Clem­son con­test not just an­other game for Jack­son

Richmond Times-Dispatch Weekend - - Sports -

When Justin Fuente ar­rived at Vir­ginia Tech late in the fall of 2015, he saw a team with­out a start­ing quar­ter­back for 2016, an in­com­ing class of play­ers he didn’t re­cruit and a pro­gram that had good “bones,” but needed some re­hab work.

Fuente did what any smart coach would do in this era of of­fen­sive-driven foot­ball. He found a ju­nior col­lege quar­ter­back, Jerod Evans, to get the Hok­ies through 2016.

Fuente thought Evans would be an even big­ger part of the Hok­ies’ of­fense in 2017, but Evans de­cided to turn pro. Evans’ NFL hopes have been dashed, for now at least. In­stead of lead­ing the Hok­ies on the field, Evans vis­its NFL teams, upon re­quest, on Tues­days for work­outs to see if he can land a spot on an emer­gency list or prac­tice squad.

Fuente was lucky, though. The quar­ter­back he thought had po­ten­tial as a true fresh­man has de­vel­oped into a true col­lege quar­ter­back as a red­shirt fresh­man.

Josh Jack­son has led the Hok­ies to a 4-0 record. He’s

an ac­cu­rate passer, a ca­pa­ble run­ner and has been un­flap­pable no mat­ter the sit­u­a­tion.

Jack­son’s un­flap­pa­bil­ity will re­ceive the sternest test of his young col­lege ca­reer on Satur­day night, when the Clem­son Tigers pounce onto Wor­sham Field in Lane Sta­dium on Frank Beamer Way.

“The first game was a pretty big game,” Fuente said of Vir­ginia Tech’s sea­son opener against West Vir­ginia. “That was a pretty fan­tas­tic at­mos­phere.”

That game was played at FedEx Field in Lan­dover, Md. The joint was jammed. And, yes, for a red­shirt fresh­man’s first start, the Moun­taineers were a for­mi­da­ble op­po­nent.

Jack­son ac­quit­ted him­self ad­mirably — 15-26 for 235 yards and a touch­down with no in­ter­cep­tions. He also ran for 101 yards in the 31-24 vic­tory.

West Vir­ginia isn’t Clem­son. The Tigers are the de­fend­ing na­tional cham­pi­ons. Clem­son is

4-0 this sea­son, with vic­to­ries over two Top 25 teams, at home against Auburn and at Louisville.

The Tigers aren’t to be taken lightly.

Do you care to re­think how big of a game this is, Coach Fuente?

“There’s no com­par­ing those schools,” Fuente said. “Clem­son is one of the elite teams in all of Amer­ica right now. There’s no de­bat­ing that.

“I’ve seen Josh’s prepa­ra­tion re­main the same through our first four weeks. I haven’t seen any change in his de­meanor. He’s a pretty level-headed kid. He takes ev­ery­thing in stride. He takes the good with the bad. He un­der­stands the chal­lenges in front of him.”

Di­rectly in front of him on Satur­day night will be the Clem­son de­fen­sive line, touted as one of the best in the coun­try. The Tigers have 17 sacks in four games. They have al­lowed an av­er­age of 92 yards rush­ing per game. Op­po­nents have con­verted just 29 per­cent of their third-down plays.

You don’t beat Clem­son un­less you beat them up front.

Jack­son is still un­flap­pable. “They def­i­nitely have a great de­fen­sive line,” he said. “I re­ally can’t think about that be­cause it might af­fect my play. I’m just go­ing to play like I al­ways play.”

This game could have a ma­jor ef­fect on the Hok­ies’ for­tunes the rest of the sea­son. They are ranked 12th in the coun­try. A vic­tory over the No. 2 team no doubt would lift Vir­ginia Tech into the top 10.

And if you’re in the top 10 and keep win­ning . ... well, all kinds of things can hap­pen.

“I wouldn’t say we’re think­ing of it like that,” Jack­son said. “We are think­ing of it as just an­other game. It does have ev­ery­thing be­hind it and all that, but it’s one con­fer­ence game and that’s re­ally all it stands for at the end of the day.”

Yeah, well, that sounds nice, rea­son­able even. But this isn’t just an­other game.

“This is a fan­tas­tic op­por­tu­nity not just to show off our foot­ball team, but also our school,” Fuente said. “There is a tremen­dous amount of school pride at Vir­ginia Tech.”

Fuente was chan­nel­ing his in­ner Frank Beamer, his pre­de­ces­sor in Blacks­burg. Beamer said some­thing sim­i­lar be­fore Vir­ginia Tech played Ohio State, the de­fend­ing na­tional cham­pion and pre­sea­son No. 1 team, in the sea­son opener on Wor­sham Field in Lane Sta­dium in 2015, be­fore Beamer Way ex­isted.

Un­for­tu­nately for Beamer and the Hok­ies, Ohio State won 42-24. In the past 20 years, Vir­ginia Tech is 6-18 against Top 10 teams.

If Fuente and his Hok­ies want to change the nar­ra­tive of Vir­ginia Tech foot­ball, they need to channel a dif­fer­ent out­come against Clem­son.

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