Three-List Game Preview: ACC Championship Clash With Clemson

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Virginia is 9-3.
Heskin Smith and the Hoos earned a date with Clemson thanks to a big win against Virginia Tech. ~ Kris Wright

While the Virginia football team accomplished two of its main goals for the season in one game last week, the season is not over just yet. This week, they head down to Charlotte to take on the Clemson Tigers in the ACC Championship Game for the first time.

Getting to take on the undefeated and third-ranked team in the nation is quite the reward for beating your rival for the first time since 2003 and winning your first Coastal division title in program history and the Hoos would not have it any other way.

”I love, love, love challenge and doing hard stuff,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said. ”This is just the next thing for this program to take on. We’re talking about a team that has won the National Championship two of the last three years, 27 I think straight wins. This is now one of the pinnacle programs in college football so as we’re building, as we’re ascending, as we’re climbing, as we’re becoming, man where else would we rather be? And we’ve earned the chance to be there. So thrilled is more how I would describe it.”

The Cavaliers ended the 15-year nightmare of losing to the Virginia Tech last week as they defeated the Hokies 39-30 at Scott Stadium. That afternoon was a roller coaster of emotions for Virginia fans as their team jumped out to a quick 13-3 lead in the first quarter before surrendering 17 straight points to fall behind 20-13 late in the third quarter.

While the energy was sucked out of Scott Stadium during this run for the Hokies, the Hoos on the field would not give up. They fought back and exchanged scores with Virginia Tech until it was 30-30 with just more than seven minutes to play in the game. With 1:23 to go and that 15-year drought looming over the Cavaliers, Virginia kicker Brian Delaney hit one of the biggest kicks in program history as the 48-yard bomb off his right foot split the uprights to give the Hoos the 33-30 lead.

The Cavalier defense stood tall and sacked Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker multiple times before eventually sacking him in the end zone and forcing a fumble that the Hoos recovered for a touchdown to take a 39-30 lead with a minute to play. That score remained on the board as Wahoo Nation stormed the field to celebrate the team winning the division and beating Tech.

Clemson’s final game of the regular season and matchup with its rival was much less eventful. As has been the theme for the majority of the Tigers’ regular season games for the last couple of years, they handled their business without trouble and cruised to a 38-3 victory over the South Carolina Gamecocks on the road in Columbia.

While the Tigers have owned the Hoos historically speaking – they hold a 38-8 advantage over Virginia – and have been just as dominant over the ACC in recent years, this becomes irrelevant Saturday night. All records and previous stats are thrown out the window, and the scoreboard at Bank of America Stadium will show 0-0 as these two teams battle for the 2019 ACC Championship.

Three Questions

1. Can the Cavaliers pull off an all-time upset?

As mentioned above, the Tigers have enjoyed quite the run of success as they have made the last four college football playoffs, made the title game three of the last four years, and won the National Championship in two of the last three years. This is also their fifth straight time making it to the ACC Championship Game. As a result of this impressive stretch, almost every college football fan outside of (and even some inside of) Charlottesville expects Clemson to take care of Virginia with relative ease. Experts are predicting the Tigers to win by at least four touchdowns.

The Virginia football team is no stranger to being doubted. Nobody outside of the program would have expected them to be in this game after winning just two total games only three seasons ago. Many people did not expect them to finally beat their rival from Blacksburg. Some people did not expect them to be able to win enough conference games to win the Coastal. This program began to embrace being the underdog, and this particular team does not shy away from any team or any moment. Not only were the Hoos able to beat Tech, but the way that they did it shows just how resilient and special this group is. It is going to take a lot, but if any Virginia team can bring home its first ACC Championship and provide the school with maybe its biggest win in program history, it is this 2019 squad.

2. Who will win the turnover battle?

In order to pull off an upset of this magnitude, you have to take care of the ball when you have it and force the other team to give it back to you. Winning the turnover battle is a must for the Hoos. Forgetting playing such a talented team like Clemson, when the Hoos lose the turnover battle they typically lose the game as well. In their three losses this year, Virginia averaged 2.7 turnovers a game, while only averaging 1.0 in their nine wins. This trend applies to the defense forcing turnovers too as in the losses this year, the defense only averaged 0.3 turnovers, while it averaged 1.8 turnovers in wins.

Looking at Clemson, a reason for its success this year has been the ability to win this battle game in and game out. The Tigers’ turnover margin of +0.92 a game this season is tied for seventh best in the nation. To beat the Tigers, the Cavaliers will need to not only avoid losing this battle, but they will also most likely need to win it.

3. Can the Hoos’ offense get off to a fast start or can their defense slow down the Tigers?

Another main component of Clemson’s success comes from the ability and tendency to put teams away early in games. The Tigers’ offense comes out firing from the opening whistle and puts up big numbers in the first half. This season, the Tigers are second in the FBS in points averaged in the first quarter with 12.3 and fourth in points averaged in the first half with 26.7. By getting out to such good starts , they force other teams to play outside of their game plans and comfort zones and eventually end up folding in the second half.

Statistically speaking, it takes a while for the Virginia offense to get things going. The Hoos do not crack the top 50 in the FBS in either category of first quarter or first half points as they average just 6.5 points in the first quarter and 14.5 in the first half. While they have relied on second half comebacks in a couple of games this season, and the team prides themselves in a never say die mentality, the Hoos cannot afford to do this against a team as talented as Clemson.

Three Opponents to Watch

1. Trevor Lawrence, Quarterback, #16

The 6’6”, 220-pound sophomore has dominated the college football world from his first snap. If you are a football fan at any level, you know who Lawrence is, how talented he is, and what he has already done. While he often sits out during fourth quarters because the Tigers are blowing the other team out, Lawrence has still thrown for nearly 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns this season while completing almost 70 percent of his passes and only throwing eight interceptions. Almost every expert and member of the media has him being the top pick or one of the top picks in the NFL Draft when he becomes eligible because of what he has done in his first two seasons of college football.

2. Travis Etienne, Running back, #9

The 5’10”, 210-pound junior’s play has been at times overshadowed by Lawrence, but his numbers are almost just as eye-opening. He is third in the ACC in rushing yards with 1,386 but has done that on only 168 carries. Etienne’s 8.3 yards per carry is almost unheard of with that many attempts. He has also found the end zone on the ground 16 times this season. Etienne repeated as ACC Player of the Year, becoming the first running back to go back to back with that ward since North Carolina’s Mike Voight in 1975-76. The Cavalier defense cannot get caught focusing too much on Lawrence and the passing game and forget about Etienne’s ability to beat them too.

3. Tee Higgins, Wide receiver, #5

The 6’4”, 215-pound junior terrorizes opposing defenses with his unique combination of size, speed, and hands. Higgins has 43 receptions for 900 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. His 20.9 yards per catch average tops the ACC. Just like Lawrence and Etienne, Higgins will be playing on Sundays in the near future. A common theme in recent previews has been not asking Virginia’s corners to win the competition against an elite wide receiver but to just slow them down. This week is no different (except probably harder) with Higgins.

Three Matchups to Watch

1. The Clemson defense vs. the Virginia offense

Much of this preview has talked about the prowess of the Tigers on the offensive side of the ball, but their defense has been just as game-changing. They are first in the entire FBS in points given up per game as opposing offenses have averaged just 10.1 points scored against them. Additionally, they are second in the FBS in yards given up per game, allowing only 232.8.

This stout defense will be facing a Cavalier offense that seems to have everything clicking right now. In their last four games, the Hoos have averaged 41.3 points and just under 500 yards of total offense per contest. Virginia put up 39 points and 492 total yards on a Virginia Tech defense that had just pitched back to back shutouts. The Cavaliers will need another offensive performance like that one in order to try to keep up with this high-powered Clemson offense.

2. The Virginia front seven vs. the Clemson offensive line

The Cavalier defense has thrived off of pressuring and getting to the opposing quarterback this season. UVA’s 43 sacks are tied for sixth best in the FBS. The linebackers have 25.5 of these 43 sacks for the Hoos and will look to use their speed and length to get through this almost impenetrable Tiger offensive line.

Virginia is going up against an offensive line that is statistically one of the best in the country. Clemson has only given up 11 sacks this season, which is tied for fourth least in the FBS. If the Tigers can keep the Cavaliers off of Lawrence and give him time to operate, it will be a long night for this Virginia defense.

3. Lawrence & Higgins vs. the Virginia secondary

As shown through the statistics given in the three opponents to watch, these two Tigers are one of the most electric duos in all of college football. They have the ability to connect for a touchdown on any play from any yard line against any type of coverage. There is no doubt that they will be early draft picks in whichever NFL Draft they decide to declare for in the future.

Since Bryce Hall suffered a season-ending injury against Miami and safety Brenton Nelson eventually joined him on the shelf, the Cavalier secondary has been picked on week after week. Players have had to step up in his absence and either change positions or receive playing time when they previously had not. While they have handled each test generally well and faced some solid quarterback-wide receiver duos, they have not faced anything close to what waits for them on Saturday night. Nobody is asking them to win this matchup, but they just have to limit the damage done.

Remember When …

The last time the Cavaliers played in Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte they dismantled Clemson’s rival South Carolina 28-0 in last year’s Belk Bowl.

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