This week, I was able to get Eric Dowling of Shakin The Southland, SB Nation's Clemson blog, to participate in a Q & A with me. In this week's Q & A session, we discuss the game, how the teams are different than their 2011 squads (for better or worse) and where/what Hokies headed to Death Valley should go/do while there. You can also find my answers to their questions here. Eric also made his prediction for this weekend's game. So if you want the outlook from a Tiger perspective, look no further. We've caught us one here on Gobbler Country.
During the Q & A I refer to myself as CM (Chicagomaroon) and Eric as STS (Shakin The Southland). You can also find my answers to their questions here. Enjoy, and GO HOKIES!
CM: Hokie fans should be pretty familiar with Clemson (you guys were the bane of our existence a year ago). Though on the surface not much has changed, what are some things that Tech fans should know about the 2012 version of Clemson that are different than the 2011 squad?
STS: I'll start on the offensive side of the ball. First, it's Chad Morris' 2nd season at Clemson. Clemson brought back a lot on offense and these guys are benefiting from spending an entire offseason learning more of the nuances of Morris' offense. Personnel wise, offensively we're better than last year. The OL, although they are very young and inexperienced, is better and more talented than last year's senior laden group. Last year's offensive line was a sieve at times, but this group has been pretty solid. Andre Ellington is considerably more healthy this year than last year and has shown the burst that Clemson fans were used to seeing during his sophomore year. And DeAndre Hopkins has taken his game to another level and become one of the best WRs in the country. The offense averages over 300 yards passing and 200 yards rushing per game while putting up over 41 points per game. It's one of the 10 best offenses in the country, which is slightly better than last year's group.
Defensively we're pretty much the same group as we were last year, except we lack a space eater like Brandon Thompson in the middle and don't have a pass rusher off the edge like Andre Branch. So I guess we're like last year just worse. Which is really bad. There isn't much this group does well. Against BC they actually were able to stop the run, but a closer look reveals that BC can't run the ball against anyone. Other than that, they've allowed teams to gash them in the run game and make big plays in the pass game. The reasons are numerous. The defensive line has been controlled (although the DTs are starting to come on). The linebackers run into the wrong gaps, fail to set the edge, and can't get off blocks. And those have been our two best position groups on defense so far. The DBs are worse. Bashaud Breeland has been pretty good at one corner spot. But other than him the corners are rarely in the same zip code as receivers. And when they are they don't locate the football to make a play on it. The safeties have missed a lot of assignments and have been out of position to help out. As you can probably tell, it's been a frustrating first half of the season defensively.
CM: The Tigers defended the Hokies so well on both occasions a year ago (particularly the ACCCG) that is caused many Hokies, including the coaching staff, to wonder if the defense was able to read the Hokies' signals. Tech offensive coordinator Mike O'Cain even fielded a call to Clemson DC Kevin Steele (after he was fired) to ask him as much point blank. Steele said no, and O'Cain took him at his word. Basically, the question is, how did Clemson defend the Hokies so well a year ago?
STS: I think it's a combination of what Clemson did well and also what VT did wrong. In the first game I the DL controlled the game very well. They shutdown the running game and made Logan Thomas beat us with his arm. When that happened, I thought Logan Thomas missed some throws that were there.
In the ACCCG, on the other hand, I thought Mike O'Cain called a really poor game. VT completely abandoned the run game in the 2nd half. The game was tied at halftime, so there was really no reason to do so. Yes, Clemson had done a good job of shutting down David Wilson, but with a homerun back like Wilson it's just a matter of time before he gets loose for a long run. Clemson's defense had proved throughout the year that they were vulnerable against the run and I think VT made it easy on them.
CM: With this year's defense looking a little bit worse statistically than that unit a year ago, what do you think the Hokies could this year that they couldn't a year ago? Where do you think they should attack?
STS: Not that I'm saying we've fixed things in the running game, because I don't think we have, but Clemson is most vulnerable in defending the pass. Darius Robinson, who has been torched since he got into the lineup last year, will be replaced in the starting lineup by Gary Peters. Peters played well against BC, so if he can be an upgrade over Robinson there is a little bit of hope. But short passes to the flat are always available because our outside linebackers do a poor job of getting out there into coverage. You won't find too much resistance at intermediate routes either, because our safeties have had a communication issues and consistently fall pray to play action. Breeland hasn't been attacked too much on deep balls and it remains to be seen how Peters will handle them, but if you can get our safeties to bite on play action, your receivers will have 1 on 1 matchups down the field.
CM: On the opposite side of the ball, Clemson's offense ran roughshod over Tech's defense a year ago by taking advantage of mismatches they made. How is Clemson able to continually create these mismatches, and do you think that the Hokies have any chance of slowing the Tigers' offense down in 2012?
STS: I definitely think VT has a chance to slow this offense down. This offense has been running on all cylinders so far this year and it's only a matter of time before they stumble a little bit, IMO. The key to slowing down this offense is to neutralize the running game in the A-gaps. If Tech's DL can live up to their hype and limit Andre Ellington's effectiveness up the middle and force Clemson into 3rd and long situations, it can be done. If Tech's DL can't stop Ellington and they have to bring an extra defender into the box to help out with the run game it could be a long afternoon because Tajh Boyd will be able to pick apart the defense with weapons like Watkins and Hopkins.
There are several things that make this offense so good.
A. Chad Morris is a magician as a play caller. Occasionally he tricks himself, but 99% of the time this guy is as good as it gets in the country. If you saw what he did against FSU's vaunted defense for the first 35 minutes then you know what I'm talking about.
B. By spreading the defense out, Morris is forcing a defense to pick their poison. If Clemson's running game is clicking, 6 guys in the box won't be enough to slow it down. When defenses commit an extra defender to stop the run, that leaves less help on the outside on guys like Watkins and Hopkins.
C. Playmakers. Clemson has arguably the best QB, best RB, and 2 best WRs in the conference.
D. Tempo. Clemson plays so quickly that they are able to neutralize the depth of opposing defenses. FSU has a great DL, but when Clemson was moving the ball in the first half, FSU wasn't able to sub in between plays because Clemson's offense was moving too quickly. When Clemson avoids 3 and outs they are able to wear down opposing defenses.
CM: DeAndre Hopkins has been one of the best players in the nation so far this season, not just the ACC. Granted he has been good all three years he has played, and Sammy Watkins' absence had an effect on him being the go-to guy, but what do you think has propelled him to this level? Do you think his star has succeeded Watkins for the time being?
STS: Hopkins has always been a stud, he just wasn't as recognized for it by the rest of the country like he was with Clemson fans. But this past offseason was his first that he was able to dedicate solely to the weight room and football (after his freshman year he joined the basketball team). Rumors were flying that he was noticeably stronger and faster. Then spring ball came around and he absolutely dominated, where he was the offensive MVP. People that cover Clemson closely started speculating that Hopkins may be just as good as Watkins. Well, we got a glimpse of that in the Auburn game and he hasn't slowed down since.
Some people think that Hopkins took off because Watkins was out. But I'm in the camp that thinks it doesn't matter if Watkins plays or not. With Watkins out, Hopkins was lighting up double teams. With Watkins back he's seeing much more single coverage, which may even allow him more opportunities to show out.
Now on to Watkins. He was suspended for the first 2 games. He only played the first half in a blowout against Furman. Then, prior to the FSU game he came down with a stomach virus that caused him to lose 8 lbs. He fought through it against FSU, but then sat out the following game against BC. He returned for the GT game two weeks ago, but it was obvious he still wasn't 100%. So, out of the 6 games that Clemson has played he's only seen the field for 2 1/2 games, of which he was healthy for 1/2. Everyone is waiting for a breakout game from him. Dabo and Chad Morris have stated that he's working his way back into game shape, so Clemson fans are hoping this is the week that we get to see the real Sammy Watkins.
CM: Tajh Boyd and Andre Ellington have both been phenomenal, and have put me in my place a little bit for ranking them lower than Clemson fans thought was probably justified in my ACC quarterbacks and running backs rankings (for the record, I still feel Gio Bernard is the conference's best back, but it's certainly closer than I had it in the pre-season). What has been the difference this year for Andre Ellington that has allowed him to evolve as a running back and take it to the next level?
STS: Ellington averaged 7.2 yards per carry his freshman year while receiving limited snaps. Clemson fans knew after watching those 68 carries that we had something special. His sophomore year brought more carries and a 5.8 ypc average, but his season was prematurely ended by injury. Last year he came into the season with the same nagging foot injury that ended his season the year before. With our lack of depth at the running back position, he took one for the team and fought through injury throughout the year. It was obvious that he didn't have the same burst he was used to. Still, he rushed for nearly 1200 yards.
This year he seems to have his quickness back. The problem is that the offensive line, while they've done a pretty good job of protecting Tajh Boyd, hasn't always done a good job of creating running lines for Ellington. His biggest asset is his quick through the holes. He does a better job of finding holes and getting to them than C.J. Spiller did. The problem is that after the Auburn game there just haven't been that many holes to hit. His average since the Auburn game has been a paltry 4 ypc.
CM: As for Boyd, do you have any fears that he will jump to the pros at the end of year provided he keeps playing at this level?
STS: Not really. I've seen "experts" that have him as a top 10 QB for next year's draft, but he's unlikely to move too much higher than that because he doesn't have the measureables of a standard NFL QB. He's not 6'4/6'5 and 230 lbs. He's 6'1 and 220 lbs. He also plays in a spread style offense, which usually hurts your stock unless you're a physical freak like Cam Newton. I think chances are pretty good that Boyd will be back to Clemson next year.
CM: For those Hokie fans traveling to Death Valley, what is some good advice? Some do's and dont's? Popular hangouts/restaurants/bars? Activities to participate in/see?
STS: Definitely make your way through the tailgates. Although it's a noon game, you'll still see plenty of people out around 8-9 am. Clemson fans (I'm biased) are one of the friendliest groups of hosts that you'll run into in the southeast.
Aside from the tailgate, The Esso Club and Tiger Town Tavern are a couple of the most popular bars. The Esso Club isn't the shortest walk from the stadium, but it's definitely doable....maybe 15-20 minutes. When I go to noon games I usually leave the stadium and walk up the street to The Esso to watch the afternoon games. The place will get pretty packed, but it's a good atmosphere.
CM: What do you see the likeliest ACC Championship Game matchup being? And if it were played today, who would win?
STS: On the Atlantic side I think it's going to be FSU. The only possible slip up I could see them having would be the Thursday night game in Blacksburg. And while we will be rooting hard for the Hokies that night, I don't see it happening.
On the Coastal side I still think VT will find a way in there. Even if VT ends up with 3 losses in the conference, I think they'll make it. Miami is about to suffer their 2nd conference loss this weekend against FSU. So if VT wins the head to head with Miami, which I think they will, then they'll still make to the ACCCG. The only other competition in the Coastal would be UNC, who is ineligible.
CM: Okay, now it's time. Gimme your prediction. Who wins, why and by how much?
STS: I think VT will put a good scare into Clemson fans, much the same way GT did in our last game. But in the end, I think Clemson's offense will prove to be too much and the defense will get a much needed stop when they have to.
Clemson - 42
Va Tech - 31
Thanks again to Eric for joining us for the Q & A. You can also find my answers to their questions here. For all the news and coverage from a Clemson perspective this weekend, make sure to check out Shakin The Southland. For all the Hokie stuff, don't move a muscle. YOU'RE ON IT here at Gobbler Country.