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Clemson-Virginia Tech: A Game of Millimeters

By Jim Johnson
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On Saturday night, in Lane Stadium, against a defense that is as good as expected and an offense that’s much better than projected, the defending champions will have their hands full.

 In Clemson’s last 34 football games, 32 have been victories. One of the two losses came against Alabama, in the national championship, and it took an onside kick, which, like, come on. That shouldn’t even count. Suffice it to say, beating the Tigers is no easy task.

That said, on Saturday night, in Lane Stadium, against a defense that is as good as expected and an offense that’s much better than projected, the defending champions will have their hands full.

Through four games, Kelly Bryant has been all that the Tigers have needed him to be -- a far cry from great, but enough. His best game came under the brightest lights, at Louisville,in week three. He was good against Kent State for whatever that’s worth, but, overall, he has been perfectly average. Shockingly, it may have been a little too early to start christening him as the next Deshaun Watson after a handful of games.

If there was any cause for concern, it may be that Clemson’s passing offense has shown no consistent improvement from one week to the next.

From 36th in the country, going into the Louisville game, in passing success rate (SBNation writer Bill Connelly’s metric, defined as achieving 50% of necessary yardage on 1st down, 70% on 2nd, and 100% on third and fourth down), they are now 37th, staying on schedule 46% of the time.

That’s nothing to scoff at, but, for a variety of reasons, they are still struggling to create big plays through the air. Only 29 throws, thus far, have gone for gains of 10+ yards (79th in FBS), and they are generating an average of 1.23 equivalent points per successful pass play (henceforth referred to as IsoPPP), nearly the same that it was two weeks ago, which is 111th in the nation.

This really isn’t all that surprising, though, given the personnel. Hunter Renfrow has evolved into one of the game’s most reliable receivers, catching an abused 95.5% of his 22 targets with a 77.3% success rate, and Ray-Ray McCloud has emerged as, arguably, the most consistent playmaker on the offense, catching 78.3% of his looks for an average of 9.5 yards per attempt.

Meanwhile, Deon Cain, who, based on last season, was supposed to be one of college football’s premier returning deep threats, has struggled. In 2016, his 14 catches and 423 yards on passes of 20+ yards downfield were the most amongst returning ACC players, and his 2.78 yards per route run were second in that group. However, there were questions about whether or not he could become a more well rounded pass catcher, and if he could clean up some of his drop issues. At this point, he has done little to ease the concerns in either regard, catching merely 55% of balls thrown his way for an average 7.6 yards per target.

Bryant and Cain are each, in part, responsible for these problems, although to what extent one is versus the other is debatable, but the fact is, McCloud, Renfrow, and tight end Milan Richard are just more viable options, right now.

Tiger nation better hope that all turns around, on Saturday, because if it doesn’t, that plays right into Virginia Tech’s strengths.

Even without Adonis Alexander, who has been suspended for the last two games (at this time it is yet to be announced whether or not he will play against Clemson), Bud Foster trots out one of the most talented, accomplished, and experienced secondaries in America.

Although, it sure wouldn’t hurt to have Alexander back. Amongst returning ACC cornerbacks, last year, Alexander’s allowed completion percentage of 46.2% was fourth in the conference, and he’s a sure tackler, ranking third in that group with 13.7 tackle attempts per miss.

Regardless, with Greg Stroman, whose allowed passer rating of 56.1, in 2016, was third in the ACC amongst returning corners (it’s actually even better at 34.4 so far this season, on top of an interception and five pass breakups), and Brandon Facyson, whose allowed completion percentage was a shade over 50%, the Hokies’ cornerbacks are no joke.

Not to mention, Terrell Edmunds was one of the ACC’s best safeties, in coverage, in 2016, allowing .51 yards per coverage snap, which was tops amongst returning players at the position, along with four picks. He already has an interception and three pass breakups, this season.

The ability, maturity, and corresponding grasp of the system, within the defensive backfield, affords Bud Foster the luxury of utilizing a ton of man-to-man press cover one and cover zero looks, while bringing more pressure.

As such, Virginia Tech’s allowed passing success rate of 33.6% is 31st in the country, even having played a game against the likes of Will Grier and West Virginia, and their defensive back havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles per play) of 10.1% is fourth overall.

That said, as a result of their aggressiveness, there are big plays to be had through the air against this defense. Virginia Tech has allowed 13 passes to go for gains of at least 20 yards (89th), and are allowing 1.7 passing IsoPPP (115th).

Even with Renfrow and McCloud, it’s going to be tough to dink and dunk against Stroman, Facyson, and Edmunds (plus Alexander, if he’s available). However, this is exactly the type of team that Deon Cain could have a field day against, especially when matched up with Facyson who, last season, gave up six passes of 20 or more yards, which accounted for 41.7% of his allowed yardage. If Cain isn’t able to separate and make plays down the field, we’ll know his lack of production is more so his fault. If Bryant isn’t hitting him, it’s on the quarterback. This contest will tell Clemson a lot about its lack of a deep passing game. Welcome to the Cain-Bryant referendum.

Where Clemson’s offense has flourished is on the ground. They possess an elite rushing success rate of 52.8% (12th) and gain at least five yards on 46.1% of carries (18th). Now, the numbers suggest that they, while better than the passing game, are slightly below average when it comes to rushing explosiveness -- their .85 IsoPPP is 84th -- Travis Etienne is doing everything in his power to change that.

Kelly Bryant is currently the leading rusher and Tavien Feaster has received the second most carries on the team, but Etienne appears to be some sort of supernova, sent from the heavens to save the earth from the scourge of good tackling, leaving behind no yards, only broken dreams and ankles.

On just 23 carries, Etienne has 292 yards and four touchdowns, has forced nine missed tackles (his elusive rating, according to Pro Football Focus, is 398.1 -- for context, Miami’s Mark Walton, an excellent running back, is currently third in the ACC with an elusive rating of 71.7), and, on plays where he gets to the second level (five yards past the line of scrimmage), which he does 52.2% of the time, he averages another 15.9 yards per opportunity (Bryant averages 4.8, Feaster 5.4).

Etienne is basically what it would have been like if they had let Dash play football in The Incredibles.

Virginia Tech’s rush defense will present Clemson’s second biggest challenge to date this season, though, behind Auburn, and Etienne’s biggest, given that he did not see the field in that game.

The Hokies’ are solid, across the board, if unspectacular, against the run, posting a 35.8% opposing success rate (43rd), .77 IsoPPP allowed (38th), and giving up five or more yards on 33.9% of carries (40th).

Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds is the focal point of Virginia Tech’s run defense. His 3.3 yards allowed per tackle, in 2016, was 9th in the country among currently draft-eligible linebackers, he was fourth amongst returning ACC linebackers with 39 run stops, and he led that group in total stops, with 57. Through four games, this season, he leads the team with seven run stuffs (tackles for loss OR no gain), 4.5 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles, with a 33.3% allowed success rate.

Alongside Edmunds, senior Andrew Motuapuaka has racked up four run stuffs and four tackles for loss of his own.

Up front, defensive end Trevon Hill has five run stuffs with 3.5 tackles for loss on an allowed success rate of 27.3%, and freshman defensive tackle Jarrod Hewitt has stood out, tallying three stuffs and 1.5 tackles for loss. Sophomore nose tackle Tim Settle, already a proven interior pass rush threat, needed to improve against the run in the offseason, and, while there’s still room to grow, he seems to be taking steps in the right direction, with a pair of run stuffs and two tackles for loss.

However the best part of Virginia Tech’s run defense is that it’s a real family affair, and that doesn't just refer to the Edmunds brothers. Everyone is involved. As a result of the aforementioned aggressive strategy, with so many defensive backs playing close to the line of scrimmage, the secondary is what makes them so effective against opposing rushers.

Brandon Facyson, who through last season had missed just eight tackles in his career, was third in tackling efficiency, amongst returning ACC corners. Alexander, whose status, again, is up in the air, had a run stop percentage of 3.1%, second in the conference amongst returning corners, last year.

This season, Mook Reynolds leads the defensive backs with five run stuffs and four tackles for loss with a 37.5% allowed success rate, from his “Whip” position. Facyson has added a couple of run stuffs and one tackle for loss. Sophomore rover Reggie Floyd has four run stuffs, and Terrell Edmunds has two, plus 1.5 tackles for loss.

The efficacy of Clemson’s run game will, ultimately, come down to if they can win in the trenches, where, at least when run blocking, they’ve been quite good.

The Tigers are averaging 3.48 line yards (a metric that attempts to separate what a ball carrier does from the yardage that the offensive line creates, inasmuch as that’s possible) per carry, on standard downs (16th), and 4.11 passing down line yards (27th), while giving up stuffs on 14.9% of rushing tries (26th).

Comparatively, the Hokies are giving up a a slightly above-the-mean average of 2.53 standard down line yards (49th), and a subpar 3.53 passing down line yards (78th), with a very strong 25.2% stuff rate (23rd).

The only real advantage Virginia Tech’s defensive front has against the run is in short yardage situations. On third and fourth down runs, with two or fewer yards to go, Clemson converts 63.2% of its tries (87th), whereas the Hokies cede the conversion only a third of the time, which is fourth best in the country.

Conversely, Clemson has been downright abysmal in pass protection -- particularly shocking given some of the talent within that position group. Left tackle Mitch Hyatt, for example, had 550 pass blocking snaps without a sack last season, which was the second best amongst every returning FBS tackle. Maverick Morris, who has served as a backup, so far, had the third highest pass blocking efficiency in the country, amongst returning guards with at least 162 pass pro snaps.

Yet, through four games, Clemson has allowed sacks on 6.9% of standard down pass attempts (99th), and 12.2% on passing downs (110th). Virginia Tech will have a field day if that continues on Saturday night. The Hokies are recording a sack on 10.7% of standard downs (12th), making their need to blitz on passing downs virtually nonexistent, which is why the pass down rate is so low -- there’s no need for more than a standard rush every time.

While Settle’s need for improvement against the run was highlighted earlier, he established himself as one of the ACC’s premier interior pass rushers, last season, despite limited playing time, finishing the year with 18 pressures on 131 pass rush snaps, as productive as any interior defender in the ACC, aside from Dexter Lawrence.

Trevon Hill was quietly hyper-productive in his own right, a year ago, totaling the third most pressures in the country, from the left side of the defensive line, amongst returning edge defenders. Presently, Hill is second on the team with four QB hurries, trailing only defensive tackle Ricky Walker’s five. Walker has been pretty outstanding, as well, producing as he has from the interior.

The biggest X-Factor, though, has been Andrew Motuapuaka’s development from a very good all-around player to an absolute weapon as a pass rusher, with four QB hurries so far, and a team high 2.5 sacks, which already surpasses his 2016 total.

As always with Clemson, though, and now with the emergence of Josh Jackson, the matchup within the matchup that people are tuning in for is Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins, and the vaunted Tiger defense against Josh Jackson, Cam Phillips, and an offense that has, arguably, been the ACC’s most pleasant surprise through week four.

Jackson has the Hokies’ passing attack cooking. He’s the only freshman quarterback to start and win each of his team’s first four games this season and his eleven passing scores are the third most in FBS football among starting QBs that are 4-0, trailing only Luke Falk and Baker Mayfield.

Jackson, as the freshman to start the season at quarterback for VT since 1999, is even outperforming the last freshman starter, through as many appearances. He’s averaging 100 more yards of offense per game, has scored three more touchdowns, and turned the ball over two fewer times.

The other dude is Michael Vick.

Virginia Tech is passing the ball with a 45.3% success rate (41st), and has been extremely explosive with 1.83 IsoPPP on passes (12th), an average of 9.6 yards per attempt (12th), and 21 completions for 20+ yards (7th).

Obviously, this is due in large part to Cam Phillips. The senior has been a model of consistency for the Hokies, over the course of his career, but, seemingly out of nowhere, is now the best receiver in the ACC. His freshman quarterback knows it, too, targeting Phillips on 40% of his throws. Even with that usage rate, though, Jackson’s passer rating, on balls to Phillips is 150.7, and the wideout is averaging 4.67 yards per route run, both of which lead the conference, with 11.9 yards per target and a 61.4% success rate on a 77.3% catch rate. As productive in the slot as he is out wide, Phillips is proving to be a playmaker, as well, with five touchdowns and 144 of his 523 yards coming after the catch.

Freshman Sean Savoy and C.J. Carroll have both shown to be reliable options in the slot, each with a catch rate of at least 70%, and success rates that are above the national average, but Phillips is unquestionably the go-to guy.

However, if anyone is going to slow him down this year, it’s Clemson.

The Tigers’ allowed passing success rate is an incredible 21.5% (2nd), and are somehow preventing big plays at a similarly incredible rate -- 1.08 allowed passing IsoPPP (8th), 5.2 yards per attempt allowed (12th), and seven passes against for 20+ yards (18th) -- without sacrificing shorter gains, as indicated by the aforementioned efficiency.

Apparently no one ever told Brent Venables about that whole having cake and eating it thing, because this is unreal.

Admittedly, it can be tough to separate how much Clemson’s pass rush does for its secondary, but that might be a fool’s errand anyway, as long as the front four continues to produce. In any case, the Tigers’ defensive backs’ numbers are staggering.

Clemson entered the year with the top duo in the country, as far as allowed passer rating for cornerbacks with at least 250 snaps. Mark Fields’ 18.8 allowed pass rating, coupled with Ryan Carter’s 51.1 combined to be over 15 points lower than the next best pair. In fact, Fields led every returning player in the nation with an average of 30.7 snaps per reception allowed.

This year, through four games, startiing cornerback Trayvon Mullen has an allowed passer rating of 6.3, and reserve corner A.J. Terrell has an allowed passer rating of 0. Those are two of the top three in the ACC, for cornerbacks with at least 40 coverage snaps.

As good as Jackson has been, he’s never seen anything like Clemson’s pass defense.

That said, on top of his contributions with his arm, the freshman has added another element to Virginia Tech’s efficicient, if less-than-explosive, run game.

The Hokies 47.1% rushing success rate is 41st in the country, and they are gaining at least five yards on 45.4% of their attempts (20th), but are only averaging .76 IsoPPP (108th), on the ground, and have just four carries of 20+ yards (81st).

The problem seems to be a relative inability to make defenders miss, upon reaching the second level. On carries that go at least five yards, Travon McMillian, Steven Peoples, and Deshawn McClease all average less than 2.8 extra yards per opportunity. Even Jackson’s 4.6 extra yards per second level opportunity is less than any of Clemson’s top three ballcarriers.

Then again, it’s seemingly impossible to break off big runs against Clemson, so it may not matter, either way. Clemson’s defense is currently allowing .6 rushing IsoPPP (3rd), 2.52 yards per carry (5th), and has given up one run of 20+ yards, which is as good as anyone in college football.

Coupled with a 36.5% allowed success rate (47th) and five or more yards allowed on 30.8% of carries (15th), and Clemson’s run defense isn’t all that far behind its own ridiculous pass defense.

Obviously, it starts up front for Brent Venables, as it always does. Austin Bryant and Christian Wilkins lead the run-stopping efforts, along the line of scrimmage, with three run stuffs each. Bryant also has six tackles for loss with a 17.6% allowed success rate, while Wilkins has tallied three tackles for loss on a 23.5% success rate. Dexter Lawrence has chipped in, as well, with two run stuffs, and actually has the lowest allowed success rate of the starting defensive linemen at 16.7%.

Even more impressive is that the group is having so much success in spite of a slow start from Clelin Ferrell who, in 2016, had the third highest run stop percentage of returning ACC players at his position.

It’s really the linebackers that make the difference for the Tigers, against the run, though. Dorian O’Daniel has four tackles for loss, and leads the team with six run stuffs, while Kendall Joseph is right behind him, tallying four run stuffs and 2.5 tackles for loss, so far.

Now, the heavy weight bout, within this matchup, will, aptly, feature Virginia Tech’s quietly strong offensive line and Clemson’s star-studded defensive line.

In the best Michael Buffer impression ever:

“In one corner, standing at 6’7”, 320 pounds, he hasn’t allowed a single pressure on 124 pass blocking snaps, in 2017, Yosuah Nijman!

In the other corner, at 6’5”, 260 pounds, his 39 QB pressures in 2016 was fifth amongst returning ACC edge rushers, Clelin Ferrell!”


“In one corner, at 6’2”, 300 pounds, he had the fifth highest pass blocking efficiency amongst returning FBS centers, a year ago, Eric Gallo!

In the other corner, at 6’4”, 300 pounds, he had the sixth highest third down pass rush productivity in the country and lead the nation with nine batted passes, last season, Christian Wilkins!”


“For your main event, in one corner, at 6’5”, 315 pounds, he allowed just one sack on 469 pass block snaps and had the highest pass blocking efficiency of any ACC guard with at least 200 pass pro snaps, during 2016, Wyatt Teller!

In the other corner, at a a monstrous 6’4”, 340 pounds, he tosses other abnormally large humans aside like rag dolls, and his 48 QB pressures were the second most among all returning FBS defensive tackles, and the most since 2014, by a freshman, Dexter Lawrence!”


As a unit, Virginia Tech has yet to allow a single standard down sack, which is obviously as good as any team in the country. It has given up four passing down sacks, but, as efficient as they are, generally staying on schedule, that’t still in the top 25, nationally, for sacks allowed.

On the other side, Clemson has 17 sacks this year, second most in the nation, and is getting one on 10.7% of standard down pass plays (12th). Only 1.7% of passing down pass plays have resulted in a sack (128th), but with their front four talent, there’s really no reason to send extra rushers, as indicated by the disparity.

As far as run blocking, Virginia Tech is creating an average of 3.5 standard down line yards (14th), 2.83 passing down line yards (94th), allowing stuffs on 17.6% of rushes (53rd), and converting third and fourth down tries, with two or fewer yards to go, 68.8% of the time (66th).

Clemson is allowing 2.53 standard down line yards (49th), and 3.04 passing down line yards per carry (78th), while stuffing 20% of opposing carries (70th), and denying 18.2% of opposing third and fourth down conversions with two or fewer yards to the sticks (111th).

Virginia Tech is probably a little better, in the trenches, running the ball, but Clemson would have the edge there in the passing game.

Clemson is a better run blocking unit than Virginia Tech is a run stopping unit, but the opposite is true on passing plays.

Clemson, on both sides of the ball, is slightly better in the run game.

Neither team will be able to throw very effectively, if history is any indicator.

Both offenses and defenses are efficient. Virginia Tech’s defense gives up too many big plays, but Clemson’s offense isn’t explosive enough. The Hokies create plenty of big plays of their own, but no one is explosive against Clemson’s defense.

The four game sample size would suggest that Virginia Tech may win the field position battle, but that same sample says that the home team won’t be able to finish drives with the consistency that Clemson will.

Dabo Swinney and his Clemson Tigers will enter Lane Stadium, on Saturday night, with seven straight wins against ranked opponents, the nation’s longest active streak.

For that number to get to eight, it will take cleaning up the turnovers and finishing drives against a Virginia Tech defense that allows just 2.93 points per trip inside the 40-yard line (12th).

For the home team to start a streak of its own, the Hokies must stop the run and force Kelly Bryant to beat them, while maintaining their elite level starting field position, their only significant advantage over the visitors, bearing in mind that the team who wins the field position battle wins the game over 70% of the time.

Clemson’s two year run is unsustainable, right? Math would say so. Can the Hokies be the team that brings it all crashing down? If they can’t, there may not be be another team on the schedule better equipped to do so.

Will this be Josh Jackson’s national coming out party? Or, perhaps, will he meet a similar fate that an even more awesome Jackson met a couple of weeks ago?

Football may be a game of inches, but these teams are separated by millimeters. The only sure thing this weekend, in Blacksburg, is that this has a chance to be the most compelling ACC game of the year.

Well, until they meet again in December, that is.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP