Virginia Tech’s first game on the big stage under first-year coach Justin Fuente couldn’t have gone much worse.
Facing Tennessee in front of more than 150,000 fans in the Battle at Bristol, the Hokies fumbled five times in a 45-24 loss.
The defeat was disappointing at the time, but Virginia Tech rebounded to win eight of its final 10 games to earn a spot opposite Clemson in the ACC title game. Fuente believes experiencing struggles against Tennessee will help his team in its biggest game of the year on Saturday against the Tigers.
“We just didn’t handle the whole situation well. And we’ve talked about it at length many times since then as a team,” Fuente said during Friday’s pregame news conference. “I like the way that we’ve matured throughout the year, our emotional maturity, our ability to put the previous week behind us and focus on the next week and handle the emotions of big ball games. And I feel good about where we’re at now, as opposed to week two.”
TURNOVERS, TURNOVERS, TURNOVERS
Turnovers have been a hot topic around Clemson all season, and that continued leading up to the ACC title game.
Fuente said his team will have to force some to have a chance to beat the Tigers.
“The bottom line is nobody has stopped them offensively. You’re trying to slow them down, try to limit a possession by getting a turnover, trying to do anything you can to keep them out of the end zone,” he said. “And if you can create a turnover or two and in turn hold onto the ball offensively, then you have a chance to kind of steal a possession there. I think that’s going to be important for us to have a chance.”
Swinney added when Clemson has struggled to put teams away, it’s been because of turnovers. The Tigers are 6-0, with each win coming by 19 points or more, games they’ve committed one or zero turnovers. Clemson is 5-1, with its largest win coming by a touchdown, in games with two or more turnovers.
“When we have one or less, we have played at an incredibly high level. When we’ve had two or more, hang onto your hat,” Swinney said. “So it’s a big part, it’s a huge part of the game for both teams tomorrow night.”
Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans is putting up impressive numbers this season with 26 touchdowns and five interceptions, while passing for 253 yards per game.
But he’ll face perhaps his toughest test against a Tigers secondary that ranks No. 12 in the nation in passing yards allowed at 180 per game.
“They’re very good in the secondary. They will play tight coverage. … They’re skilled. They certainly understand the scheme,” Fuente said. “They’ll be the biggest challenge we’ve had to date. No question.”