Tigers could chew up Hokies’ defense
Clemson could take berth in ACC title game with victory
As he began studying video of Virginia Tech’s defense this week, a number of things stood out to Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.
The Hokies, he could see, clearly have dealt with players being in and out of the lineup, and they have depth issues that have led to them playing some defenders for most of the snaps in games.
“Virginia Tech looks a little bit all over the place, kind of searching,” Elliott said.
“They’re trying to do a lot of things, trying to figure out what their identity is. And they may not have all their pieces week in and week out.”
The assessment of the Hokies’ defense is reasonable and scathing. Nine games into the 2020 season, the unit still hasn’t found an identity under new coordinator Justin Hamilton, even reverting the past two games to using more of the concepts
it employed for decades under former coordinator Bud Foster.
The results haven’t been pretty, and things may only get worse Saturday night when Tech (4-5, 4-4 ACC) hosts the third-ranked Tigers, who lead the ACC averaging 46 points per game.
Elliott’s review of the Hokies certainly wasn’t glowing, but Tech senior defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt agreed with his point.
“I think, looking at our film from the outside in, you could probably say something like that,” Hewitt said. “One game we look great. The next game, we look in between and the next game, we don’t look good at all defensively.”
Nickel back Chamarri Conner has started every game, the only player in the secondary to do that this season for the Hokies. Tech uses a rotation of linebackers Rayshard Ashby, Dax Hollifield and Alan Tisdale, and defensive tackle Norrell Pollard has started every week.
Other than that, the defensive lineup has been in a state of flux due to injuries and COVID-19 testing and contact tracing issues.
Tech is allowing 32.6 points per game, the fourth most in the ACC, and giving up 463 total yards an outing, the second most in the conference.
That puts the Hokies on pace for their worst defensive season since allowing 34.5 points per game in 1973. Tech went 2-9 and fired coach Charlie Coffey.
So how bad might things get for the Hokies on Saturday night when they face Clemson’s offensive stars, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne?
The Tigers (8-1, 7-1) have scored more than 40 points in six of their nine games this season. Two of the three where they didn’t were the games Lawrence missed against Boston College and Notre Dame after testing positive for COVID. No opponent has held Clemson to fewer than the 34 points they scored against BC.
The Tigers have put up 550 yards or more in four games, and they haven’t scored fewer than four touchdowns in any of their games.
“They have good receivers, got a great O-line, but at the end of the day, they have, I think, possibly the first pick in the draft in Trevor Lawrence,” Hewitt said. “You’ve got a guy that’s as explosive as anybody I’ve ever seen playing running back, Travis
Etienne. Excited to play against those guys. They’re great talent. I think that they do a great job of making things happen when there’s not a lot there.”
Clemson’s offensive masterpiece came in an Oct. 17 mauling of Georgia Tech, when they scored 10 touchdowns and piled up 671 total yards in a 73-7 decimation of the Yellow Jackets.
Clemson has the chance to have another banner day Saturday at Lane Stadium. Consider this: OnNov. 21, Pittsburgh roughed up Virginia Tech 47-14, the Hokies’ last game they played. The next weekend, Clemson rolled over the Panthers 52-17.
Making matters worse for the home team, Clemson’s loss earlier this season to Notre Dame combined with the ACC’s revised schedule means the Tigers can clinch a spot in the league championship game and a rematch with the Irish with a victory over the Hokies.
And for Lawrence, this game is one of his final chances to make an impression on Heisman Trophy voters.
All that adds up to a highly motivated Clemson team facing a disjointed Tech defense searching for an identity. And that could be a recipe for disaster.