ACC Preview: Wk 10

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Florida State tries to rebound while Clemson and NC State square off.

Florida State tries to rebound while Clemson and NC State square off.

Georgia Tech (5-3, 3-2 ACC) at Virginia Tech (6-2, 4-0 ACC), Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET

Virginia Tech is firmly in control of the Coastal Division race, two games up in the loss column on Georgia Tech, Miami and North Carolina. The Yellow Jackets can cut into that lead with a victory in this game, an important matchup because the winner has played for the ACC championship in each of the last five years.

Both teams are coming off an open date, but the extra time to prepare might benefit No. 20 Virginia Tech more than Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets lead the nation in rushing (317.4 yards per game) with their unconventional spread-option offense, and the Hokies were grateful to get a few extra days to practice against it with their scout team.

The key to the offense for Georgia Tech is quarterback Joshua Nesbitt, who has completed just 38.2 percent of his passes this season but has rushed for eight touchdowns and needs only 42 rushing yards to break Woodrow Dantzler’s ACC record for career rushing yards by a quarterback.

The Hokies will try to contain Georgia Tech’s vaunted ground game with their leading tackler at less than 100 percent health. Linebacker Bruce Taylor sprained his left ankle in Virginia Tech’s last game, a 44-7 win over Duke, and will not be full strength for this contest.

The good news for the Hokies is that Taylor’s backup, former walk-on Jack Tyler, is solid against the run. The Yellow Jackets, who rarely pass, likely won’t be able to exploit Tyler’s deficiencies in pass coverage. Virginia Tech also figures to benefit from the return of starting safety Eddie Whitley, who missed the Duke game because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot.

On the other side, Georgia Tech’s struggling 3-4 defense will face what has become an offensive juggernaut. Led by quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who ranks fourth in the country in passing efficiency and third nationally in yards per pass attempt, Virginia Tech has been carving up opponents on the ground and through the air. The Hokies average an ACC-best 37.0 points per game and rank second in the conference in rushing (214.8 ypg) with their talented tailback trio of Ryan Williams, Darren Evans and David Wilson.

Maryland (6-2, 3-1 ACC) at Miami (5-3, 3-2 ACC), Saturday, noon ET

Maryland is making a push for the Atlantic Division title. Miami is hanging on for dear life in the Coastal Division race. Not many people would have expected either scenario entering this game.

The Hurricanes enter this game in major trouble — and not just because they lost at Virginia 24-19 last week after being favored by more than two touchdowns. Miami starting quarterback Jacory Harris suffered a concussion in the first half of that game and did not return. He also missed practice early this week, making it likely that true freshman Stephen Morris will start against the Terrapins.

Morris was a redshirt candidate until last week, when Harris was injured and back quarterback Alonzo Highsmith’s hand injury prevented him from playing. Once third-stringer Spencer Whipple struggled, Morris found himself in the game. Morris rallied Miami from a 24-0 deficit early in the fourth quarter and ended up completing 9 of 22 passes for 162 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

The Hurricanes would love to help Morris by establishing their running game early against Maryland, but that could be easier said than done. The Terrapins allowed Navy to rush for 412 yards in the season opener, but they have allowed an average of just 84.3 rushing yards per game since then.

The Terrapins have rebounded from their 2-10 season in 2009, achieving bowl eligibility with four games left to play. The question they still have to answer, even after picking up four wins in their last five games, is whether they are legitimate ACC championship contenders. Redshirt freshman quarterback Danny O’Brien holds the key to Maryland’s fate. O’Brien, who has taken over as the starter in place of junior Jamarr Robinson, has thrown seven touchdown passes and no interceptions in the last two games. He will get a test against a Miami defense that ranks among the nation’s best against the pass.

The Hurricanes, who were held without a sack last week, still rank sixth nationally in that category (3.13 sacks per game). They also rank second in the country in opponents’ passing efficiency (ACC-best 93.20 rating) and seventh in the country passing yards allowed (ACC-best 152.5 per game).

NC State (6-2, 3-1 ACC) at Clemson (4-4, 2-3 ACC), Saturday, noon ET

NC State is starting to look like one of those teams of destiny. This week, the No. 23 Wolfpack get to take on a reeling Clemson team that suddenly is without its best offensive player.

The Tigers, who had clawed their way back into the Atlantic Division race entering last weekend, suffered a surprising 16-10 loss at Boston College. Making matters worse, tailback Andre Ellington suffered a strained ligament in his foot that will prevent him from playing for a couple of weeks. Ellington, who leads the ACC in all-purpose yardage (129.1 yards per game) and is tied for the league lead in touchdowns (12), also is fifth in the conference in rushing (85.8 ypg). Jamie Harper will replace Ellington as Clemson’s primary runner, with redshirt freshman Roderick McDowell moving into the backup role.

Ellington’s absence will be felt by a Clemson offense that has struggled to generate much production through the air this season. Quarterback Kyle Parker enters this game eighth in the ACC in passing yards (164.4 per game) and ninth in the league in passing efficiency (110.5 rating), having completed just 53.0 percent of his passes. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney reportedly has told backup quarterback Tajh Boyd that he will play some against the Wolfpack, although when Boyd might enter the game and how often he’ll play remain to be seen.

Parker, who was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft by the Colorado Rockies, might see a future teammate when he looks across the field this week. NC State’s Russell Wilson, a fourth-round pick of the Rockies in the same draft, leads the ACC and ranks fourth nationally in total offense (321.4 ypg), and he is coming off a game in which he rushed for three touchdowns against Florida State.

Clemson, which has won six consecutive meetings with NC State, must find a way to pressure Wilson without giving him room to scramble for big chunks of yardage. Some of that burden will fall on defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, who ranks second nationally in sacks (1.25 per game) and tackles for loss (2.19 per game).

Virginia (4-4, 1-3 ACC) at Duke (2-6, 0-4 ACC), Saturday, noon ET

This game features a matchup of the bottom two teams in the Coastal Division, but each squad has some positive momentum. The Cavaliers have won two games in a row to get back to .500 overall, and the Blue Devils snapped their six-game losing streak last week.
Virginia, which has won 17 of the last 21 meetings with Duke but has lost two in a row in the series, knocked off Miami 24-19, ending a nine-game losing streak against ACC competition. The Cavs tied a school record by intercepting five passes, including two by NCAA interceptions leader Chase Minnifield, en route to their first victory over a ranked team since 2008.

The Blue Devils, meanwhile, got back in the win column by staying away from interceptions. Quarterback Sean Renfree, who had thrown 14 interceptions in his last six games leading up to Duke’s 34-31 win at Navy, was nearly flawless against the Midshipmen. He completed 28-of-30 passes for 314 yards, passing for one touchdown and running for two others to give the Blue Devils their first victory against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent this season.

The keys to victory will be the same for Duke in this contest. The Blue Devils still rank 119th out of 120 FBS teams in terms of turnover margin (minus-1.38 per game). On the other side, Virginia will try to keep things simple for quarterback Marc Verica by running the ball as much as possible. Bruising tailback Keith Payne has an ACC-best 12 rushing touchdowns this season, and he will take aim at a Duke defense that ranks among the nation’s bottom 20 teams in points allowed (37.8 per game), rushing yards allowed (196.4 per game) and total yards allowed (434.1 per game).

Boston College (3-5, 1-4 ACC) at Wake Forest (2-6, 1-4 ACC), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET

Neither Boston College nor Wake Forest is in contention for the Atlantic Division title, but both have an exciting player named Harris at tailback. The Eagles, who had dropped five games in a row before their 16-10 victory over Clemson last week, feature the ACC’s leading rusher in junior Montel Harris (104.5 yards per game). Harris could enjoy a big day against a Wake Forest defense that ranks among the nation’s bottom six in points allowed (40.8 per game), total yards allowed (453.4 per game) and rushing yards allowed (217.3 per game).

Wake Forest’s Josh Harris faces a stiffer test. Harris, who burst onto the scene three weeks ago with 241 yards and two touchdowns at Virginia Tech in the first start of his career, enters this contest averaging 6.3 yards per carry. He will look for running room against a Boston College defense that offers little in the way of daylight. The Eagles held Clemson’s Andre Ellington to 42 yards on 14 carries last week, and they rank third in the country against the run (83.9 ypg).

The Eagles, who have defeated Wake Forest three consecutive times, responded well without starting safety Wes Davis (career-ending neck injury) and starting cornerback DeLeon Gause (knee surgery) last week against Clemson. But it remains to be seen if their revamped secondary can hold up for the remainder of the season.

North Carolina (5-3, 2-2 ACC) at Florida State (6-2, 4-1 ACC), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET

Florida State enters this game with a bruised psyche. North Carolina enters this game with a bruised, well, everything.

The No. 24 Seminoles suffered their first conference loss of the season last week at NC State, falling 28-24 in excruciating fashion. Florida State has a chance to get back on track against a team it has dominated over the years. The Seminoles lead the all-time series with North Carolina 15-1-1, including an 8-0-1 record at home. They should benefit this week from getting to play a UNC team that is banged up at several positions.

The Tar Heels, who rallied from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter to beat Football Championship Subdivision member William & Mary 21-17 last week, look nothing like the team they were supposed to be entering the season. Investigations into the program for illegal benefits and academic misconduct have led to the ineligibility of several key players, and injuries have led to the absence of several others.

UNC’s secondary, in particular, is in bad shape this weekend. The Tar Heels played against William & Mary without cornerbacks Trey Boston (ankle) and Mywan Jackson (groin), and they lost cornerback Terry Shankle for the season with a knee injury in that game. Coach Butch Davis said this week that he might have to burn a redshirt or two in the secondary if more injuries occur. The Tar Heels hope to welcome back star linebacker Quan Sturdivant, who has missed the last five games with a hamstring injury, but their lack of depth in the defensive backfield could be a major problem against Florida State.

Ponder, who has been bothered by a bruised triceps and a ruptured bursa sac in his throwing arm this season, is starting to get healthy. He looked as good as he has all season against NC State, and he has enjoyed success against the Tar Heels before.

On the other side, North Carolina needs senior tailback Johnny White to continue his breakout season. White rushed for a career-high 164 yards on a career-high 29 carries last week, including a game-winning 67-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, and he enters this game with the ACC lead in yards from scrimmage. Florida State counters with a defense that leads the nation in sacks (4.13 per game) while allowing an ACC-best 17.6 points per game.

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Athlon previews Week 10 in the ACC. Florida State tries to bounce back while NC State travels to Clemson.

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