Nick Grant and the Virginia defense learned a thing or two about defending Clemson’s potent offense during last year’s ACC football championship game. The Cavaliers applied those lessons later in the month in a competitive Orange Bowl loss to Florida.
Now, Grant and company are hoping to take what they’ve learned and translate it into a mammoth early-season upset of the No. 1-ranked Tigers.
“Obviously they’ve been at the top of the nation for a while, the top of the ACC for six or seven years,” said Grant, the Cavaliers’ junior cornerback. “ … All roads lead to Clemson to win the ACC.”
Virginia (1-0, 1-0 ACC) will be on that road this weekend, visiting Clemson for the first time since 2009. Last year’s meeting came at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., where the Tigers blasted UVA 62-17, exploiting hesitant play on the edge by the Cavaliers’ defense.
“Having earned the chance to play them in the ACC championship game last year, it just accelerated our program,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said on Monday. “It exposed deficiencies. We learned so many things about that setting, that stage, that opponent. We’re anxious to learn and apply and improve from what we showed a year ago.”
Clemson’s first touchdown of the onslaught came when Tee Higgins, now in the NFL, caught a 5-yard pass in front of Grant, but turned it into a 19-yard score as Grant hesitated how to approach bringing down the Tigers’ star.
In all, the five-time ACC champions piled up 492 yards and eight touchdowns that night, three from Higgins. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw for 302 yards and four scores and running back Travis Etienne ran for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Both of them are back this year.
“Clemson’s really explosive [and] dynamic on the perimeter,” Mendenhall said. “Getting the ball in space and letting their recruits and their athletes have success has been a great model for them not only at quarterback, not only a running back but also wide receivers. So, they have a really good formula that’s worked well for them. We didn’t tackle well in that game.”
The team’s 36-28 loss to Florida slightly more than three weeks later showed the strides the defense had made in a short time. Virginia hoped to take that another step forward in this season’s scheduled opener against Georgia, but that game was scrubbed by COVID-19 concerns.
“Last year, our secondary didn’t do what we needed to do defending their receivers [against Clemson],” Grant said. “We kind of got used to playing those caliber of people, NFL talent receivers, NFL talent quarterbacks and running backs.”
UVA beat Duke 38-20 in its opener this past weekend, but the Blue Devils’ offense doesn’t fire nearly as hot as Clemson’s, so Grant said he and his teammates can’t assume that what they did in that game will be as effective in Week 2.
Duke did not attack the edge the way Clemson does. The Blue Devils, quarterbacked by former Clemson backup Chase Brice, found their limited success throwing to tight ends over the middle.
“It’s hard to say when the perimeter wasn’t a huge deal going on this game,” Grant said. “I just feel like that’s going to be a huge deal tackling people like Etienne and Amari Rogers on the edge.”
Still, Mendenhall said he was encouraged by his team’s tackling against Duke, especially considering how limited were the full-contact, tackle-to-the-ground practices the team held in preseason.
“We were physical, especially in the run game,” he said. “The tackling was solid. There were a few plays in the open field later in the game, that we didn’t tackle quite as well. But, in relation to what I had expected, I thought was a little bit better than what I was prepared for.”
That’s a good sign as they prepare to face an offense that’s averaging 43 points and 483 yards per game this season and comes in fully rested, having had last weekend off.