Observer staff writer Rick Bonnell looks at tonight's matchup between Clemson and Virginia Tech for the ACC championship at Bank of America Stadium:
Clemson's offense: As recently as a month ago, the Tigers were among the most dynamic, efficient offenses in the country. First-season starting quarterback Tajh Boyd was remarkable in his ability to minimize mistakes and convert first downs.
Boyd has a variety of targets. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins might be the best freshman in the country. Tight end Dwayne Allen might be a first-round pick, should he make himself available for the NFL draft. Andre Ellington is a tough, reliable running back when healthy, and he's backed up by a gifted, if immature, freshman in Mike Bellamy.
The offensive line is experienced, and gave Boyd plenty of protection in that 8-0 start.
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And then so much changed, starting with the loss at Georgia Tech. Boyd threw two interceptions against the Yellow Jackets, one of them a particularly peculiar decision in the red zone: Watkins went one way, the ball went the other, and Clemson blew its chance at an undefeated season.
Over the first eight games, the Tigers committed eight turnovers. Over the next four (a 1-3 record) they committed 12 turnovers. Injuries were also a factor. Watkins and left tackle Phillip Price were both hurt in a last-second escape from Wake Forest (a 14-point comeback).
Watkins is healed, but Price was sufficiently limited by a sprained knee and was pulled out of the loss at South Carolina. Boyd was sacked five times by the Gamecocks. Boyd appears so conscious of the rush at this point that he isn't necessarily going through his reads as he once did.
They're a team averaging over 30 points a game, but they're certainly not the offense that beat Auburn, Florida State and Virginia Tech in consecutive games.
Virginia Tech's defense: This is a dramatically different unit than the one that lost to Clemson 23-3 Oct. 1 in Blacksburg.
This is one of defensive coordinator Bud Foster's better jobs. The Hokies are coming off a shutout of Virginia in Charlottesville, and the Cavaliers had won six of their previous seven games.
Considering Clemson's pass-protection problems of late, pay particular attention to Hokies defensive end James Gayle. He had two spectacular sacks against Virginia.
Also, watch who wins third down. Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris thinks that's as important as any stat in football. The Hokies give up third-down conversions about 32 percent of the time, best in the ACC.
Virginia Tech's offense: Everything starts with David Wilson, among the best running backs in the country. He's gained 1,595 yards in an 11-1 season. That would be an issue in any game, but the Tigers' weakest point might be rush defense. They're giving up over 180 yards on the ground, second-worst in the ACC to Maryland.
And then you deal with Logan Thomas, a 6-foot-6, 254-pound load at quarterback. Thomas started out as a tight end at Virginia Tech, and he relishes contact. That can make it a miserable experience when the Hokies run the read option. Thomas becomes a fast fullback when he takes the ball up the middle.
The wide receivers are also dangerous - former Butler High star Jarrett Boykin and Danny Coale are both long-ball threats.
Clemson's defense: Even when the Tigers were rolling, the defense was unreliable. It's young, and coordinator Kevin Steele played underclassmen early, knowing he'd need them later.
The secondary is problematic, often getting fooled by double moves from opposing wide receivers.
If you're a Clemson fan, hope for another big game from defensive end Andre Branchwho got to Thomas in Blacksburg.