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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Clemson Tigers

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Hang on to your hats, here we go!

College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

It took some time, but the Virginia Cavaliers finally got on the field and got a game—a win, even—under their belts. That’s good, because things get just a little bit tougher this week as the Hoos travel to face the top-ranked Clemson Tigers.

It’ll be a strange few days for the Hoos. It’s their first time traveling as a team during the pandemic. It’s also Clemson, the four time defending ACC champion and last year’s national runner-up. Oh, and they beat the Hoos 62-17 in last year’s ACC Championship game. Mental resilience—and a short term memory—is going to be just as important in the preparations as the physical practices themselves.

The Tigers are 2-0 this year, and coming off a bye week. They started by beating Wake Forest 37-13 and then shellacked an overmatched Citadel team 49-0, with Clemson outscoring its two opponents by a combined 76-0 in the first half.

When: Saturday, October 3 at 8PM Eastern.
Where: Memorial Stadium (“Death Valley”), Clemson, SC
TV: ACC Network

Let’s get on to the matchups.

Virginia on Defense

Again, we start with Virginia’s defense as the stronger unit. This also gives us a look at Clemson’s star-studded offense, which of course begins with the presumptive #1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, QB Trevor Lawrence.

In last year’s contest between Virginia and Clemson, Lawrence completed 16-of-22 for 302 yards, which represents a very elite 13.7 yards per attempt (ypa). So far this year, he’s over 14 ypa, which would have led the nation last year by a significant amount. He averaged 9 ypa last year, which was 11th nationally.

Lawrence also ran for 24 yards on 6 carries in that game, a number that also includes two sacks. That highlights one of the reasons he’s going to be the top pick in the draft. He’s got a strong arm and a high football IQ, that part is obvious, but in today’s NFL, quarterbacks must be able to move as well. Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and Joe Burrow are all young QBs with the ability to make plays with their legs. Lawrence has that as well. In two full seasons plus two games, Lawrence has over 700 rush yards and 13 TDs.

Lawrence isn’t the only projected first round pick on this offense. RB Travis Etienne could’ve gone pro this year and potentially been a first round pick. He chose to come back and he’s likely going to break the all-time ACC rushing record (he’s about 400 yards from the record). He’s averaged almost 8 yards per carry for his career. That is sick.

At 5’10” 205, he’s compact and he has outstanding speed and burst.

We’ve seen this same play from Virginia, with Joe Reed in the backfield. The misdirection gives Etienne enough time (and space) to read the play in front of him. The Clemson OL pretty much clears the way for him. Notice the two GT defenders who think they have the angle on Etienne and then...don’t. And Etienne is not getting caught from behind.

In last year’s contest, he rushed for 114 yards on just 14 carries. Through two games this year, he has 170 yards and a TD on the ground, plus 4 receptions for 58 yards. He’s a weapon in the passing game as well.

That’s a tough throw and a tough catch.

Thing about Etienne though is he’s a speed guy as opposed to a power runner. That means he really needs a hole to run through. If you can get penetration in the backfield and keep him from getting moving north-south, you can slow him down. He’ll try to bounce it outside and look for a hole. But if you can keep stringing him out, you can get the stop. Once he gets going north-south he’s just too fast.

Juwon Briggs makes this play happen. He just dominates his man and shoves him right into Etienne. That forces Etienne to bounce outside and enough Wahoo defenders are there to make the stop. That’s the kind of effort you need to stop this Clemson offense. Virginia may just have the defense to do that though.

That’s a very similar play, except it’s Mandy Alonso crashing into the backfield. That’s how Virginia held Duke to 56 yards rushing (that includes sacks). The two Duke RBs totaled 82 yards on 22 carries (3.7 ypc).

Yes, Duke’s OL isn’t great. To exactly nobody’s surprise, Clemson’s is better. But, if there’s a weakness to this Clemson team (and there may not be), it’s the OL. It’s a young and mostly inexperienced unit. It’s also a big unit, averaging well over 300 pounds. The leader of the unit is 335 lb LT Jackson Carman. He started all last year as a sophomore and performed very well. He’s the only returning starter from last year. The rest of the unit is, of course, top recruits. The only exception is maybe Cade Stewart, at C, who was not heavily recruited, but still, he’s been a key backup for three years and has earned the starting gig. Briggs had a strong game against Duke, and this is a matchup he can consistently win.

In that game last year, Clemson’s top WR Tee Higgins had 9 catches for 182 yards and 3 TDs. As we’ve discussed in the past, by that point in the season Virginia’s secondary was not in good shape and it showed. Higgins is now in the NFL. Clemson’s second leading receiver last year was Justyn Ross. He was a likely first round pick, but now he’s out indefinitely with a spinal injury. He has had surgery and hopes to return, but his career is in jeopardy.

Ross’s absence leaves just four 4-star WRs left for Lawrence to throw to (for shame!). One of those is redshirt senior Amari Rodgers, who has 110 career receptions for over 1200 yards. That’s more than the rest of the WR corps put together (excluding Ross, who is still on the roster but will not play this year). He’s been overshadowed by Higgins and Ross, but he’s a burner and a big play waiting to happen.

Yes, it’s Citadel. But Rodgers just runs right by the defender and Lawrence makes a perfect throw..

Rodgers is also dangerous on sweeps, end arounds, etc.

Rodgers leads the team in receptions and yards, but sophomore Frank Ladson, Jr isn’t far behind him. Ladson was a top-50 overall player last year. He’s 6’3” 205 and he’s very fast. He’s the next big thing at WR for the Tigers. And seeing how Duke’s TEs gashed the Hoos, watch out for TE Braden Galloway over the middle.

Look, this offense is really too good to completely shut down. Too many weapons and Lawrence is too good. But if you can get pressure into the backfield, and do it without having to sacrifice coverage, you can slow them down. Last year, Virginia sacked Lawrence twice and came away with seven TFLs. They also batted down two passes at the line. But they couldn’t compete on the back end, because Clemson’s WRs were too good, and the Virginia secondary was down three of its top contributors.

Clemson’s WRs are still good. But not as good as Higgins and Ross. And Virginia’s secondary is healthy (we hope) and ready to go. And Virginia’s front 7, led by OLBs Charles Snowden, Noah Taylor and Matt Gahm, can compete with anybody.

Virginia on Offense

Against Duke, Virginia finished with 450 total yards. That’s a solid output. It took some time to get going. Virginia had just 88 yards after the first quarter, and zero points.

But it wasn’t all that surprising that they struggled early. New QB, new TE, mostly new WRs. And they were going against an experienced defense with multiple NFL prospects. Brennan Armstrong ended up with a respectable line. But the running game (including Armstrong) was really the star of the show.

That’ll be tougher against a Clemson front seven that boast top tier talent across the board. Tyler Davis was one of the top DL prospects in the nation last year and started from day 1. He finished second on the team in sacks and fourth in TFLs. And senior DE Justin Foster was second on the team in TFLs and is a beast pass rusher off the edge. Opposite Foster is sophomore K.J. Henry, who was the #6 overall recruit (according to ESPN) in 2018 and was a productive backup for the Tigers last year.

This is a bit of a coverage sack, but Henry just throws the RT away and gets to the QB. Henry is just scratching the surface of what he can be.

Virginia has done some shuffling on the OL depth chart since the Duke game. Most notably, moving Ryan Swoboda from LT to RT. With a left-handed QB, the RT is the blind side, and that’s the most important OL position for the Hoos. Swoboda probably has the most potential at OT on the roster, especially as a pass blocker. Ryan Nelson moves back outside to LT, where he started as a redshirt freshman before moving inside most of last year. And Dillon Reinkensmeyer moves inside to LG. It will be interesting to see what happens when Bobby Haskins returns from injury.

Armstrong ended up 25/48 passing, which isn’t great. But considering he started out just 11/25, those final numbers are pretty good. He seemed tentative early on, and most of his throws were underthrown. But once he scored the TD on the ground, he seemed to get settled in.

Yes, he made a terrible throw late in the third quarter which led to a quick Duke TD.

I’m not even sure what happened on this throw. It looks to have been intended for Terrell Jana, but was overthrown. Or, possibly was intended for Billy Kemp but was (very) underthrown. Either way, it was a poor decision and a worse throw. Armstrong will learn from it. It does seem that Armstrong is more comfortable with driving the ball than he is with touch passes. He has a cannon for a left arm and is still learning how to be feathery with it.

By the way, Bryce Perkins had similar problems with touch passes. It’s why we haven’t seen traditional screen passes from Virginia QBs. They require touch. The WR screens that we tend to see do not require the same touch.

Armstrong made some impressive throws, none more so than this one.

Lavel Davis gets the kudos here for fighting into the endzone. But this is a great throw. Getting it over the LB and in front of the DB is not easy. And it’s right in Davis’ breadbasket. If that ball doesn’t have enough zip, it’s picked off and the DB might still be running today.

We highlighted those deep sideline passes in last week’s preview. Three of the biggest plays of the game were deep sideline passes to Davis. Expect to see those again against Clemson, assuming Armstrong has enough time to throw.

That’s a similar throw to the one Armstrong made above. Beyond the underneath zone and in front of the deep safety. That’s sophomore Andrew Booth (#23) who is beaten on the play. With no underneath receiver, he can’t let that much space behind him. Booth is who Virginia will pick on, because Derion Kendrick on the other side is trouble.

Clemson showed a lot of zone against Wake, trusting their front four to get to the QB. It worked, as they had six sacks (a couple of those came in garbage time).

The Tigers lost four of the top 5 tacklers from last year’s team, but two of the top three in both sacks and TFLs return. Other than Davis and Foster, sophomore LB Jake Venables was third in TFLs (9.5). Venables, by the way, is the son of the Clemson’s defensive coordinator. His brother Tyler is a freshman safety. The leader of the defense right now is senior LB James Skalski, last year’s second leading tackler and a tough, hard-nosed run-stopper in the same mold as Zane Zandier. Clemson has played so much garbage time that Skalski has just 28 snaps in two games.

The loss of top tier talent like Isaiah Simmons, A.J. Terrell and a few others mean this defense isn’t as good as last year’s unit. Especially right now, at the beginning of the season with no real spring practice and a modified fall camp. Getting Clemson early this year is a blessing. We’ll see if Virginia can take advantage.


This Virginia team matches up better with Clemson than last year’s did. Health is important, but last year’s team was young and most of those guys are back. The defense is much more ready to compete with the Tigers right now. And, while this Virginia offense isn’t as accomplished as last year’s Bryce Perkins-led group, this unit seems to have a strong running game and Clemsons’ defense is still developing.

That’s not to say that Virginia is going to pull the upset. Clemson is still more talented at almost every position, especially at QB and RB. It seems crazy to want to force the ball into the hands of the presumptive #1 pick in the NFL Draft, but that’s what Virginia has to do. If Virginia can stop Etienne and make Lawrence drop back to pass, then the Virginia pass rush can do it’s thing. If Virginia can get to Lawrence and perhaps force a couple of mistakes, then maybe they can pull the upset.

That’s a lot of ifs, though.

Prediction: Clemson 42, Virginia 17 (season record: 1-0)