Lessons from Clemson loss

Photo by Danny Karnik

On Tuesday, Oct. 31, the spookiest reveal in the college football world was announced:  the College Football Playoff Top 25. Familiar teams were listed, including the University of Georgia at the top spot and Clemson holding onto fourth place. Unfortunately, the Jackets did not make an appearance in the rankings, which does not come as a surprise after their disappointing performance against Clemson this past weekend. This week, the Jackets returned to practice with a clearer idea of what it will take to unseat a national championship contender.

The Clemson game was hyped up from the start, considering it was an ACC matchup that featured the defending national champions. Following a close game against Syracuse which ended in a loss, the Tigers had a bye week to pull it together before taking on the Jackets. This additional time allowed the team to prepare for the triple option, a play that is as outdated as it is uncommon. Few teams run the play within the ACC, making it a special case for defensive lines to consider. Unfortunately, a play that usually works in the Jackets favor was expected by the Tigers, furthering the away team’s disadvantage.

Although the Jackets struggled against Clemson’s defense, Tech’s stop unit played outstandingly well. In the past, the team has found difficulty during the second half of the game, but the defensive players soldiered on as the clock wound down. The Jackets managed to only give up three points during the second half in a game that saw a 14-point deficit for the Jackets at the end. Additionally, the strong showing by the defensive line allowed some of the younger players an opportunity to show off their skills on the field, valuable experience for them.

Tech’s special teams units played well, giving the team an opportunity to pick up a few more points here and there. The Jackets have a new starting punter this year in freshman Pressley Harvin III. Harvin leads the nation’s true freshmen in punting average and was added to the Ray Guy Award Watch List following his performance at the past weekend’s game, along with the other games in which he has taken part. Remarkably, his best performances have come during games played in less than ideal conditions — both of the games against Miami and Clemson took place in heavy downpours.

The award is presented annually to the nation’s top punter in the Football Bowl Subdivision, so while Harvin is ranked first amongst his class, he remains seventh when ranked with those older than him. The semifinalists and finalists for the award will be announced later this month.

Another high note for the Jackets was the performance of KirVonte Benson, a redshirt sophomore who is seeing more playing time than ever this season. During the Clemson game, Benson surpassed 100 rushing yards for the fifth time this season. Earlier in the year, Benson set a new B-back rushing record during the game against the University of Pittsburgh, putting up a hearty 196 rushing yards.

Outside of Benson, the offense never gained traction in Clemson. The weather has been a good indicator of the outcome of a game, as the Jackets have shown that they do not fare as well as other teams when it rains. Whether or not the rain makes an actual difference, it changes the mentality of the game and the teams playing. The Jackets learned at Clemson that they cannot afford to make small mistakes, such as Benson’s fumble within the first three minutes of the game that was picked up and turned into a touchdown for the Tigers. Ball security had been a problem in previous games; it shifted the momentum in this one.

Ultimately, it was unsurprising that the Jackets lost to Clemson. Death Valley is as difficult a venue as any to pull out a win, and the Tigers have the talent of a national championship contender. The Jackets’ offense can be stopped by schematic excellence or defensive players so athletic that plays do not matter. Clemson has both.

Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned. Ball protection will have to improve throughout the rest of the conference schedule, starting this week, and the defense will need to show the toughness it brought in the second half.

Headed into the upcoming game against the University of Virginia Cavaliers, the Jackets will aim to hold their ground defensively while limiting their errors on both sides of the team. Benson can be expected to lead the way in terms of rushing yards, but it will be up to quarterback TaQuon Marshall to accurately pass the ball to his A-backs.

ESPN.com’s matchup predictor shows an 80 percent predicted chance of Tech prevailing in the ACC competition. The Jackets will have the benefit of experience against an elite team in their recent past.

Making timely corrections could assure a critical rebound victory, particularly against a Virginia team that is not accustomed to success in conference play (and one that is in only its second year with new head man Bronco Mendenhall).