ACC Preview: Wk 8

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Clemson and Ga. Tech sqaure off in an ACC title game rematch.

Clemson and Ga. Tech sqaure off in an ACC title game rematch.

Duke (1-5, 0-3 ACC) at Virginia Tech (5-2, 3-0 ACC), Saturday, noon ET

Duke and No. 23 Virginia Tech enter this game heading in opposite directions, a trend reflected in the play of their respective quarterbacks.

The Blue Devils, mired in a five-game losing streak since a 41–27 victory over Elon in their season opener, rank 119th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in turnover margin (minus-1.83). The primary culprit has been sophomore Sean Renfree, who has thrown 14 interceptions in the last five games. Renfree remains the starter after tossing five interceptions and losing a fumble last week in a 28–13 loss to Miami, but Duke coach David Cutcliffe said freshman Brandon Connette will continue to see some action under center.

On the other side, senior Tyrod Taylor has played the best football of his career during Virginia Tech’s five-game winning streak. Taylor leads the ACC in passing efficiency, having thrown 12 touchdown passes and just three interceptions all season. Taylor tied a career high with three touchdown tosses in a 52–21 win over Wake Forest last week, and in that game he became the second player in ACC history to surpass 2,000 yards rushing and 5,000 yards passing in a career.

Taylor wore a splint on his right (throwing) wrist early in the week, but he has declared himself healthy and ready to play against the Blue Devils. In question is whether star tailback Ryan Williams will join him in the backfield. Williams has missed the last 4½ games since straining his right hamstring against East Carolina, and Virginia Tech’s coaches have instructed him not to return until he feels 100 percent healthy. Williams was able to practice at full speed this week and could return for 10-12 snaps against the Blue Devils.

No one could blame Williams for wanting to return to game action in time to take a shot at Duke’s defense. The Blue Devils, who rank 112th nationally in points allowed (ACC-worst 37.8 per game) and 110th nationally against the run (210.8 yards per game), will have their hands full whether it’s Williams, Darren Evans or David Wilson rushing the ball at them.

Maryland (4-2, 1-1 ACC) at Boston College (2-4, 0-3 ACC), Saturday, 1 p.m. ET

The good news for the teams involved in this game is that one of them is going to pick up a potentially season-saving win.

Maryland has a pretty record without beating a single strong opponent, while Boston College has an ugly record after losing to some formidable foes. The schedules of the two teams are about to flip — Maryland’s will get tougher and Boston College’s easier — and the winner of this game will have some much-needed momentum for a postseason push down the stretch.

A pair of freshman quarterbacks could determine which team comes out on top. Maryland’s Danny O’Brien is coming off a career-high 302-yard passing day at Clemson last week, but he threw three interceptions in a 31–7 defeat. Boston College’s Chase Rettig delivered a different sort of performance in a 24–19 loss at Florida State, completing just 9-of-24 passes for 95 yards while keeping his team in the game without committing a turnover. This week O’Brien needs to make fewer mistakes, and Rettig needs to make more plays.

Maryland’s coaches have said they would like to get their running game in gear to help O’Brien. But they have to call some running plays first. Tailback Da’Rel Scott is averaging 5.0 yards per carry this season, but he received only four carries last week and has carried more than 10 times in just two of six games this season. Scott and running mate Davin Meggett might not get much work this week against a Boston College defense that ranks 10th in the country against the run (90.3 yards per game) and features the nation’s leading tackler in linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Offensively, the Eagles will lean heavily on tailback Montel Harris, as usual. Harris gets so little help that even though he leads all ACC players in rushing (96.3 ypg), Boston College ranks last in the conference as a team in that category (103.3 ypg).

Georgia Tech (5-2, 3-1 ACC) at Clemson (3-3, 1-2 ACC), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET

Georgia Tech and Clemson have produced some great games in recent years. Twelve of the last 15 meetings between the teams, including the last three, have been decided by five points or fewer.

This contest has a chance to fit in nicely with the rest. The Yellow Jackets have put together a three-game winning streak — albeit against unimpressive competition — and the Tigers got back on track last week with a 31–7 victory over Maryland.

Georgia Tech quarterback Joshua Nesbitt enters this game with a chance to beat Clemson twice in the same afternoon. Nesbitt needs just 44 rushing yards to break former Clemson star Woodrow Dantzler’s ACC rushing record for quarterbacks (2,761 yards). Nesbitt, who orchestrates a spread-option attack that is second in the country in rushing (328.1 yards per game), already has four 100-yard rushing games this season.

The Yellow Jackets hope to benefit from the return of starting offensive tackle Phil Smith, who missed last week’s 42–14 victory over Middle Tennessee State with an ankle injury. Smith could play an important role in this game because he will line up across from Clemson defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, who leads the nation in sacks (1.5 per game) and tackles for loss (2.5 per game).

On the other side, the Tigers hope to welcome back freshman wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the lineup against a Georgia Tech team that has beaten them in six of the last seven meetings. Hopkins missed last week’s game after suffering an “upper body” injury in practice.

Eastern Michigan (1-6) at Virginia (2-4), Saturday, 6 p.m. ET

Virginia still is looking for its first win against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent under first-year coach Mike London. The Cavaliers need to be ready this week because they won’t have a better opportunity all season to cross that item off the to-do list.

Eastern Michigan had lost 18 games in a row before rallying from a 21-point deficit to defeat Ball State 41–38 in overtime last week. The Eagles will bring a defense that ranks second to last in the nation in points allowed (43.4 per game) and fourth from the bottom against the run (228.3 yards per game).

Given those numbers — and that fact that three Virginia quarterbacks combined to throw five interceptions in a 44–10 loss to North Carolina last week — the Cavaliers figure to rely on their running game. Enter bruising tailback Keith Payne, who has a team-high eight touchdowns after rushing for 107 yards and a score on 23 carries against the Tar Heels.

Payne and fellow tailback Perry Jones will look for running room behind a starting offensive line that now includes true freshman right tackle Morgan Moses, who is filling in for Landon Bradley (hand injury). Last week Moses became the third true freshman in school history to start at offensive tackle, and he is just the seventh true freshman at an FBS school to start at offensive tackle this season.

North Carolina (4-2, 2-1 ACC) at Miami (4-2, 2-1 ACC), Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ET

North Carolina and No. 25 Miami share more in common than identical overall and conference records. Both teams feature fan bases than have become less than enamored with their head coaches. Butch Davis is in trouble at North Carolina for what has happened off the field, and Randy Shannon has drawn the ire of fans in Miami for what hasn’t happened enough on the field: winning.

Those factors help make this game, already big in terms of the Coastal Division race, even larger. Davis, who was the head coach at Miami from 1995-2000, has guided the Tar Heels to three consecutive victories over the Hurricanes. More importantly for the time being, he has guided the Tar Heels to four consecutive victories this season.

North Carolina will try to extend both of those streaks without senior Zack Pianalto, one of its top offensive weapons. Pianalto, who holds the school record for career receptions by a tight end, is out for the rest of the regular season after suffering a fractured right fibula in UNC’s 44-10 victory at Virginia last week. It’s big blow for an offense that already faced a stiff challenge against a Miami defense that leads the nation in tackles for loss (9.5 per game), ranks second in the country in opponents’ pass efficiency and ranks fourth nationally against the pass (150.7 yards per game).

The Hurricanes, who intercepted five passes in a 28-13 victory at Duke last week, have 12 interceptions through six games after tallying just nine interceptions in 13 games last season. Miami’s ball-hawking defense will need extra sticky fingers against UNC quarterback T.J. Yates, who has 11 touchdown passes and the nation’s lowest interception rate (one pick in 182 pass attempts).

Miami quarterback Jacory Harris hasn’t been nearly as protective of the ball as Yates, but he did play his second interception-free game of the season against Duke. Harris threw four interceptions in a 33–24 loss at North Carolina last season, with cornerback Kendrick Burney picking off three of those passes. Burney has sat out the first six games of this season as a result of NCAA and university investigations into UNC’s program, but it’s possible that he will be cleared in time for this game.

The status of UNC starting linebacker Quan Sturdivant, who has missed the last three games with a strained hamstring, also is questionable. Regardless of whether Sturdivant plays, the Hurricanes will try to maintain their successful ground game (three consecutive 100-yard rushing games for tailback Damien Berry) to lighten the load on Harris.

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