Things to watch in ACC battle between Tech and the Tigers

By Jimmy Robertson

BLACKSBURG – The hype is almost over. College GameDay has concluded its show. Lee Corso and David Pollack picked Clemson. Desmond Howard and guest picker – and former Virginia Tech great – Bruce Smith picked the Hokies.

Now, in a matter of hours, No. 12 Virginia Tech and No. 2 Clemson meet in a battle for ACC supremacy at Lane Stadium.

The Tigers – the defending national champions – enter with a perfect 4-0 record, a seven-game winning streak against ranked teams and a school-record 11-game road winning streak. The Hokies also come in at 4-0, with a 7-1 record in home games under head coach Justin Fuente. But Tech has lost four straight to the Tigers.

Also of note, the Hokies are looking for just the second win over a top-five team in program history. In November of 2003, DeAngelo Hall and the Hokies rolled past then-No. 2 Miami 31-7 at Lane.

Tonight’s game serves as a similar stage. For Tech to duplicate the success of that evening in 2003, it needs to do the following, as here are the things to watch:

Deliver the first punch – The Hokies need a great start if, for nothing else, to keep the crowd into it, and perhaps more importantly, to put pressure on Clemson and especially quarterback Kelly Bryant. A great start means scoring first. Tech has rallied from deficits in the past – remember the Notre Dame game? – but this team lacks some of the firepower to rally from 17 down the way it did against the Irish last November.

Plus, the numbers simply back up the importance of scoring first. Remember, Tech is 12-0 under Fuente when scoring first (3-3 when it doesn’t).

Keep Clemson’s big plays to minimum – Tonight’s stage is very similar to the 2015 season opener against then-No. 1 Ohio State. Fans were into it, and the Hokies actually led at halftime. But Tech’s defense just gave up too many big plays – an 80-yard touchdown run, a 54-yard touchdown pass and a 53-yard touchdown run – and those just took away the momentum. The Buckeyes went on to a 42-24 win.

The Tech defense has done a nice job of keeping big plays to a minimum this season. In fact, the Hokies haven’t even allowed a rushing touchdown this season – and they’re the only Division I team able to say that. Keeping the big plays to a minimum needs to continue tonight.

Take advantage of opportunities – Clemson’s defense is one of the nation’s best. The Tigers lead the ACC in scoring defense and total defense. They give up less than 250 yards and 10 points per game. So one wouldn’t think that the Hokies could drive up and down the field all evening.

That said, Tech needs to take advantage of all opportunities. If the Hokies get a turnover in Clemson territory, they need to convert it into points. Joey Slye needs to make all his field goals. One gets the feeling that Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster will have their units ready, and points will be at a premium. Opportunities thus will be scarce, so the Hokies need to take advantage of theirs.

Hang in on the offensive line – Tech’s offensive line has quietly played exceptionally this season. In fact, the Hokies have given up just four sacks in four games. In contrast, Clemson entered the weekend with an ACC-leading 17 sacks.

The Tigers are ridiculously talented on the defensive line. They possess depth and experience, too. The Hokies need to hang in, protect Josh Jackson and not give up a bunch of negative plays. Tech does not need to be in third-and-8 situations often against the Tigers.

“You don’t want to get behind the chains on these guys,” Fuente agreed earlier this week. “They’ll scheme you up from a blitz standpoint and a pure rush standpoint and dropping guys into coverage.”

“This defensive front is dirty,” Pollack said of Clemson’s front at a news conference Friday. “That means really good. That’ll be a fun matchup – watching that offense [against Clemson’s defense].”

Win on special teams – Tech has won the special teams battle in every game this season – convincingly, too. Slye leads the nation in touchbacks, Greg Stroman has returned a punt for a touchdown, and Oscar Bradburn is averaging almost 45 yards per punt. The Hokies’ coverage units have been strong, too.

The Tigers also feature one of the nation’s best punters in freshman Will Spiers, the son of former Major League Baseball player Bill Spiers, who also punted for Clemson. The younger Spiers is averaging 47.1 yards per punt – a number that ranks fifth in the nation.

Overall, the Tigers are solid on special teams, though they don’t have a return for a touchdown this season. Also, keep in mind that Clemson kicker Greg Huegel tore his ACL in practice before last week’s game against BC. Thus, the kicking chores for the Tigers fell to Alex Spence, who did not attempt a field goal against the Eagles.

Hidden yardage figures to be huge in this game. The Hokies could go a long way toward winning this one if they flip the field consistently and forced Clemson to go the length of the field against the Hokies’ defense.

Special teams often serves as the difference in close games. It could again this evening.

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