Clemson Tigers vs. Virginia Cavaliers: Complete Game Preview
Last week’s results
No. 8 Clemson (7-1, 5-1 ACC) beat Maryland 40-27.
Virginia (2-6, 0-4 ACC) lost to Georgia Tech 35-25.
Will Clemson begin a November to remember?
This week, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and offensive coordinator Chad Morris spoke about “a November to remember,” and the Tigers are in position to have just that. They begin the final month of the season 7-1 and in the Top 10 nationally. With a 4-0 month, Clemson would be in excellent shape for its second BCS bowl bid in three seasons. Two years ago, the Tigers were in the same spot but were blown out by N.C. State and South Carolina. They rebounded for an ACC title game win over Virginia Tech, but finished the season on a 2-4 skid, including an epic 70-33 embarrassment at the hands of West Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
Last fall, Clemson had a shot at a BCS bid if it could handle South Carolina in the regular-season finale, but it had to settle for the Chick-fil-A Bowl following a 27-17 defeat.
“We have to continue to find ways to win games,” Swinney said. “Hopefully play our best football. Hopefully we haven’t played our best football in September and October. You want to play your best this month. This month, everyone is jockeying for position. If we play really good football in November, you have a chance to separate and have a special season.”
The Tigers have Virginia, a Thursday night game against Georgia Tech, The Citadel and a visit to South Carolina left on the schedule. A strong effort in Charlottesville would be an excellent start to the month.
Can the Tigers continue their road dominance?
Since suffering a 49-37 loss at Florida State last September, Clemson has built an impressive streak away from Memorial Stadium. The Tigers have won seven consecutive games at road or neutral sites, four last season and their first three in 2013. A win at Virginia would mark the program’s longest road/neutral win streak since 1978-79, when the Tigers won nine consecutive away from home. Clemson is currently just one of eight programs with at least a seven-game win streak away from home.
A win at Virginia would be something to remember: This is Clemson’s first trip to Charlottesville since 2009, and due to ACC schedule rotation, it will be the last until at least 2025.
“It’s hard to maintain that consistency,” Swinney said. “We have to become a consistent program, one that handles success and failure well. We have to focus on what we can control.”
Will Mike London survive Virginia’s struggles?
Clemson won’t see the Cavaliers again until 2020, but even if Virginia was visiting Memorial Stadium next fall, it’s hard to predict if head coach Mike London would lead them in. London is 18-26 in his fourth season as the Cavs head coach, and Virginia has struggled this fall, going 2-6 against what the NCAA says is the nation’s strongest schedule as measured by opponents’ win percentage (.708).
The Cavaliers have lost five consecutive games, allowing at least 27 points in each of their last four defeats. Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage gave London a vote of confidence, telling the Washington Post that “I don’t want there to be uncertainty about what I believe the future to be, which is with Mike London as our coach.”
Swinney himself gave London a vote of confidence Tuesday.
“I have a lot of respect for Coach London and his staff and what they’re trying to do up there,” he said. “They’ve played a tough schedule. It’s impressive how hard they’re playing and how they’re competing. They’re not far away. They’re a talented football team and according to the experts, playing the toughest schedule in the country. Mike London will get it done there.”
The Cavaliers still have North Carolina, No. 7 Miami and archrival Virginia Tech on the schedule, but knocking off Clemson would give London’s job security a major boost.
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday
Place: Scott Stadium, Charlottesville, Va.
Radio: Clemson and Virginia radio networks (regional)
Spread: Clemson -17 via vegasinsider.com
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this article were obtained directly by the author.
Clemson Keys to Victory
Hold onto the ball
Since committing two turnovers in its first four games, Clemson has gotten downright careless with the football. The Tigers have committed 11 turnovers in their last four games, including seven in their last two.
Florida State turned four turnovers into 20 points. At Maryland, Sammy Watkins and Rod McDowell fumbled inside their own 25 on back-to-back drives, although the defense mitigated the damage by holding the Terrapins to a pair of field goals. Coach Dabo Swinney called the turnovers “a virus” running through the team, one that he hopes has run its course.
Virginia is 10th in the ACC in turnover margin at minus-0.12, but avoiding mistakes away from home is optimal.
Convert in the red zone
The biggest reason Clemson held a slim 16-7 lead over Maryland at halftime last week? Abysmal red-zone performance. The Tigers managed only three field goals in the first four trips inside the Terrapins’ 20. The red zone has emerged as something of an issue for the Tigers this season: After leading the nation in red-zone efficiency in 2012 (scoring on 95 percent of their trips), the Tigers are 58th nationally this fall, scoring on 83.8 percent of their trips.
Swinney said this week that “if we’d scored touchdowns on two or three of those trips (at Maryland), you wouldn’t have seen Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins in the fourth quarter. And maybe that’s a good thing, teaching them about adversity.”
Still, if Swinney wants a breather this week, he and his players would be advised to be more efficient inside the 20.
Stop the pass
Virginia will pass and pass often this week. Last week, Cavaliers sophomore quarterback David Watford completed 43 of 61 passes for 376 yards in a loss to Georgia Tech, setting UVA records for single-game attempts and completions. Clemson is allowing 230.6 yards passing per game, 10th in the ACC and 66th nationally.
The Tigers are vulnerable to the big play as well, having given up six passes of 50-plus yards this season. Last week, Maryland’s Levern Jacobs turned a simple slant into a 71-yard score. A big early pass play could turn momentum in the Cavs’ favor.
Virginia Keys to Victory
Stop the pass
On paper, Virginia has few noticeable strengths, but pass defense has been a stalwart. The Cavaliers allow 211 yards passing per game, fourth in the ACC and 29th nationally. Strong safety Anthony Harris has five interceptions on the season and sits in a five-way tie for first nationally. It is one interception more than Virginia’s entire team had in 2012. If Harris can get his mitts around a Tajh Boyd offering, it could give the Cavs defense some much-needed momentum against a passing attack that averages 319.9 yards per game, second in the ACC.
Stop the ground game
Clemson is coming off its best rushing game of the season, a 238-yard effort at Maryland. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris emphasizes establishing a physical run game: Last week marked the first time Clemson had ever had a 160-yard rusher (Rod McDowell) and receiver (Sammy Watkins) in the same game.
Virginia has struggled historically against Clemson, losing the teams’ first 29 all-time meetings before winning in 1990. Since 1990, the teams have split 17 meetings 8-8-1. UVA has held Clemson under 200 yards rushing nine times and won eight of those games. The only exception was 2008, when the Tigers gained only 56 yards on the ground in a 13-3 win in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers will need to be similarly stingy Saturday afternoon.
Play beyond your years
Virginia is tied for 78th nationally in scoring defense, allowing 29.3 points per game. Part of the problem can be tied to the Cavaliers’ overall youth. Of UVA’s 85 scholarship players, 55 are freshmen and sophomores. Last week against Georgia Tech, the Cavs started four true freshmen on defense in defensive tackle Donte Wilkins, linebackers Zach Bradshaw and Max Valles and cornerback Tim Harris. Clemson senior quarterback Tajh Boyd is one of the ACC’s most experienced quarterbacks and one of only three ACC quarterbacks ever to surpass 10,000 yards career passing. UVA’s defense must grow up, and in a hurry.
Clemson Players to Watch
Senior QB Tajh Boyd
Boyd bounced back from one of the worst games of his career against Florida State, completing 28 of 41 passes for 304 yards, one touchdown and an interception at Maryland while adding a rushing score despite an injured left knee.
The Hampton, Va. native will be playing for the final time in his home state. He needs only 16 rushing yards to become the first ACC quarterback ever to throw for 10,000 yards and rush for 1,000 in his career. With his next touchdown, he’ll pass N.C. State’s Phillip Rivers for the ACC’s all-time total touchdown record—the two currently share the mark with 112 apiece.
Senior RB Rod McDowell
McDowell is coming off the best game of his college career, having rushed for 161 yards on 30 carries at Maryland. He added his first two rushing scores of the season. It was his first 100-yard effort since rushing for 132 in the season-opening win over Georgia. For Clemson to continue its recent ground surge, McDowell must continue to run hard.
Junior DE Vic Beasley
Beasley is having an All-America caliber season. This week, he was named as one of 16 finalists for the Bednarik Award, given to the nation’s top defensive player. He leads the nation in sacks, averaging 1.3 game, and his 1.9 tackles for loss per game ranks fourth nationally. His matchup against standout UVA senior left tackle Morgan Moses will be one to watch.
Virginia Players to Watch
Sophomore QB David Watford
Like Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Watford is a Hampton, Va. native. He considers Boyd a mentor and is coming off his best career game, completing 43 of 61 passes for 376 yards against Georgia Tech. He’ll certainly be motivated to prove himself with his fellow Tidewater quarterback watching from the other sideline.
Junior LB Henry Coley
Coley has been a force on Virginia’s defense, making a team-high 64 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. This week, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney called him one of the best linebackers he has seen this season, and the Tigers will certainly have to account for him Saturday.
Junior RB Kevin Parks
Parks is a prolific tailback, averaging 76.8 yards per game with nine touchdowns on the season, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. He is third in the ACC in touchdowns, and his 23 career rushing touchdowns are eighth all time in UVA history.
What They Are Saying
“We’re a good football team, doing a lot of good things. I know people want to talk about the negatives, and we spend time correcting that, but nobody wants to talk about the good things we’re doing. You don’t have the consistency we’ve had the last couple years without being committed, practicing the right way and showing attention to detail.” – Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, on keeping a positive aura around his program.
“We’ve done great things here. We lose games and people act like it’s the end of the world. But we’re a Top 10 team and we’re 7-1. That comes with it, it’s the nature of it. As you get more competitive, become a better team, the expectations start to go up. It comes with the territory.” – Clemson senior quarterback Tajh Boyd, on dealing with the loss to Florida State, getting past it and fans’ reaction.
“They are very fast. There’s a lot of things that they do to stretch the field and utilize that vertical talent, and it's another scheme and system that's been employed for a while with a veteran quarterback that you always see some commonality with the speed of the game in which they play, also having some athletic people receiving the ball or running the ball. I would say they're not as fast as Oregon, but they're comparable in terms of the athletic skill and what their offense allows them to do with those players.” – Virginia coach Mike London, on comparing Clemson and Oregon (a 59-10 winner over the Cavaliers in September).
Entering last week, there were legit questions about how Clemson would respond following an ugly loss to Florida State. And the Tigers were flat, holding a 16-13 third-quarter lead before eventually pulling away for a 40-27 victory over Maryland.
Now, a Virginia team that has lost five consecutive games is on the docket. The Cavaliers are one of the youngest teams in the FBS with only eight seniors. They’re allowing 29.3 points per game and appear vulnerable to Clemson’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense.
Last week, the Tigers shook off the FSU blahs. This week, they’ll put together a complete performance.
Clemson 45, Virginia 17.