CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson defense coordinator Kevin Steele says his group’s dominant showing the last time it faced Virginia Tech won’t have much bearing on Saturday night’s Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
He better hope he’s wrong.
The 21st-ranked Tigers (9-3) have rarely looked better this season on defense than they did that chilly October night in Blacksburg, Va., two months ago in a 23-3 victory over the Hokies.
Clemson takes on No. 5 Virginia Tech for the ACC championship in Charlotte, N.C.
The Hokies are trying for their fifth ACC crown in eight years while the Tigers, back as Atlantic Division winners for the second time in five years, look for their first league championship since 1991.
To get it, Clemson’s defense must look more like it did back on Oct. 1 at Lane Stadium than how it’s been the second half of the season.
Clemson held Virginia Tech to a season low 258 yards and without a touchdown at home for the first time since 1995. That win gained national headlines and was part of the Tigers 8-0 run into the top 10.
In the past six games, though, Clemson’s defense has given up more than 410 yards and 35 points a game. And it’s no surprise that the Tigers have gone 3-3 during that stretch and enter the ACC Championship losing its past two in blowout fashion to North Carolina State (37-13) and rival South Carolina (34-13).
“It’s basically, do your job,” Steele said of his unit’s breakdowns. “It’s something that we work on and it’s simple.”
Yet apparently hard to grasp at times for Clemson’s defenders. Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw threw for 210 yards and ran for 107 in his seventh career start.
The Tigers are 63rd nationally in yards allowed and 92nd in the country against the run with more than 186 yards per game.
Next up comes the league’s top rusher and ACC Player of the Year in Hokies tailback David Wilson. He was about the only one on the Virginia Tech offense who didn’t struggle that first game with Clemson, gaining 123 yards on 20 carries. Wilson, though, had a critical fumble with his team ahead 3-0 and driving for more points.