MIAMI BEACH, Fla. – Points figure to be aplenty when 23rd-ranked West Virginia takes on 14th-ranked Clemson in the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl at Sun Life Stadium tonight in Miami Gardens, Fla.
And judging from the scores of many of the bowl games already played, the guys calling the defensive signals may be in for another interesting night in this one.
Clemson has the nation’s 27th-ranked offense scoring 33.6 points per game and boasts one of the most well-balanced attacks in the country. The Tigers (10-3) have passed for more than 3,000 yards and run for more than 2,000 for only the second time in school history. Also, Clemson has a 1,000-yard rusher (Andre Ellington) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Sammy Watkins) for just the third time in Tiger history.
“They’ve got guys that are players,” said West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen. “That is going to be a challenge for us defensively to stop that, but part of the challenge is that that exists in a football game of this magnitude is you’re going to play a quality opponent. I would expect that Clemson is going to make some plays offensively, and our job defensively is to keep playing.”
The guy who makes things go for Clemson is sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd, a one-time West Virginia commit who has seemingly mastered new offensive coordinator Chad Morris’ system after just one full season in it. Boyd became the first Clemson quarterback since Woody Dantzler 10 years ago to earn first team all-ACC honors after passing for more than 3,500 yards and 31 touchdowns in 2011.
Boyd is coming off an ACC championship game performance against Virginia Tech in Charlotte where he riddled the Hokie defense for 240 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
The quarterback has three impressive weapons to throw the football to in Watkins, the nation’s most explosive freshman who ranks fourth in the nation in all-purpose yardage, sophomore DeAndre Hopkins, and junior Dwayne Allen, who won the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end.
“Dwayne is 6-feet-4, about 255; he runs like a wide out, he blocks like a tackle and has really improved in other parts of his game as far as running with the ball after the catch, his flexibility, and he’s got great ball skills and he’s got a high football IQ,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “So you put those things together and you’re going to get a very, very good football player.”
Allen caught 48 passes for 577 yards and eight touchdowns and could present major problems for a West Virginia defense that had trouble covering tight ends in losses to LSU, Syracuse and Louisville this year.
“(Allen) is a tremendous football player,” said Holgorsen. “He’s a guy that does a heck of a job of blocking, but with the scheme that coach Morris does, they move him around a bunch, and he’s a guy that you’ve always got to keep your eye on.”
Hopkins, who suffered a mild concussion during an automobile accident before arriving in Miami, has since been cleared to practice and should be ready to go on Wednesday night. Hopkins shows 62 receptions for 871 yards and four touchdowns.
West Virginia’s defensive coaches are concerned that Clemson will pound the football with Ellington in the running game to set up play action passes down the field to Watkins, Hopkins and Allen against a Mountaineer secondary using two true freshmen in Shaq Petteway and Wes Tonkery in place of injured safety Terence Garvin.
The best possible way for West Virginia to avoid that is by getting off to a fast start offensively - something the Mountaineers have had a tough time doing in recent games against Pitt and South Florida.
“Our biggest thing as a football team is to figure out how to score one more point, and if they make a bunch of plays offensively, which we anticipate they will, defensively, we need to line up and try to do our best to stop them, but offensively to counter with that,” said Holgorsen.
In its last two regular season games, West Virginia failed to reach 400 yards of total offense and needed late scores to knock off the Panthers, 21-20, in Morgantown and the Bulls, 30-27, in Tampa.
For most of the year, however, West Virginia’s offense has performed the way new coach Dana Holgorsen’s offenses performed in his last two stops at Houston and Oklahoma State, where he directed two of the nation’s most productive attacks.
Junior Geno Smith is only 22 yards shy of becoming West Virginia’s first 4,000-yard passer and just the second quarterback ever to achieve that feat in Big East Conference history. Smith passed for a career-high 463 yards against top-ranked LSU, and has thrown for more than 300 yards seven times this season.
“They throw the ball for a million yards, 40-something times a game, and he’s completing 65 percent of his passes,” said Swinney. “We’ve got to be able to affect the quarterback, and the way you do that … one way is through coverage. You’ve got to be really disciplined with your coverage.
“But the other way is to get pressure on the quarterback. You do that through scheme, but you also have to do it through winning matchups both ways,” Swinney added. “If it’s seven on seven pass skill out there, it’s going to be a long night for us. But if we can affect their quarterback and disrupt the rhythm and the passing game, get him on the ground and get after their receivers on the outside, then we’ve got a chance if we’ll take care of the ball and do the things we do on the other side.”
Smith, like his Clemson counterpart Boyd, has several options to go to in the passing game. Sophomore Stedman Bailey (1,197 yards) and junior Tavon Austin (1,063) became the first dual-1,000-yard receivers in school history, while sophomore Ivan McCartney shows 47 catches for 572 yards and three touchdowns, although his production has declined down the stretch. Most recently, J.D. Woods has been taking a lot of the reps McCartney got earlier in the year.
“We need to do a good job of taking care of the ball and getting the ball to Tavon and getting the ball to Stedman and getting the ball to guys that need to step up and replace guys that have made some plays for us this year,” said Holgorsen.
The Mountaineers will have to turn to junior short yardage specialist Shawne Alston to handle the running game after freshman Dustin Garrison seriously injured his knee in a non-contact drill during practice last Friday. Alston leads the Mountaineers with 10 rushing touchdowns and is averaging 4.4 yards per carry.
No. 3 tailback Andrew Buie, a true freshman, moves into the backup role behind Alston. Buie has carried the ball 38 times for 127 yards and a touchdown in 10 games this year.
“As far as West Virginia, they spread the ball around,” said Swinney. “If you look at their statistics, you’ve got second and third-team guys with all kind of touches and plays, so it’s hard to zero in on one guy. They’ve got two guys over 1,000 yards.”
Defensively, Clemson is ranked 59th in total defense allowing 379.4 yards per game, including 176.5 yards per game on the ground. The Tigers are 49th in the nation in turnovers gained with 22 and West Virginia players say Clemson’s defense becomes much stingier when the game is on the line or is defending its red zone.
West Virginia’s defense has been very stingy coming down the stretch, too, limiting Pitt to just 296 total yards and performing reasonably well in a season-ending win at South Florida.
The Mountaineers are ranked 27th in total defense giving up 340.3 yards per game and 15th nationally in pass efficiency defense with a 112.5 rating. However, WVU ranks 75th in turnovers gained with only 19 this year. West Virginia also will be without its third-leading tackler Garvin, who is out with a knee injury.
Both defenses have outstanding edge pass rushers – Bruce Irvin (7 ½ sacks and 14 tackles for losses) for West Virginia and Andre Branch (10 ½ sacks and 16 tackles for losses) for Clemson.
“Andre is one of those guys that has just grown and matured as a player, but also as a person and has embraced being a leader,” said Swinney. “He’s a high-energy, physical, going-to-accept-any-challenge-that-you-give-him kind of guy.”
West Virginia’s Smith, Bailey and McCartney all live within walking distance of Sun Life Stadium. In fact, the Mountaineers have a total of eight players on their two-deep roster within a 20-mile radius of tonight’s gamme.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity to be down here and we hope that the exposure that’s existed, not only from a South Florida standpoint but from a national standpoint - the magnitude of the game and being the only game on Wednesday night - we all understand there are going to be a lot of eyes on us,” said Holgorsen. “There are hundreds of schools that recruit down here for a reason. We all understand that, and we’ve had a lot of success at getting some guys down here, so hopefully that will not only keep going, but hopefully we can improve that.”
West Virginia and Clemson have met once previously in the 1989 Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., where the Tigers defeated the Mountaineers 27-7.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Clemson’s last appearance in the Orange Bowl in 1981, which also happened to be the site of the school’s last national championship in football.
“This is our greatest memory, if you will, as a program,” said Swinney of the ’81 national championship team. “So many people talk about it. Thirty years ago is a long time. You’ve got kids that were here that are now grown-ups, and you’ve got grown-ups that are now gray-headed old men now, and they’re writing you letters saying, hey man, I’d like to get back there one more time.”
West Virginia is making its third BCS bowl appearance in the last six years, the other two coming in 2006 in the Sugar Bowl and 2008 in the Fiesta Bowl.
Game time is 8:30 p.m. and the contest will be televised nationally on ESPN.
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