Tigers win as unit against VT
CLEMSON — If I’d have told you Virginia Tech would outgain Clemson by over 100 yards Saturday, what would you have thought?
Given that the Tigers’ defense entered as one of the bottom 25 defenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision, chances are your mindset would be less than positive.
So how do you explain Clemson 38, Virginia Tech 17? The word you’re looking for: anomaly.
For just the second time in 20 years, the Tigers won a game by more than 20 points in which they were outgained by over 100 yards – 406-295. The only other time? 2010’s 31-7 win over Maryland.
Clemson won without playing its best game, building confidence for a struggling defense at the same time.
Entering a short turnaround week for Thursday’s 7:30 p.m., ESPN-nationally televised game at Wake Forest, Clemson is No.14 in the Associated Press top 25, 6-1 overall and 3-1 in ACC play; the Tigers remain in contention for their second consecutive ACC Atlantic Division and ACC overall crowns, although they must sweep their final four ACC games and hope Florida State slips along the way.
Here are five things we learned from this week’s unusual rout:
1. A young defense is improving: Saturday marked Clemson’s best defensive output of the year, and best yardage output of ACC play – entering the game, the Tigers had allowed 523 yards and 37 points per game to league foes. Four forced turnovers doubled the season high, including Jonathan Meeks’ 74-yard interception return score, the program’s first pick-six in over a year. The Tigers’ average offensive field position was their own 41 – starting at their 49 in the second quarter, their 47 in the third and the 41 in their fourth. That’s directly related to a strong defensive effort. Following a poor first drive, Brent Venables’ defense improved as the day wore on, allowing only 158 yards and one drive of more than 36 yards after halftime. Tackling remains an issue, but there was improvement from a disastrous effort against Georgia Tech, due to open-week work on fundamentals. If that trend continues, an already-dangerous team will be even more frightening.
2. Spencer Shuey is very capable: The junior has been a forgotten man in a linebacker group populated by high-profile recruits, including five-star signees Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward. He had only 116 snaps in two seasons; he has surpassed that total in seven games.
Venables has shown he believes in production, not a star system. He anointed Anthony his day 1 starter at middle linebacker, shuffling two-year starter Corico Wright into a reserve role at “Will” linebacker. Shuey supplanted Anthony down the stretch against Georgia Tech, making a key safety. He outperformed Anthony in practice, and earned a start – then validated the call with nine tackles, including a team-leading 2.5 for loss. Shuey is far from flashy, but he is technically sound and productive – two things this defense needs.
3. Sammy Watkins should be just fine: Suspension and illness derailed the first half of Watkins’ sophomore season: he entered Saturday with just 116 receiving yards and no receiving touchdowns. While that receiving score remains elusive, Watkins had eight catches for 84 yards, his most productive day of 2012. With DeAndre Hopkins’ emergence as a legit No.1 receiver, along with the presence of Brandon Ford and Andre Ellington, defenses are forced to pick their poison. More often than not, a healthy Watkins or Hopkins will make them pay dearly.
4. Tajh Boyd is human: The junior quarterback had his worst day of the season, completing 12 of 21 passes for 160 yards with one touchdown against one interception; he was sacked five times, and Clemson had six three-and-out possessions. His passes lacked some touch, and Boyd admitted he had some mechanical issues to work out that caused several throws to sail. However, he showed toughness with 20 carries (15 counting sacks). Without sack yardage taken away, Boyd rushed for 77 yards, scored two touchdowns and extended several drives. Chad Morris will be concerned, but chances are this is an outlier in a productive junior season.
5. The secondary is getting thinner: The Tigers’ secondary was already thin before junior cornerback Martin Jenkins was lost for the season with a groin injury, making coverage issues difficult to correct. Junior Darius Robinson had struggled, and was benched at Boston College. He didn’t play a single defensive snap against Georgia Tech, but earned a starting role during the open week. It didn’t last long; he was carted off with his left leg in an air cast. Dabo Swinney said the ankle isn’t broken, but is believed to be a severe sprain. He’ll be out this week against Wake Forest and likely longer. Expect more of senior Xavier Brewer at cornerback and more of Meeks and Rashard Hall, as well as Travis Blanks, at safety. This group can’t afford more adversity.