Clemson-Virginia Tech Preview
By PETE IACOBELLI
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) Clemson first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris has already heard more than he wanted about the Tigers' last trip to Virginia Tech.
The miserable trek to Blacksburg in 2006 ended in a 24-7 rout by the Hokies.
"That's one of the things I keep hearing is how Clemson got hit in the mouth and `How quick can we get back to the bus?'" Morris said. "And that's something I know coach (Dabo) Swinney's going to talk to our players about."
Clemson was one of the hottest teams in the country, winners of six straight and No. 10 in the country. But the Hokies' decisive win started a second-half slide for the Tigers.
Now 13th-ranked Clemson (4-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) faces a similar challenge this week - though hoping for a different result - when the Tigers play their first road game of this season at No. 11 Virginia Tech.
The Tigers have risen rapidly in the rankings with consecutive wins over defending national champion Auburn and ACC powerhouse Florida State and are off to their best start in four years.
Morris' offense has taken off, too.
Clemson has gained nearly 1,100 yards in the past two high-profile wins. Quarterback Tajh Boyd leads the ACC with 13 touchdowns and 1,255 yards. The first-year starter also leads the conference in total offense. Freshman receiver Sammy Watkins has caught 14 passes for 296 yards and four touchdowns the past two games.
Boyd and Watkins both repeated this week as ACC offensive back and receiver of the week.
"We know if we go out and do our jobs, it's highly likely that we'll be successful," left tackle Phillip Price said.
Then again, this team hasn't faced a test like Virginia Tech, the defending ACC champions.
The Hokies (4-0) are known for their hard-nosed, lunchpail attitude, especially at home and with the defense of longtime coordinator Bud Foster. Virginia Tech defensive ends James Gayle and J.R. Collins combined for four sacks and 12 tackles last Saturday in a 30-10 victory at Marshall.
"We've had some fast guys in the past and when we're fast coming off that edge, we're usually pretty good," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said.
Clemson's success has come from its speed, as well.
Morris has brought an up-tempo pace to the Tigers, something he said they were hungry for after last year's dismal offensive showing when they averaged 30 fewer yards and seven fewer points than the 2009 team that went to the ACC championship game.
"I think when you look at what they were like last year offensively, they were ready for anything," Morris said of his players. "If I would've come in here selling the wing-T and selling it with my personality, they would've bought into the wing-T. They were hungry to get their identity back."
Right now, the Tigers are a team that picks up big, big third downs. They've converted 53 percent (35 of 66) this season, including an astounding 23 of 35 such chances in past two wins over Auburn and Florida State. "That's where you make your money," Morris said.
Morris has emphasized third-down success since he arrived. "He just gets it in our heads that we're going to be the best third down team ever," Watkins said.
Beamer knows the Hokies haven't faced a team yet this year like the Tigers.
"They have a lot of dynamic players and they are a dynamic football team," Beamer said. "We understand that we have a really good football team coming in Saturday."
Not that Swinney or Morris believe the turnaround from last year's 6-7 season is complete. Swinney pointed out a host of mistakes on offense, defense and special teams that, if not corrected, could cost the Tigers down the road. "I'm happy where we are," said Swinney, in his third full season. "But we're not satisfied."
Morris has harped all year on his offense getting tougher. The Tigers tried to ice the game on fourth-and-1 with under three minutes remaining, but Ellington was stuffed short by Florida State, a failure that gave the Seminoles a finial chance to drive for a winning score. A field goal by Chandler Catanzaro there would've given Clemson an eight-point edge, but Morris said about the call, "I didn't come here to lay up."
The Tigers are 1 of 6 this season when going for it on fourth down and Morris says that's got to improve in a hurry. Then again, he thinks that about everything and everyone on offense.
"I'm not going to let them get complacent on me," Morris said. "We're ahead of schedule, (but) I'm not going to let them think they've arrived."
Updated September 26, 2011