Virginia Aims For Big Upset At Top-Ranked Clemson

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Virginia is 1-0 this season.
Chris Glaser and Virginia will be on the road for the first time this season for Saturday’s game at Clemson. ~ Kris Wright

When Virginia rolls into South Carolina on Saturday, it will mark the Cavaliers’ first road game in 11 months. They rounded out the 2019 regular season with three home games and a bye week before playing the two neutral site postseason games. The final road test last season came at North Carolina on Nov. 2.

Things, obviously, have changed a lot since then. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic first shut sports down nation-wide in March and attendance at games continues to be impacted at varying levels around the country. At Memorial Stadium, Clemson has decided to allow 19,000 fans in 2020. That’s far short of a typical sellout crowd numbering 81,500 for the Tigers.

Still, CU coach Dabo Swinney is looking forward to a night game at home.

“It’s going to be awesome. It sounds like we are going to have a few of those night games along the way. But I am just excited to have any game, regardless of what time,” Swinney said. “They could tell us we had to play at ten o’clock in the morning and I would be just as excited. It will be a great atmosphere. Whatever juice our fans can bring, I know it will be in the stands. It will be fun to look forward to it. We have had one night game already at Wake but there wasn’t anybody there. But in this world we are operating in it will be as fun as you can ask.”

The stadium experience won’t be the only change for the Cavaliers. They usually head straight to the road venue on Friday for a walk-through on the field and often will go to a social outing together as well. During the pandemic, none of that will occur on the road this season.

Entering this week, UVA had announced no positive tests in the football program since July. For most of July and August, the football team lived together in an upperclass housing bubble before moving out to their living arrangements for this school year. Students living on Grounds returned on Labor Day weekend and in-person classes started on Sept. 8.

This road trip marks the first travel outside of Charlottesville for a majority of the team since returning for preseason practice.

“In terms of going on the road, just the next challenge and it won’t be a normal road game,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “In fact, our approach has been really the more that it looked like a normal road game, the less likely we are to be doing it right. And so, it’ll be a lot of just hotel, grab and go dinner, and show up to the stadium and play. And so, we’re really streamlining it down to more of a special operations unit where they track it out rather than maybe all the fanfare that comes with normal travel and some of the things that are associated with the normal college football game. It’ll be just the opposite and stripped down and simplified as much as we can make it.”

Essentials

Three Opponents To Watch

Tight end Braden Galloway, No. 88: The Tigers haven’t thrown to their tight ends as much in recent seasons with last year’s leader at the position, J.C. Chalk, getting 13 catches for 60 yards. Galloway matched that yardage in the opener at Wake Forest when he hauled in 5 receptions for 60 yards. Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said the program’s self scout showed the need to use the middle of the field more and that the offense has the tight ends right now to do it more. The Tigers certainly saw UVA’s issues up the seams against Duke where several big gainers occurred, including the 55-yard touchdown pass to Jake Marwede. They’ll probably at least test the Hoo D with Galloway.

Linebacker Baylon Spector, No. 10: The redshirt senior has played in more than 30 games in his career and he’s started both games this season with 8 tackles so far. In last season’s ACC Championship Game against UVA, he posted 9 tackles and that provided a big piece of his 45 tackles on the year. His little brother wears No. 13 in the receiving corps as a redshirt freshman this season; he had a 16-yard catch and a 19-yard run against Wake.

Receiver Amari Rodgers, No. 3: He earned honorable mention All-ACC recognition for both wide receiver and all-purpose slots last season. Rodgers caught 30 passes for 426 yards and 4 touchdowns to with 50 yards rushing and a touchdown last fall. None of those came against the Hoos in the title game, but he only got one target in Charlotte. He’s the team’s leading receiver for the Tigers this season as the receiver position’s top two from a year ago aren’t available in 2020. He has 6 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown on 9 targets in the first two games. Rodgers could present some concerns on special teams, too. The Wahoos haven’t had much in-game punt coverage work yet and Rodgers has two returns for 37 yards so far this season.

Three Quotes

Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall on Brennan Armstrong’s running ability: “Brennan, his mindset, again, I hesitate to compare because that’s never fair to anyone. There are quarterbacks that like to run and elude, there are quarterbacks that like to run and are dynamic and make players miss. Then there’s players that just kind of run for the sake of running, and they do it unabashedly and aren’t afraid to run into or over or through. Brennan is a little bit more like that. … Our team loves him and are eager to follow him and support him and when they see him bounce off someone or reach out for the goal line kind of going through a player, that’s positive. There is risk, right? And so part of teaching young quarterbacks is when to slide and when to run over. Clemson has a quarterback that is skilled at both as well. I’ve seen him run over plenty of defenders and I’ve seen him run around plenty of defenders …”

Clemson right tackle Jordan McFadden: “They’re a very good defense. They play really hard, have a bunch of tough guys. They’re bringing back a lot of experience. We’re up for a good challenge. I think we’ve got to stay focused through this week just like every other week, but as far as their defense, they’ve got a really good defense I would say. They’re physical. They like to play hard. So we’re up for a challenge this week.”

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence: “I think the biggest thing is focusing on us and our game plan and that’s staying aggressive, but at the same time Virginia does a good job of changing up coverages. They’re really disciplined. They don’t give you too much so taking what they give you, but also knowing when to take your shots and when to push the ball downfield I think is really important. I watched the tape and it’s obviously the first opponent they played this year, but games from last year too, Virginia does a really good job, they stay disciplined, they don’t really have a lot of guys out of place. You can tell they’re really well coached and they know what they’re doing.”

Three Key Questions

1. Can Virginia stop the run?

A significant piece of the winning puzzle in the opener against Duke proved to be the defense’s ability to shut down the run and make the Blue Devils a one-dimensional attack. UVA allowed just 56 yards on 38 attempts, a paltry 1.5 yards per carry. Even adjusting for sacks, the defense gave up just 2.4 yards per carry. That wasn’t the case in last season’s blowout loss, 62-17, to Clemson when the Hoos were shredded for 211 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns on 38 carries. That’s a strong 5.55 yards per carry average. The biggest thread, of course, is Travis Etienne. The star back posted 114 yards and a touchdown on just 14 carries in the title game, a scorching 8.14 yards per carry.

2. Who wins the explosive play category?

Virginia players and coaches have noted this week how explosive Clemson’s offense can be, something the Wahoos saw first hand last December. The Tigers scored touchdowns of 59 and 26 yards in their win and rattled off many other big gainers as well. Five different receivers had at least one catch of 19 yards or more, including that 59-yard scoring play. Three different players had at least one run of 19 yards or more too, including that 26-yard scoring play. Overall last season, Clemson posted 100 plays of 20+ yards and that ranked No. 3 nationally.

Part of UVA’s success last season and in the opener came through similar plays. Against Duke, both of Lavel Davis Jr.’s touchdowns were from 18 yards or more and he had a 39-yard catch too. Four different receivers logged a catch of 17+ yards in total. Virginia had 21 plays of 10+ yards in the opener.

3. Will the Hoos do all the little things to have a chance?

On paper, No. 1 ranked Clemson is clearly better than unranked Virginia. That’s something the Tigers can say in probably 95% of their games. The memory of the romp in Charlotte is still fresh too. To pull of the upset as a four-touchdown underdog, the Cavaliers can’t afford to give away plays and they’ll need to do all the little things that can keep drives alive or stop drives on defense.

What types of things are we talking about? Dropped passes – the Hoos had 6 last week per the Pro Football Focus stats when they had 8 all of last year. Brennan Armstrong threw 2 interceptions in the opener – UVA had 15 in 14 games last year. Bryce Perkins had 12 last season as the starter, but 2 of those came against Clemson (Armstrong had one in that game too). Defensively against Duke, Virginia missed 12 tackles and that’s higher than the 10.3 per game average from last season (which was the highest in the Mendenhall era) – the Wahoos missed 21 tackles in last year’s meeting with the Tigers.

Three Picks

Sabre Editor Kris Wright

No. 1 ranked Clemson won the National Championship in 2016 and 2018. The Tigers had an early lead in last year’s title game too, but LSU pulled away for the victory. They whipped the Hoos in the ACC Championship Game prior to the playoffs too. In other words, there’s no arguing with the spread on this one. Clemson is, and should be, the heavy favorite.

So far, very few words above have mentioned Trevor Lawrence. But coaches often say that quarterback is the most important position on the field and Lawrence gives his team a major advantage at that spot in almost every game. That’s the case in this one too as Lawrence owns a huge experience advantage over Armstrong. Lawrence has more than 7,000 passing yards and is in the top 10 for touchdown passes in ACC history. He threw just 8 interceptions among 407 pass attempts last season and he hasn’t thrown a pick since the Louisville game last Oct. 19, a streak of 10 games. He’s completed 30 of 37 pass attempts this season for 519 yards and 4 touchdowns.

In other words, this Lawrence is an even bigger hit than Johnny Lawrence on Netflix. He’ll lead his team to another win in this one. CLEMSON 48, VIRGINIA 20. This season: 1-0.

Sabre Associate Editor Chris Horne

There were certainly positives to take from Virginia’s season-opening win over Duke. Offensively, the Hoos were able to move the ball through the air and on the ground, and we saw the rise of promising true freshman Lavel Davis Jr. Sophomore quarterback Brennan Armstrong had his ups and downs, but overall Bronco Mendenhall seemed pleased with his first outing as the team’s starting quarterback. The offensive line played very well against a solid Duke front line.

Defensively, the Hoos created havoc, and the unit shows a lot of promise if they can stay healthy.

All that being said, this is Clemson, the No. 1 team in the nation and a perennial power under head coach Dabo Swinney. As Bronco Mendenhall said, they don’t rebuild, they reload. The experience of playing the Tigers in last year’s ACC Championship Game, coupled with a culture of confidence and determination, will help the Hoos stay competitive. Ultimately, though, the Tigers have two potential Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Trevor Lawrence and running back Travis Etienne, and speed, athleticism, and talent across the board on both sides of the ball. If UVA’s offense plays efficient and can put points up early I think this could be closer than many expect, but eventually Clemson does get the win. CLEMSON 34, VIRGINIA 16. This season: 1-0.

Sabre Message Board Fan wahoobrian05

When contemplating the task facing our Hoos, the numbers are truly staggering. Clemson, winners of two of the last four national titles, participants in each of the last five College Football Playoffs, and with a spotless 17-0 conference record in the Trevor Lawrence era, defines dominance. On top of that, if you are inclined to think past performance is a predictor of future results, you have the Tigers’ 62-17 shellacking of Virginia in last year’s ACC Championship Game as a recent indicator of how we measure up against the ACC’s best program.

Clemson’s last ACC loss came almost three years ago at Syracuse when Travis Etienne was just a freshman and the Tiger offense was still captained by Kelly Bryant. Given those staggering numbers, it is tempting to view Dabo Swinney’s juggernaut as completely invincible, and no one could fault you for doing so.

So, is there any cause for optimism when the Hoos take the field Saturday night under the lights in Death Valley? Actually, yes. In each of the past two seasons, Clemson has had games in which it looked human and flirted with defeat. At UNC last year and against Texas A&M and Syracuse in 2018, the Tigers won by single digits. Each game took place in September – in other words, within the first handful of games.

But, let’s not make this all about Clemson. The defense that will confront Mr. Lawrence and Etienne on Saturday should be at full strength, as opposed to the unit missing multiple starters in December. Virginia has also now seen this level of competition, finishing the last campaign in the ACC Championship and the Orange Bowl, in which it showed much better.

Though Virginia’s offense is missing a number of key playmakers from last year, the running game, anemic at best outside of Bryce Perkins last year, appears to be much stronger entering this week’s game after a strong performance versus the Blue Devils. Add some pass catchers with real size to the mix in 6’7” Lavel Davis Jr. and Tony Poljan, and the Hoos potentially pose some matchup problems for Clemson’s speedy defense.

To hang in this one, Virginia has to play a virtually perfect game and Clemson will have to make some mistakes. How do the Hoos best make this happen? 1. Be aggressive. Fourth-and-short in plus territory means go for it. Don’t count on getting too many stops. 2. Pressure Trevor Lawrence. Easier said than done, but sitting back and playing coverage is a recipe for disaster. The Hoos boast a pair of elite outside linebackers and a veteran defensive line. They absolutely must get pressure and force Lawrence into rare mistakes. 3. Run the football. Controlling the clock and shortening the game will limit the number of possessions. Coupled with playing a clean game and forcing a turnover or two, this is the recipe for victory.

So, what’s going to happen? I think the Hoos test Clemson early, but over time the talent disparity takes over and the Tigers stretch it out in the second half. CLEMSON 41, VIRGINIA 17.  This season (last week hooman#1): 1-0.

Remember When …

Virginia won on a football buzzer-beater at Clemson in 2001 …

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