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Smart move for Clemson to adjust pass defense against Hokies

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Clemson poised for another ACC title (0:57)

Clemson faces off against Virginia Tech on Saturday prepared to take another ACC title. (0:57)

CLEMSON, S.C. -- It was one of those plays the average fan probably missed altogether, but Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables gushed over every detail. Three weeks ago, the shovel pass was Clemson’s undoing in a loss to Pitt, and South Carolina had tried to mimic the strategy. It didn’t work.

“They tried to down-block him, and he just clubs a guy,” Venables said. “It was just an amazing play.”

In an instant, Dexter Lawrence was in the backfield, and in the moment the play had developed, he had sabotaged it.

It was everything Clemson had been practicing in the aftermath of the loss to Pitt, and Lawrence -- a true freshman -- executed it perfectly.

That’s ample encouragement that Saturday’s showdown against Virginia Tech should be another strong outing for the Tigers’ defense, but it’s also worth noting that the Hokies have some weapons in the passing game that South Carolina simply doesn’t. And while Clemson’s defense has been spectacular in every season under Venables, those handful of plays -- the shovel pass, the wheel route to a running back, the tight ends coming across the middle -- have been a fly in the ointment.

Clemson has lost two games in two years, to Alabama in last year’s national championship game and to Pitt last month. In those two games, tight ends had 14 catches for 336 yards and four touchdowns.

“I think the one play they made was a throwback pass on us that none of us prepared for,” linebacker Ben Boulware said of the loss to Pitt, when tight end Scott Orndoff and running back James Conner teamed for eight catches and four TDs. “I don't think that was a thing where we were in man-to-man coverage and we got beat.”

Perhaps that’s fair as a specific critique of the linebackers, who’ve taken the brunt of the blame for some of the letdowns in pass coverage. But there is a history of matchup advantages for tight ends and backs against the Clemson defense.

In the last two years, six of the 14 players to gain 80 yards or more through the air were tight ends or running backs. Five of 10 with at least seven catches were tight ends. Overall, nearly 40 percent of the passing yardage Clemson has allowed goes to tight ends or backs, the second-highest rate in the Power 5.

And all of this is a big concern because Virginia Tech has weapons that can exploit those weaknesses, from nominal tight end Bucky Hodges to fullback Sam Rogers.

Hodges has played both on the line and split wide in his career, though this season he’s played more wideout than tight end. That, of course, doesn’t mean the Hokies won’t use him in whichever position is most advantageous.

Rogers, a throwback type and former walk-on, does a little of everything for Virginia Tech. He’s the team’s third-leading rusher, but also has 251 receiving yards and perfectly executed a halfback pass against Miami for a touchdown.

Add in a mobile quarterback in Jerod Evans, and the Hokies are well equipped to play a brand of football that Clemson hasn’t always adjusted against.

“You’ve got a bunch of power with a big old quarterback and leverage the jet sweep and play-action passes that come off of that,” Venables said. “It’s option football 101.”

All of this goes back to Lawrence’s bum rush of the shovel pass against South Carolina. If nothing else, the loss to Pitt proved a necessary wake-up call for Clemson. On that point, everyone seems to agree. And for the defense, it was a clinic on the adjustments that needed to be made if the Tigers were going to survive the march toward a national championship.

Lawrence certainly looked the part against South Carolina, and Boulware is eager to clear the air about his linebackers' perceived weaknesses. The last two weeks since the Pitt loss have been a nice warmup. Saturday is showtime, and if the tweaks to Clemson’s defense work, a playoff bid is waiting.