Virginia Tech-Clemson Preview
By HANK KURZ Jr.
(AP) -- From the moment Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer shook hands with Clemson's Dabo Swinney after a 23-3 loss at Lane Stadium, Beamer and the Hokies hoped they would get a rematch.
They will - Saturday's ACC championship game. And things look much different now.
The No. 5 Hokies (11-1, 7-1) haven't lost since that Oct. 1 game and played their most complete game Saturday, a 38-0 victory against Virginia; the No. 21 Tigers (9-3, 6-2) started 8-0, but have lost three of four, including a 34-13 loss to South Carolina on Saturday night.
The Hokies are thrilled not only to be going to the game for the fourth time in five years and fifth time in seven, but to be getting a chance to avenge their only loss of the season.
"Nobody was really talking about it, but everybody wants it," redshirt sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas said after the Hokies earned their spot with the victory at Virginia on Saturday night. "We didn't play our best ball that day, and hopefully we can get them this time."
The biggest difference in the Hokies might be Thomas, who threw for just 125 yards that day while still favoring an injured shoulder, but have emerged as one of the ACC's top players.
He led the Hokies on a winning drive in the final minutes the following week against Miami, completing 23 of 25 passes and running 19 yards for the winning TD with 56 seconds left.
In Virginia Tech's seven consecutive victories, he's thrown for 14 TDs and run for nine, and his 10 rushing touchdowns overall set a new record for a quarterback in Beamer's 25 seasons.
His play now is much like what Tigers redshirt sophomore Tajh Boyd was doing when the Tigers came to Blacksburg, but what seemed then like uncanny savvy for a young player is now missing. He was 11 for 30 against the Gamecocks, for just 83 yards. The Tigers gained 153.
"I would say he's not playing with the confidence that he was at that time," Swinney said on a teleconference Sunday night, noting that Boyd has been facing more pressure, and throwing more interceptions as a result. "You know, all of those things affect especially a young player.
"He's a first-year starter and everything was going perfect for him, and then all of a sudden he's had some mistakes, and he's got to fight his way through it," Swinney said.
Beyond Boyd, the Tigers are young all over. They have played 29 freshmen this year, which Swinney said equals the most of any FBS team in the country. After also losing at Georgia Tech and at North Carolina State since Oct. 29, confidence could be waning.
"This group will have to do a good job of listening to the right things because I'm sure there will be a ton of negativity out there, people telling them this and that," Swinney said, "... and you've got to listen to the right things and live in reality and not perception."
That reality might make things seem more hopeful.
"Big picture wise, again, we certainly didn't finish the way we wanted to, but we did finish with the second-best record in this league, and we're 9 and 3, and we've earned the right to play for the league title, and that's what we're focusing on, these four quarters," he said.
"We can't do anything about what's happened. We're focusing on Virginia Tech."
And the Hokies, similarly, aren't counting on seeing the version of the Tigers that has been playing for the last month, but the one that manhandled them in their first real test on Oct. 1.
"They beat us soundly, and they certainly took it to us," Beamer said. "There wasn't any question about that. They deserved to win. You know, I think our players understand."
The Hokies have twice before had a rematch against a team they lost to during the regular season, and both times, they won. Both came against Boston College, in the 2007 and 2008 games.
That, Beamer said, doesn't mean anything either. Not with a championship on the line.
Updated November 29, 2011