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Virginia vs. No. 1 Clemson — a breakdown

The Cavaliers head south to face the three-time national champion and defending ACC champion Tigers

<p>Virginia will look to avenge a 45-point blowout loss to Clemson in last year's ACC Championship game.&nbsp;</p>

Virginia will look to avenge a 45-point blowout loss to Clemson in last year's ACC Championship game. 

Following a 38-20 victory over ACC Coastal rival Duke, Virginia football gears up for what is conceivably its toughest game of the season against No. 1 Clemson. The Cavaliers (1-0, 1-0 ACC) have dropped four straight contests to the Tigers (2-0, 1-0 ACC) and will certainly have to bring their A-game if they want to topple a Clemson squad that has won two national championships in the last four seasons. 

The Cavaliers last faced the Tigers in the 2019 ACC Championship, where they were overwhelmed in a 62-17 loss. Clemson exploited a Virginia defense riddled with injuries as then-sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw for 302 yards and four touchdowns. On the other side of the ball, the Cavaliers struggled to make headway as senior quarterback Bryce Perkins was intercepted twice and the team had lost senior wide receiver Joe Reed to injury. 

With both teams having lost key players from last season to the NFL Draft, there will be some unfamiliar faces on the field. Nonetheless, this match-up for the Cavaliers will remain a difficult one, as everything will have to fall Virginia’s way if they want to pull off a historic upset. 

Players to watch:

Virginia senior linebacker Charles Snowden

Last year, Clemson scored 62 points against the Cavaliers — the most points allowed by a Virginia defense since a 63-21 loss to Illinois in 1999. Despite the loss of wide receiver Tee Higgins to the NFL Draft and junior wide receiver Justyn Ross due to issues around a congenital fusion of his spine, the Tiger offense remains potent, and the Virginia linebackers — namely outside linebacker Charles Snowden — will be tasked with slowing it down. Snowden was a force to be reckoned with last year for the Cavaliers, earning All-ACC honors and showing an innate ability to get the outside edge on the offensive line to sack the quarterback. For Virginia to halt Clemson’s offense, Snowden will have to continually bring pressure and use his extraordinary length to bat down passes and cause havoc in the pocket for Lawrence. If Snowden is successful, look for the Cavaliers to have a fighting chance to take down ACC royalty. 

Clemson junior quarterback Trevor Lawrence

While it’s safe to say that most if not all of Clemson’s starting lineup is laden with NFL prospects, only a few players in the country match the Hall of Fame potential of Lawrence. After leading Clemson to the national championship in his freshman and sophomore seasons — winning the former — Lawrence is a lock to be a top-five pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. His combination of size, athleticism and pinpoint accuracy gave the Virginia defense trouble last season, as he proved to be able to make plays with his arm and his legs. However, with the aforementioned loss of Higgins and Ross out wide, Lawrence has had to rely more on his skills over those of his wide receivers this season, focusing on chunk yardage — going down the field in plays of 10 or 15 yards — over big plays like those against the Cavaliers in 2019. Despite the loss of weapons, Lawrence will face a Virginia defense that showed its vulnerability to passes across the middle against Duke. The Georgia native could have a big game if he exploits that weakness, especially in an offensive system that is miles ahead of Duke and its other ACC counterparts. 

Keys to the game:

Get to Lawrence

For Lawrence to be stopped, the Virginia defense cannot give him time to throw the ball. Part of why Lawrence has enjoyed historic success is the offensive line in front of him and his ability to nimbly escape the pocket under pressure, which grants him time to scan the field and accurately target his receivers. Snowden and junior linebacker Noah Taylor will have to repeatedly challenge the Tigers’ offensive tackles and put pressure on Lawrence, forcing him to make poor throws that stall drives and cause interceptions. By limiting Lawrence’s ability to energize his offense, the Cavalier offense can then keep pace with the Tigers and stay within striking distance. On the other hand, if the Virginia defense lets Lawrence take his time, the game could be out of Virginia’s reach by the end of the first quarter. 

Dictate the pace on offense

Last year, the Virginia offense looked jittery after going down early to Clemson, as former quarterback Bryce Perkins made errant throws under pressure. While it’s easier said than done for new QB1 sophomore Brennan Armstrong, Armstrong will have to stay calm and find his receivers as the Tiger defense barrels in. Against Duke, Armstrong was solid in the fourth quarter, but looked to do too much at the game’s start, throwing deep balls into tight coverage and asking too much of his receivers. The Virginia offense has thrived on quick slant and out routes that allow it to methodically march down the field and Armstrong cannot let an early deficit convince him to force deep throws against a dynamic Clemson defense. 

Virginia takes on No. 1 Clemson at Memorial Stadium in Clemson, S.C. Saturday. Game time is set for 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on the ACC Network.

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