Virginia Tech Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Clemson

Bryan Manning@bdmanning4Featured ColumnistOctober 19, 2012

Virginia Tech Football: 5 Keys to the Game vs. Clemson

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    This Saturday doesn’t get much bigger for the Virginia Tech Hokies as they will travel to Clemson to play the 19th-ranked Tigers.

    The Hokies, coming off their best performance of the season in a 41-20 route of Duke, will face a Clemson team that dominated them twice in 2011. Two of the Hokies’ three losses were against Clemson by a combined score of 61-13.

    The way the Hokies have looked thus far in 2012 doesn’t inspire much belief that the Hokies can upset the Tigers in Death Valley.

    Clemson enters the game at 5-1, 2-1 in ACC play. The Hokies are 4-3 overall and 2-1 in conference play.

    The Hokies’ struggles on defense doesn’t bode well against a Clemson team that is ranked 13th in the NCAA in total offense.

    Here are five keys to this weekend’s game for the Hokies.

Contain Clemson's Wide Receivers

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    Junior DeAndre Hopkins and sophomore Sammy Watkins are perhaps the best wide receiver duo in the country outside of USC’s Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.

    Hopkins and Watkins are certainly the best receivers the Hokies will play in 2012.

    Watkins, the reigning ACC Rookie of the Year, has missed three games due to suspension and illness.

    In Watkins’ absence, Hopkins has stepped up catching 49 passes for 777 yards and eight touchdowns through Clemson’s first six games.

    Junior cornerbacks Kyle Fuller and Antone Exum will have their hands full on Saturday.

    Fuller, an All-ACC player himself, has had a solid 2012 so far. Exum’s struggles against Cincinnati have been well-documented, but he has fared much better the past two weeks.

    The Hokies will need safeties Detrick Bonner and Kyshoen Jarrett to be sound in coverage if the Hokies are to have a chance of slowing down Clemson’s potent passing offense. Fuller and Exum will need all the help they can get.  

Pressure Tajh Boyd

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    Junior Tajh Boyd has emerged as one of the better quarterbacks in the country in the last two years. In 2012, Boyd ranks 19th nationally in passing efficiency while averaging 291 yards passing per game.

    Before last week’s win against Duke, the Hokies had only eight sacks through six games. In their win against Duke, the Hokies had five sacks.

    Junior defensive end James Gayle was named ACC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance. Getting Gayle going is essential for the Hokies. He is the team’s best pass-rusher and can free up others to make plays.

    Is last week’s performance what we all expected of the Hokies, or was it a one-week exception?

    Boyd was terrific in both games last year against the Hokies. If they can slow him down, they can win this game. 

Get off to a Fast Start

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    Only against North Carolina two weeks ago have the Hokies gotten off to a fast start through seven games. While they did end up losing that game, it wasn’t because of the offense.

    Last week versus Duke, the Hokies got behind 20-0 and looked lost again in the first quarter. However, the defense stiffened, and Logan Thomas got rolling. The comeback and subsequent throttling of the Blue Devils was a good example of what this offense can do.

    Offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring and play-caller Mike O’Cain need to loosen the reins on Thomas and the offense early in the game. Part of the Hokies’ problems are related to the conservative play-calling. By now they should have a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of this group.

    It is imperative against a team like Clemson that the Hokies capitalize on every opportunity they have. The defense may be able to slow down Clemson, but it won’t stop them.

Establish the Running Game

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    Clemson is ranked 97th overall in total defense. The Tigers are 99th against the run. This presents an excellent opportunity for the Hokies to continue their strong performance running the ball from last week.

    True freshman J.C. Coleman had a memorable game last week rushing for 183 yards and two touchdowns. Not only does he have blazing speed, but he has excellent vision and always seems to find an opening. While the Hokies may have several capable backs, Coleman is their best option.

    Usually a team tries to run the ball first to establish the passing game. Against Clemson, the Hokies should look to go downfield early to Marcus Davis and back the Clemson defenders off the line of scrimmage.

    If the Hokies don’t run the ball successfully against the Tigers then they will not win this game. They can’t afford for the defense to stay on the field for long periods of time against Clemson’s fast-break offense. 

Win the Battle on Special Teams

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    This was usually an area where the Hokies always won. That hasn’t been the case this year.

    Kicker Cody Journell has been excellent. Freshman punter A.J. Hughes has been surprisingly consistent.

    It is the coverage units where the Hokies have struggled at times. Against North Carolina, the Hokies gave up their first kickoff return for a touchdown in 19 years.

    Freshman Demitri Knowles finally gave the kick-return game some life two weeks ago with a 93-yard return for a touchdown. Kyshoen Jarrett has been excellent on punt returns.

    The overall struggles of this team leave less margin for error than in previous seasons. Winning the battle on special teams will go a long way in determining if the Hokies beat Clemson on Saturday.