back David Wilson (4).

Photo by Ken Ruinard

Clemson linebacker Jonathan Willard (46) tackles Virginia Tech running back David Wilson (4).

What Worked For the Tigers…

Neither Kevin Steele nor Chad Morris was claiming perfection, but without question, Clemson's 23-3 victory over Virginia Tech Saturday night was a whole-team, complete game affair. Let's take a look at some of the things the Tigers made work in their favor against the Hokies:

Persistence: For the second straight game, the Tigers averaged less than three yards per rushing attempt. For the second straight game, they kept at it with dogged persistence. And for the second straight game, the running game set the stage for a big-play passing game that provided the punch for a victory over a top 15 opponent. The Tigers did more on the ground than set the stage, of course. Andre Ellington hammered the ball into the end zone for the Tigers’ go-ahead touchdown, and Mike Bellamy gave the lunch bucket a resounding kick with a clinching touchdown burst. And Tajh Boyd showed that he ran impact the game with his legs – either on scrambles or designed keepers.

Toughness in the trenches: The Tigers went to toe-to-toe with one of the nation’s most physical teams and won its share, and more, of the battles up front. Throughout the game, Clemson dared to run into the teeth of Tech’s defensive front in short-yardage situations, and in most cases, they got the yardage they were looking for. Meanwhile, the Tigers’ defensive front four battled the Hokies’ own persistent running game and created game-long pressure when Virginia Tech faced pacing situations. Malliciah Goodman spent the first half in the Hokie backfield, and by the end, Andre Branch was whipping his blocker at will.

Andre Branch: Speaking of the Tigers’ senior defensive end – what a homecoming. He carried the captain’s banner into the game, and he played like he was determined to do his share and more. After a rough start – a holding penalty on a fumble recovery return and an iffy late-hit personal foul call on the sideline - he settled in and eventually took over the game. One of his defining moments came when, on the play after David Wilson had reversed field and turned a seemingly certain double-digit loss into a 20-yard gain, he slammed Josh Oglesby down for a one-yard loss and signaled that the Tigers had moved on to their next order of business. He followed with a second-down stop and then a third-down sack to force a punt. Branch finished things off with pair of sacks of Logan Thomas that officially put the Tigers in celebration mode.

Third-down defense: The Tigers chewed up Auburn and beat Florida State by dominating third-down offensively; and the offense was pretty good again against the Hokies, converting 41 percent (7-of-17). But this time, it was the defense’s turn to shine. The Tigers did most of their defensive damage on third down, beginning with Xavier Brewer’s interception of a deflected pass on Virginia Tech’s first possession. The Hokies converted their next third-down chance in short yardage, but then failed to convert on third-and-seven, when Jonathan Meeks clipped down Danny Coale after a short reception. Meeks came up with Clemson’s next third-down stop in coverage, and the Tigers began to assert their third-down dominance with a pressure-induced incompletion for a red-zone stop late in the second quarter. They finished the first half with a third-down PBU by Coty Sensabaugh, got a stop to open the second half on a tackle by Tig Willard, another on a third-down tackle for loss by Rashard Hall, followed by a sack by Andre Branch and a tackle by Carlton Lewis. By the time Mike Bellamy reeled off his 31-yard touchdown run, the Tigers had a string of nine third-down stops in 11 attempts. The Clemson defense finished 12-of-16 on third down.

Punt protection: The Tigers’ protection was so shaky against Florida State that Dawson Zimmerman ended up with a bum knee. The Hokies – renowned for turning blocked punts into easy touchdowns – came at Zimmerman with everything they had Saturday night, but to no avail. The Tigers held up at every point, Zimmerman got the ball off quickly, and all the Hokies got for their effort was a roughing penalty on the game’s first possession. Give former long-time Virginia Tech assistant Danny Pearman a game ball.

Offensive versatility: Virginia Tech was up to the task of neutralizing Sammy Watkins – at least numerically, as he caught just three passes for 38 yards. Still, Watkins managed to make an impact by contributing big plays to Clemson’s first two scoring drives. Meanwhile, as the Hokies focused on Watkins, the Tigers went elsewhere for their offense – mainly to Dwayne Allen (four catches for 75 yards and a touchdown), and Jaron Brown (three catches for 56 yards). The passing game contributed 204 yards to Clemson 323 total yards, while Tajh Boyd, Andre Ellington and Mike Bellamy gained 115 yards on 32 rushing attempts.

Tajh Boyd’s poise: Virginia Tech pressured and covered, and Boyd’s string of eye-popping numbers came to an end with a 13-of-32 passing performance. But the sophomore showed as much against the Hokies has he had in any other game in terms of poise and composure. He made plays in the passing game when the Tigers needed them, and he continued in his development as a running threat.

Fan power: A sizeable Clemson contingent made the trek to Blacksburg, and no one seemed to mind the 40-degree temperatures and wind-whipped rain. Then, when the Tigers arrived back on campus at 2 a.m., they received a large, raucous and appreciative reception.

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