The Virginia Tech Hokies are back on the ACC’s biggest stage in the ACC Championship game against the Clemson Tigers who are looking to win their second-straight ACC title along with locking up a spot in the College Football Playoff after losing in last year’s CFP National Championship game to Alabama.
The Hokies are the underdogs in this game against a Clemson team that knows that a loss today would take them out of the playoff picture and make this season a disappointment after coming close to winning the national title last year. Virginia Tech wasn’t expected to be on this stage after being picked fourth in the Coastal this season and have nothing to lose given how they have exceeded expectations in Justin Fuente’s first season.
With that said, here are our keys to the game for the Hokies against Clemson in tonight’s ACC Championship.
Protect the Football
One consistent theme throughout Virginia Tech’s three losses is that the Hokies have had turnover issues in all three of their losses. Virginia Tech had 5 turnovers against Tennessee, 2 against Syracuse (including an interception deep in the red zone), and 4 against Georgia Tech while their opponent each only had 1 interception in those games.
Of course, turnovers weren’t the only reason for those losses but that is the one common threat through all three losses and against a very talented Clemson defense, Virginia Tech will have to emphasize protecting the football.
Many of those turnovers have come via fumbles with Travon McMillian and Steven Peoples both having fumbles last week against Virginia. Clemson will know this quite well and you can bet that guys like Ben Boulware will be fighting to rip the ball out whenever they get a chance against Virginia Tech’s running back.
McMillian, in particular, has had issues with fumbles this season and has found his way to Justin Fuente’s dog house fairly quickly against both Notre Dame and Virginia due to early fumbles. It wouldn’t be surprising to see McMillian get early carries but if he does have an early fumble, expect him to get benched rather quickly or if Peoples has another fumble.
Jerod Evans has had some fumble issues as well but has done a fairly good job at avoiding mistakes through the air with only 5 interceptions this season. The Hokies will need Evans to avoid making bad decisions through the air against a Clemson defense loaded with guys who can make some big plays in their defensive backfield.
For Virginia Tech, it will be of the upmost importance for them to protect the football and if they do so, they will have a decent chance at pulling off the big upset. If the Hokies have turnover issues tonight, Clemson should run away with the ACC Championship.
Contain the Mobile QB
Unfortunately, this has continued to be a weakness for Virginia Tech as the Hokies have had their fair share of issues with any quarterback who can make plays with his legs including Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs and Syracuse’s Eric Dungey who both had over 100 rushing yards and at least 1 rushing touchdown against the Hokies.
Deshaun Watson may not have big numbers on the ground but Clemson’s star quarterback can make plays with his legs. Watson also has ran for over 50 yards three times this season with two of those games coming in the Tigers’ biggest ACC games against Louisville (91 yards) and Florida State (52 yards) showing a trend of Watson making plays with his legs against the toughest opposition on their schedule.
Entering this matchup, Clemson will know that the Hokies have had a weakness defending mobile quarterbacks and co-offensive coordinators Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott likely will be looking to find ways to let Watson improvise and get him in situations in the passing game where he can take off and run.
Against Clemson’s explosive offense, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bud Foster run some zone defense early to try to get more eyes on the football in trying to contain Watson while also handle to multitude of talented options that the Tigers have at wide receiver. However, the Hokies’ defense hasn’t always done great at stopping the mobile QB even with zone defense and there will have to be improvements in multiple areas including containing Watson to the pocket and getting sacks when the opportunities are there.
The Hokies will be facing an elite QB in Watson that will know the Hokies’ defensive weakness of containing mobile quarterbacks and look to exploit it. If the Hokies can limit what Watson can do with his legs, it’ll give them a much better chance at pulling off the upset.
Play Smart and Risky
Virginia Tech enters this game with nothing to losing but also has the talent to at least compete with Clemson and give the Tigers a good run for their money. The Hokies will know that they have the chance to bring a whole lot of chaos to the College Football Playoff selection if they can pull off an upsets while already exceeding the expectations that Hokie fans had for them entering the season.
In this game, it will be important for Virginia Tech to play smart but also for them to take some risks and chances to beat a more talented football team that enters this game with all of the expectations.
Virginia Tech has pulled some tricks out of the bag at times with some reverses that have seen guys like Sam Rogers and Isaiah Ford throwing passes and entering this game, it would be smart for Virginia Tech to run a couple plays like this to get the Clemson defense on their heels and try to build some momentum.
Jerod Evans also seems to be improving some with his deep ball accuracy and with a guy like Isaiah Ford who has the speed to blow the top off a defense, Virginia Tech would be smart to try to draw up some big plays to create one-on-one matchups for Ford and take some shots down the football field for Ford or even Bucky Hodges who has the size to be a problem for opposing defensive backs.
Virginia Tech needs to take some smart risks in this game and play like a team that has nothing to lose because that’s the truth, Virginia Tech has nothing to lose after exceeding all reasonable expectations for this season. The Hokies aren’t the more talented team, but they’ll have their best shot at winning if they’re willing to take smart risks and play as a team that has nothing to lose.
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