By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
Clemson (10-3) vs. West Virginia (9-3)
Date: Jan. 4 at 8:30 p.m. ET
Location: Sun Life Stadium, Miami, Fla.
The ACC and Big East are often criticized for being the two worst BCS conferences, but the 2012 Orange Bowl should be a showcase for two of the top offenses in college football.
It’s been an up and down year for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. Coming off a 6-7 record in 2010, not much was expected from the Tigers in 2011, especially with a new offensive scheme implemented. However, all of the new pieces seemed to fit and the Tigers began the year 8-0 and emerged as a threat to play for the national title. Despite the hot start, Clemson dropped three of their next four games, before rebounding to dismantle Virginia Tech 38-10 in the ACC Championship.
Although Swinney has led Clemson to two ACC title game appearances under his watch, offensive coordinator Chad Morris deserves much of the credit for the success of this team in 2011. The offense finished 10th in the ACC in scoring last season, but showed dramatic improvement this year, averaging 33.6 points a game and ranking 29th nationally by averaging 440.6 yards per game.
This is Clemson’s first appearance in a BCS bowl since this system’s inception in 1998. The Tigers have three previous trips to the Orange Bowl, with the last coming in 1982 against Nebraska.
West Virginia had some offseason turmoil, as Bill Stewart was forced out in early June, prompting Dana Holgorsen to become head coach a year earlier than expected. Although the coaching transition resulted in a few uneasy moments while the situation was sorted out, most expected this would have little impact on the 2011 season. And that’s exactly how it played out. Holgorsen’s arrival helped to ignite a struggling offense, while defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel navigated some key departures to keep this defense among the best in the Big East.
Although there’s a battle in the courtroom still to play out, this appears to be West Virginia’s last season in the Big East. And if this is indeed its finale in the conference, the Mountaineers will be going out on top. After losing to Syracuse and Louisville, West Virginia’s Big East title hopes looked bleak in early November. However, a win over Cincinnati on Nov. 12 and a loss by Louisville on that same weekend vaulted the Mountaineers back into conference title contention.
The Mountaineers have claimed a share of the Big East title in three out of the last five seasons. This is West Virginia’s first appearance in the Orange Bowl and its first BCS bowl trip since the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
These two teams have met only once, with Clemson claiming a 27-7 victory in the 1989 Gator Bowl.
WHEN CLEMSON HAS THE BALL:
In addition to hiring Morris, the emergence of quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins has helped to ignite this offense. The Tigers scored 30 or more points in nine games this season and led the ACC with 284.8 passing yards per game.
In his first season as the starter, Boyd threw for 3,578 yards and 31 touchdowns, which prompted his selection as the ACC’s first-team all-conference quarterback. He finished with 186 yards and five scores on the ground, but Morris would like to get a little more production from him in that department.
Watkins has emerged as one of the top receivers in college football, catching 77 passes for 1,153 yards and 11 scores. He has chipped in 229 yards on the ground, while also averaging 26.3 yards per kickoff return. Watkins is one of the nation’s most dangerous players with the ball in his hand, and Clemson will look to get him 10-15 touches in this game.
There’s no shortage of weapons outside of Watkins, as DeAndre Hopkins caught 62 passes and tight end Dwayne Allen also chipped in 48 catches, with eight going for scores. Running back Andre Ellington is another dangerous weapon, rushing for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns this season. Mike Bellamy is the team’s top backup rusher, but he is suspended for this game, leaving Clemson with very little depth behind Ellington.
West Virginia’s defense had to break in seven new starters coming into this season, but finished 27th nationally in total defense and 31st in pass defense. The Mountaineers struggled to stop the run, finishing 51st nationally with 140.8 yards per game allowed.
West Virginia’ secondary was already under fire with Boyd and Watkins, but was dealt another blow when safety Terence Garvin was ruled out of this game due to knee surgery. He finished third on the team with 72 tackles, while adding two interceptions and recording 3.5 sacks. The Mountaineers allowed only 199.6 passing yards a game during the regular season, but that will be tested without Garvin as they try to stop Clemson’s offense.
Coordinator Jeff Casteel did a good job keeping West Virginia’s defense among the best in the Big East this year, but it will be put to the test with the question marks in the secondary. The Mountaineers have to get pressure on Boyd and not allow him to hit big plays to Watkins, Allen or Hopkins. West Virginia’s defense allowed 2.3 sacks per game, and Clemson’s offensive line allowed 2.3 a contest. Considering the Tigers’ have struggled to protect Boyd at times, the Mountaineers need to get pressure and disrupt the timing of Clemson’s offense. If West Virginia struggles to get after Boyd, it could be a long evening for the defense with the playmakers on the other sideline.
WHEN WEST VIRGINIA HAS THE BALL:
The transition to Holgorsen’s offense hasn’t been a smooth one for the Mountaineers – but it hasn’t been a debacle either. West Virginia finished seventh nationally in passing offense, but ranked 100th in rushing offense.
Quarterback Geno Smith makes West Virginia’s offense go, throwing for 3,978 yards and 25 touchdowns this year. The junior attempted 483 passes and tossed only seven picks. Smith does not like to run, but can make a few plays with his legs if needed.
Smith has no shortage of talented receivers, starting with Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Bailey led the team with 1,197 yards and 11 receiving scores, while Austin paced the team with 89 receptions. Ivan McCartney, Devon Brown and Tyler Urban are also solid options in the receiving corps.
Clemson’s secondary ranks 38th nationally in pass defense and has allowed 20 passing scores this year. However, the Tigers rank 56th nationally in pass efficiency defense. There’s no question Smith and his receivers are going to get their yards. However, Clemson cannot afford to let West Virginia’s passing offense consistently hit big plays downfield.
Perhaps the biggest key to slowing down West Virginia for the Tigers is winning the battle in the trenches. Clemson end Andre Branch collected 10.5 sacks in the regular season and will be one of the players to watch in this game. The Mountaineers allowed 2.2 sacks per game and if they cannot protect Smith, Clemson’s defense will take the upper hand.
In addition to struggling to protect Smith, West Virginia’s offensive line had its share of troubles opening up holes for the rushing attack. The Mountaineers shook up the front five late in the year and it’s uncertain who will start in the Orange Bowl. Regardless of which players get the call to start, this group will be under fire.
Although it isn’t crucial for this team to rush for 200 yards every game, the Mountaineers have to get some production on the ground. Dustin Garrison led the way with 742 yards, and Shawne Alston chipped in 339 yards and 10 touchdowns. Garrison suffered a knee injury in practice and won't be able to play against Clemson. Look for Alston and freshman Andrew Buie to shoulder the workload at running back.
This unit has been an adventure at times for West Virginia. Mike Molinari and Corey Smith have traded the punting job throughout the year, with Smith gaining the upper hand at the end of the season. Kicker Tyler Bitancurt has connected on 16 of 22 attempts, including 3 of 4 from beyond 40 yards.
Austin is one of the top return men in college football, averaging 26.5 yards per kick return and 14.1 on punt returns. He has scored twice on kickoffs this season.
Clemson can match West Virginia on returns, as Watkins averaged 26.3 yards per kickoff return.
Kicker Chandler Catanzaro connected on 20 of 25 attempts for Clemson, while punter Dawson Zimmerman averaged 38.2 yards per punt.
With two high-flying offenses, this matchup has the potential to be one of the highest-scoring games of the 2011-2012 bowl season. However, with the long layoff, it may take a quarter for both offenses to find their rhythm.
Both teams will have their moment, but Clemson’s defensive line will be able to disrupt West Virginia’s offensive timing and get after Smith in all four quarters. The Tigers also have more balance on offense, which is eventually the deciding factor.
Clemson 34, West Virginia 27