October 19, 2012

Know Your Enemy: Clemson

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Each game, we'll get the inside look at Virginia Tech's opponent by talking with the opposing team's beat writer. This week, we spoke with TigerIllustrated.com senior writer Larry Williams to get the inside look at Clemson

1) Who's the better wide receiver, or maybe more valuable, Sammy Watkins or DeAndre Hopkins

Williams: Well so far this season it's been Hopkins. He's been nothing short of amazing. In fairness, it's been a tough go so far for Watkins. He sat out the first two games due to suspension, and then after playing a half against Furman he came down with an illness just in time for the Florida State game and wasn't himself that night.

Watkins missed the Boston College game and lost a bunch of weight as a result of an illness. The open date helped him, and by all accounts he's ready to roll now heading into the second half of the season.

When he's full strength, Watkins is a tremendous weapon because defenses have to account for him horizontally and vertically. Hopkins doesn't present that sort of versatility, but he's almost impossible to cover one-on-one because he has such good strength, ball skills and explosion.

Hopkins has easily been the better and more valuable receiver thus far, but I'm not going to discount the possibility of a healthy Watkins doing a bunch of mind-blowing things the rest of the season.

2) How does quarterback Tajh Boyd compare to where he was last season?

Williams: It really seems like he's grown up. The last six games of 2011 (with the exception of the ACC title game) were a downer for him because he let his weight get out of control and that reduced his mobility. Quarterback mobility is a big deal in this offense, and Boyd's productivity as a runner has really been apparent in the first six games. It opens up a whole new element to Chad Morris' scheme because it gives defenses something else to worry about.

As a passer, I think Boyd is less prone to making reckless decisions. He forced things a lot more last season, and that's to be expected with a first-year starter. You're seeing him spread the ball around to a lot of different places this season, and I believe that's the result of patience and increased grasp of the system.

His pocket awareness has been really good. He's extended a number of drives by squirting free from pressure and picking up yards on the run.

Boyd was off his game against Georgia Tech, and it'll be interesting to see what happens Saturday. I tend to think that was just a hiccup and he'll be fine.

3) Why has Clemson's defense struggled so much?

Williams: Given that they lost their top three players from a bad defense (Andre Branch, Brandon Thompson, Coty Sensabaugh) last year, it shouldn't be a great surprise to see this group as bad and probably worse than the 2011 bunch.

They really have issues at all three levels -- no dominant player on the defensive line, hesitation at linebacker, and poor angles/bad tackling/poor pass coverage at defensive back.

They bit the bullet with a 12-man recruiting class in 2009, Dabo Swinney's first, and I think the lack of numbers is coming back to bite them because a bigger class would've left them with more redshirt juniors and true seniors this season. They've also had some evaluation misses that have come back to haunt them.

The tackling has been really bad, and that's something we're seeing across college football. Swinney tried to improve it by going to full-contact practices two weeks in a row, and we saw some positive signs against Boston College and Georgia Tech but still way too many instances of poor tackling fundamentals.

You can cover up weaknesses elsewhere if you're good on the defensive line, and the Tigers lost two good ones in Branch and Thompson. The line has been more disruptive in the second half of the past two games, and not coincidentally the defense made more stops during those stretches.

I did think the linebackers would be better this season. Aside from Tig Willard, it's been a struggle.

4) Clemson's offense is made to be high-powered, but does the offense feel like it has to score even more because of the defensive struggles?

Williams: Yeah, you certainly get that vibe. I really felt bad for the offensive guys during the loss at Florida State because of how quickly leads of 28-14 and 31-21 vanished in the 49-37 defeat. It has to be demoralizing to an offense to see something like that happen.

But I don't detect much anger or friction from the offensive guys. I really think they're just stoked to be so powerful and potent. They're having a lot of fun putting up big numbers against just about everyone they play.

5) This game was really hyped up before the season, but since Virginia Tech has had so many difficulties, has Clemson's mindset changed at all going into this game?

Williams: You know it's hard to say. I think Clemson has a lot of confidence against Tech based on last year's domination of the Hokies, and that confidence would be present even if Virginia Tech came in undefeated.

I'd bet Swinney has played up the angle of Virginia Tech being the kings of the ACC for the better part of the last eight or nine years, trying to motivate his team to knock the Hokies from their throne for good.

In that context it's a game potentially rich in symbolism. A Clemson win would end Tech's streak of eight 10-win seasons in a row, and that would send a strong message that Virginia Tech is no longer the class of this conference. The loss at Florida State keeps Clemson from staking a claim as the king of the ACC (at least for now), but the Tigers could take a big share of the responsibility for knocking the Hokies from their long-held perch.

The two spankings of Tech last season seemed almost apocalyptic because we were so used to the Hokies thriving in those two settings (Blacksburg and the ACC title game). A convincing Clemson victory in this one would reinforce a new hierarchy in the ACC.

Prediction: I'll say Clemson 38-27


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