Football Preview: Virginia at Clemson

Clemson

CLEMSON, S.C. (WSPA) – After a week off Clemson gets ready for its return to action as they take on Virginia Saturday in Death Valley. 

Through two games Clemson has been pretty spectacular, although that was expected. After routs of Wake Forest and The Citadel the Tigers return to Memorial Stadium to take on the Virginia Cavaliers, a rematch of the 2019 ACC Championship Game. Clemson won convincingly, 62-17. 

Clemson

The Tigers bring a 2-0 record into the contest, and despite last year’s slow start for Trevor Lawrence, the junior quarterback has been practically flawless in the early going. Lawrence has completed 30 of 37 pass attempts for 519 yards and four touchdowns while adding three rushing scores as well. Last season he threw eight interceptions in the first seven games, only to record a 26:0 touchdown to interception ratio since. 

Lawrence has connected with 15 different receivers so far this year with Amari Rodgers and Frank Ladson Jr. emerging as the primary targets and big-play threats. But with the wealth of options on offense, it’s going to be difficult for opposing defenses to key in on any particular set of playmakers. 

Travis Etienne has shown why he’s worthy of his title as a two-time defending ACC Player of the Year. Through two games he’s racked up a total of 228 yards from scrimmage and has rushed for 6.8 yards per carry. Clemson has been able to dictate game flow with ease. And with 11 different players toting the rock this year, they’re able to keep everyone fresh as they wear down opponents. 

In both games the backups have seen playing time, including some significant snaps against The Citadel, which is a great sign for the Tigers. That, and they’ve had an extra week of prep for this contest. 

Defensively, Brent Venables continues to work his magic for Clemson. They’ve allowed a dismal 1.5 yards per carry through two games, allowing a combined 13 points. They’ve been phenomenal on third down, giving up conversions on just 24% of attempts. They’re also holding opposing quarterbacks to fewer than 50% completions. Granted, they just played one of the more run-heavy teams in all of football, but still this defense is elite. Their biggest flaw so far is that they’ve struggled to create turnovers as they have just one this season while the offense has committed two, resulting in a -1 turnover margin. 

The Tigers will have an opportunity to get back in the positive column this week when they face a young Virginia quarterback. 

Virginia

Virginia has only played one game this season due to a COVID-19 postponement. That was a 38-20 victory over Duke on September 26. And while it was an overall dominant performance, the Cavs trailed in the fourth quarter only to come back strong and score three touchdowns in the final frame. 

Virginia will look a bit different this year than what Clemson is used to, as they have a new signal caller in sophomore Brennan Armstrong (#5). Armstrong had both good and bad moments in the team’s win over the Blue Devils. He helped lead them to that fourth quarter comeback, and made some nice throws to his receivers deep down the field. And he added 47 yards on the ground and was efficient using the ground game to exploit some man coverage. But he also was inconsistent, and threw a couple costly interceptions early on. He’s still very much a work in progress, but looks to be capable in running this offense. 

Wayne Taulapapa (#21) is their lead back. He’s a downhill runner that racked up 95 yards rushing and two scores at a 5.9 yards-per-carry clip against Duke. Lavel Davis (#81) is a big body receiver (6’ 7”!!!) that can win jump balls and is a big threat in the red zone. It’s likely the Cavs attempt a couple deep shots to Davis in hopes of creating a big, splash play. 

The defense is their biggest strength. A unit that was a top-ten unit going into the final month of play in 2019 was plagued by significant injuries that affected them down the stretch. They bring a lot of young, albeit talented, players along the defensive line. And they have an experienced linebacker corps highlighted by Zane Zandier (#00). They were stout against the run, holding Duke to just 56 yards on the ground. But they were vulnerable in the passing game, primarily in the middle of the field. On the outside, two senior corners showed up big. Nick Grant (#1), and Joey Blount (#29) were locked in and accounted for two of the Cavaliers’ seven takeaways. 

Virginia’s defense capitalized throughout, grabbing five interceptions and recording two fumble recoveries. If the opportunity was there, the Cavs took advantage. While they contributed three giveaways on offense, Virginia’s defense kept them in it, paving way for the comeback win. 

Final Thoughts

So far Clemson has not recorded a turnover on the season, but that could change this weekend against an opportunistic Cavalier defense. If Virginia is able to record a takeaway early and provide solid field position for the offense, the Tigers could be having to dig themselves out of a hole. On the flip side, the Cavs are going to have trouble stopping Lawrence and this Tiger offense. Everyone does. So some field-flipping plays from Virginia are imperative in winning this game, as well as keeping Clemson’s offense off the field for as long as possible. 

Virginia really has nothing to lose. The Tigers enter as the top-ranked team in the nation with all the pressure and nobody expects the Cavs to win. But a team with that mentality is an unpredictable one. That being said, if Clemson stays clean in the turnover department they are set up to win handily in this ACC showdown. Clemson and Virginia kick off at 8:00 p.m. Saturday, October 3. 

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