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Virginia vs. No. 3 Clemson — ACC Championship breakdown

Cavaliers face Tigers in program’s first ACC Championship appearance

<p>Last week against Virginia Tech, Perkins contributed 475 of Virginia’s total 492 yards and three of the team’s five touchdowns. &nbsp;</p>

Last week against Virginia Tech, Perkins contributed 475 of Virginia’s total 492 yards and three of the team’s five touchdowns.  

Virginia football — winner of four straight games — has all the momentum in the world at the moment. With the big 39-30 win over Virginia Tech last week, the Cavaliers (9-3, 6-2 ACC) secured the ACC Coastal division and booked their first-ever spot in the ACC championship game. 

However, Virginia now faces its toughest test of the year — the third-ranked defending national champion Clemson. The Cavaliers and the Tigers (12-0, 8-0 ACC) will meet at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday.

Virginia will need to play at its best — and then some — to hand Clemson its first loss in nearly two years and prevent the Tigers from winning their fifth-straight conference championship.

Key players:

Senior quarterback Bryce Perkins

To say that Perkins is a key player in Virginia’s offense would be an almost criminal understatement. Perkins’ heroic playmaking ability — in the air and on the ground — is critical for the Cavaliers. Last week against Virginia Tech, Perkins contributed 475 of Virginia’s total 492 yards and three of the team’s five touchdowns. 

With a defense full of NFL-caliber players like junior linebacker Isaiah Simmons and junior cornerback A.J. Terrell, Clemson can make life difficult for even the best quarterbacks. The Tigers held Wake Forest junior Jamie Newman and South Carolina freshman Ryan Hilinski to a combined 146 passing yards, zero touchdowns and three interceptions.  Against a defense that averages over two turnovers a game, it’s safe to say Perkins will have to be at the top of his game for Virginia to have a chance of beating Clemson.

Junior cornerback Nick Grant

In the absence of senior cornerback Bryce Hall, Grant has had to step up as Virginia’s top corner and cover the opposing team’s best receiver. While he’s played well, Grant has struggled at times, especially with the deep ball. He’s been exposed on more than one occasion, giving up big plays repeatedly. Last week, for example, Virginia Tech sophomore wide receiver Tre Turner burned Grant on a 61-yard touchdown catch. 

Simply put, Grant can’t let Clemson have the same opportunities. With sophomore quarterback and 2018 national championship MVP Trevor Lawrence throwing to wide receivers like sophomore Justyn Ross and junior Tee Higgins, the Tigers have all the firepower they need to get past Virginia. Lawrence will look to tear apart the Virginia defense through the air and it will be up to Grant and the rest of the secondary to stop him.

The X-factor: Virginia’s ability to respond

Even if the Cavaliers play perfect football, the undefeated Tigers are still going to have their moments. From explosive touchdowns on offense to heartbreaking turnovers on defense, there will be times where it looks like Clemson could run away with the game. In these situations, Virginia has to respond to the pressure. 

Virginia lost the lead to Virginia Tech three times last week and, each time, the Cavaliers responded. At some point, Virginia will need a key scoring drive or defensive stop against Clemson — whether it can do so or not may decide the game.  

Path to victory: Control the line of scrimmage on defense

Over the course of the entire 2019 regular season, Clemson has only looked beatable once. When the Tigers traveled to North Carolina Sept. 28, the Tar Heels were, quite literally, inches away from taking down Clemson. So, how was North Carolina able to keep the game close when every other opponent of the Tigers in 2019 lost by at least two touchdowns? The short answer is suffocating play from the defensive line.

First, the North Carolina defense held junior running back Travis Etienne to just 67 yards — significantly lower than the 111.3 rushing yards he averages each game. Clemson can usually rely on Etienne, who’s topped 100 yards seven times this season, to run all over its opponents. However, when the Tar Heels stifled Etienne, the Tigers’ offense instantly became one-dimensional. Second, North Carolina pressured Lawrence early and often with seven quarterback hurries during the game. Lawrence could never get comfortable against the Tar Heels, and his efficiency and accuracy suffered. If the Cavaliers’ defensive line — including sophomore linebacker Noah Taylor and senior defensive tackle Eli Hanback — can step up and play at an elite level, Virginia’s chances of beating Clemson skyrocket.

Bottom line: Virginia needs to seize the moment

It will be easy for Virginia — when playing a team like Clemson — to fall into a slump and lose hope. Regardless of the Cavaliers’ historic win over Virginia Tech, the Tigers still have the fourth-best offense and the best defense in the country as well as the nation’s longest active winning streak at 27 games. In other words, Clemson will be massive favorites to win — the Tigers have a 94.9 percent chance of winning, according to ESPN. Virginia needs to play with confidence and believe in themselves throughout all four quarters, despite the disparity in talent between the two teams. Instead of shying away from the big game, the Cavaliers have to embrace the underdog label and come out firing on all cylinders. If Virginia’s players don’t think they can win, the game will be over before it begins. 

Virginia and Clemson will square off in the ACC championship game Saturday in Charlotte, N.C. The game will kick off from Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, at 7:30 p.m. and be broadcast live on ABC.

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