Orange Bowl 2012: Key Matchups for Clemson vs. West Virginia
The Orange Bowl has to be happy with the matchup they will be hosting this season.
No. 15 Clemson was clearly the best team in the ACC, having beaten FSU once and Virginia Tech twice. Meanwhile, No. 23 WVU came out of a three-way tie in the Big East but will represent the conference as a result of being ranked the highest (thank God for preseason rankings, huh?). Still, the Mountaineers represent the largest fanbase of the three, and the Orange Bowl will be happy to have them.
Both teams are 9-3 on the season and, on the surface, appear even. Let's delve deeper into the key matchups between the two, however, and see if we can come up with which team will have an edge.
Clemson's Front Four vs West Virginia's Offensive Line
Andre Branch leads the Tigers front four
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West Virginia's offensive line has provided decent pass protection so far for Geno Smith. While they have given up 26 sacks on the season, the Mountaineers have attempted 496 attempts, the 11th most in the nation.
They will be tested against Clemson's front four.
Andre Branch, Rennie Moore and Brandon Thompson are all senior linemen and have combined for 18 sacks on the season. Branch is especially explosive, totaling 10.5 sacks and 16 TFLs on his own.
Clemson's passing defense hasn't been superb. If they can't get pressure on Smith, he'll be able to pick apart the secondary.
Sammy Watkins vs the West Virginia Kick Coverage
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West Virginia has one of the worst kick coverage units. The Mountaineers allow 24.52 yards per return, good for 108th in the nation. They've given up two touchdowns, one to LSU and one to Syracuse. WV lost both games.
Sammy Watkins was back at kick returner against Virgina Tech in the ACC Championship game and I would expect him to line up there against West Virginia. Watkins averages 26 yards per return and had a return for a touchdown late against Maryland with the game hanging in the balance.
Watkins has electrifying speed and can change the game in a heartbeat. WV is one of the worst coverage units while Watkins is one of the better returners. Watch out.
The Emergence of Dustin Garrison Against Clemson's Front Seven
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No one is going to confuse West Virginia's rushing attack with the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers, but it has improved.
After rushing for over 100 yards just twice in the first seven games the Mountaineers have done it in four of their last five. Not coincidentally, they have won four of their last five games (although they won the game where they rushed for less than 100 and lost a game where they rushed for over 100).
Regardless, the team's rushing attack has improved. The leading rusher by far is Dustin Garrison who is averaging 5.46 yards per carry.
There's nothing wrong with 5.5 yards per carry, is there?
Clemson looked great against Virginia Tech against the run but struggled in other games. They were gashed for 291 yards against Maryland (who ran a spread option attack). They gave up 383 yards to Georgia Tech's triple option attack and allowed 210 yards two weeks ago to South Carolina's battering style.
Overall, it isn't the strength of the Tigers.
West Virginia will always be a pass first team. That is what coach Dana Holgorsen wants to do. But maybe, just maybe, WVU's improvement in the running game could be on display against a mediocre Clemson rush defense.
Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey Against the Clemson Secondary
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West Virginia has a terrific duo of wide receivers. Stemdan Bailey has 67 catches for 1,197 yards and eleven touchdowns, while Tavon Austin (pictured) has caught 89 passes for 1,063 yards and four touchdowns.
Both men are small, quick, and could give the Clemson secondary fits.
The last four Clemson opponents have combined to complete 60.76 percent of their passes. They've thrown eight touchdowns and two interceptions (both VT) in that same timespan.
Finally, the truth is, West Virginia is a better passing offense than any of those teams (VT, UNC, South Carolina, Wake Forest). If they can throw the ball on Clemson, so can West Virginia.
We mentioned in the first slide that Clemson needed to get pressure on Geno Smith. This slide should prove as corollary evidence. If pressure isn't applied to Smith, Austin and Bailey won't be able to be contained.
Dwayne Allen vs West Virginia's Back 7
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Dwayne Allen is one of the more solid pass-catching options at Tight End in the nation. He has caught 48 passes for 577 yards and eight touchdowns. He is big at 6'4", 255 pounds, but is very athletic.
He will provide a mismatch for West Virginia (just as he does every team). Linebackers Najee Goode and Jewone Snow don't have the speed to keep up with Allen and no defensive back in the nation has the size to get physical with him. I would expect Clemson to utilize Allen often.
Tajh Boyd vs a More and More Opportunistic Defense
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Clemson is best when Tajh Boyd isn't turning the ball over. Sounds like Football 101, but it's true.
Through the first eight games Boyd threw three interceptions and the Tigers were 8-0. In the next four he threw seven interceptions and the Tigers went 1-3.
Seems simple enough, no?
WVU haven't exactly been ball hawks, but again, they're improving in this area.
The Mountaineers have a respectable 12 interceptions on the season. More impressively, they have an interception in each of their last five games. Last week against South Florida, junior defensive back Pat Miller had a 52-yard interception for a touchdown.
Again it sounds simple, but when Boyd doesn't turn it over, Clemson's offense performs at a high level. WVU is improving in takeovers.
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These are all initial knee-jerk reactions to what should be a great Orange Bowl. As the weeks lead up to the game, make sure to check back for more updates on the game.
As I see it now, it should be a high-scoring, offensive treat. One player we did not mention is West Virginia's Bruce Irvin. The senior defensive end figured to be a first round draft pick but slipped early in the season. He has since become more productive.
I mention him because the onus will be on both team's defensive lines to produce pressure on the opposing team. The teams are nearly mirror images of each other with Clemson having a slightly better rushing attack. While Clemson destroyed Virginia Tech the past week they struggled the month previous. West Virginia on the other hand has gotten better every single week.
Early prediction? I'll take Clemson 38-35. I think both teams are able to move the ball but Watkins changes the game in special teams.