Midway through the schedule Clemson finds itself positioned for yet another run if it can avoid scraping the wall in the second turn.
A year ago, Clemson won its first eight games — nine of 10 — then dropped three of the last four including the Orange Bowl crush. At 5-1 and 13th in the polls, Clemson could begin to reclaim some of the ground it lost at Florida State four weeks ago with a win Saturday against Virginia Tech.
“The second half of the season is very important to this program,” quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “We’ve got to punch it into full gear now.”
Reinvigorated during the bye week, Clemson faces a team it defeated twice last season in a game portending in August to be pivotal to the season. While the game remains critical in the ACC standings for both, this is far from the Virginia Tech team Clemson beat for the ACC Championship.
After opening with a win against Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech has lost to Pitt, Cincinnati and North Carolina and needed to rally from a 20-point deficit to beat Duke. Vegas bookmakers have Clemson favored by 8½.
“Not a lot of room for error for either team from a conference standpoint,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
Tight end Brandon Ford (ankle), backup running back D.J. Howard (shoulder), backup receiver Martavis Bryant (groin) and backup linebacker Lateek Townsend (thigh bruise) are relatively healthy, said Swinney, who said the break at midseason was perfect.
All-American receiver Sammy Watkins said he has caught up with his teammates after missing two games under suspension and a third with an illness.
Yet, offense hasn’t been an issue. Defense has.
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said the break afforded him time, “to take a deep breath.”
“I think a lot of things were accomplished,” he said. “We’re going to find out real quick, but it’s pretty obvious a few of the things we’ve got to work on.”
That would be stopping the run and generating a pass rush, both of which become critical with Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, capable afoot at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds. He also can relax in the pocket and pick apart a secondary.
Swinney and Venables said they are pleased with the development of the interior line. Swinney said linebacker Tony Steward seemed poised for a bigger contribution, and Venables said linebacker Quandon Christian has allowed Travis Blanks to concentrate on safety, where production has been erratic.
Can Clemson be better defensively the second half?
“I would be surprised,” Venables said, “if we weren’t.”
While those turnovers against Boston College and Georgia Tech required “tightening up” offensively, Swinney said, there’s a confidence just short of a swagger on offense.
“We’re playing well, but I don’t think we’ve played to our potential,” center Dalton Freeman said. “We’re still waiting to put that complete game together. I’m very pleased with where we are, but I’m not satisfied.”