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UVA defense ready for the challenge of facing Lawrence, Etienne

Charles Snowden
Linebacker Charles Snowden puts pressure on Duke quarterback Chase Brice. Photo courtesy Atlantic Coast Conference.

The memories of what Clemson was able to do offensively in the Tigers’ 62-17 beatdown of UVA in the 2019 ACC Championship Game are still raw.

Trevor Lawrence threw for 302 yards and four TDs. Travis Etienne ran for 114 yards and a touchdown.

All told, Clemson rolled up 619 yards against a banged-up Virginia defense.

If there’s anything to hang your hat on going into Saturday night’s game in Death Valley, it’s that the 2020 UVA D isn’t going in banged up.

The defense held Duke to 55 rushing yards, registered five sacks, and forced seven turnovers in the 38-20 season-opening win last Saturday.

“We’re pleased with the havoc that was created,” said co-defensive coordinator Nick Howell, looking back, then looking ahead, at what the D can do to create similar havoc against a team that ranked 20th in the nation in 2019 in turnovers (17, in 15 games) and has committed two through two games in 2020.

“We’re going to play the game on Saturday and find out,” Howell said. “I don’t know how much havoc we can have. We’re just going to try to execute our game plan. And, you know, it’s emphasized, and we’re going to try our very hardest to create plays for us.”

Chunk plays

You can’t load up to stop the run, because there’s Trevor Lawrence.

“What can’t he do? He avoids the pass rush. He can take hits. He throws perfect balls,” senior cornerback Nick Grant said.

“He’s very accurate. And he reads defenses very well. He doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. You can tell he’s a really smart player,” Howell said.

You can’t sit back to try to corral the passing game, because there’s Travis Etienne.

“You have to keep #9 (Etienne) in front of you and tackle him, which we didn’t do (last year),” Howell said, explaining the dilemma.

Which is: what do you do?

Because you can’t stop them both.

The key: limiting the big plays.

Going back through the play-by-play from the 2019 game, Clemson had 21 plays on which it gained 10 yards or more among its 67 offensive snaps.

Those chunk plays accounted for 511 of the 619 total yards the Tigers gained on the night.

“They’re built on explosion,” Howell said. “We gave up a ton of explosive plays, and we can’t allow that to happen. That is the area of emphasis with us.”

“A lot of teams, if they don’t get a lot of big plays in a game, they really struggle with moving the ball consistently down the field,” Grant said. “It’s a matter of limiting (big) plays. And I think we’ll be in very good shape going into this game.”

Schematically, Virginia, in its 3-4 front, will look to get pressure on Lawrence from edge linebackers Charles Snowden and Noah Taylor, and control the running game with inside ‘backers Zane Zandier and Nick Jackson and safeties Joey Blount and D’Angelo Amos manning the gaps.

If you can get Clemson into second-and-long and third-and-medium, you can dial up the pressure on those downs, maybe force Lawrence to get rid of the ball a tick sooner than he’d like.

You don’t need to force seven turnovers.

Just get off the field.

“Stops on fourth down, or critical third down stops, limiting time of possession, limiting number of touches, all those things together have seemed to have and, maybe combined, have had some effect on teams that have had success,” head coach Bronco Mendenhall said.


Mendenhall felt that the biggest issue in the 2019 loss was poor tackling, which he attributed to being a function of the lack of depth and experience due to the losses of veterans like Bryce Hall, Brenton Nelson and Jordan Mack to injury.

The coach liked what he saw in terms of tackling in the win over Duke.

“We were physical, especially in the run game,” Mendenhall said. “The tackling was solid. There were a few plays in the open field later in the game that we didn’t tackle quite as well. But in relation to what I had expected, I thought was a little bit better than what I was prepared for, knowing that we’ve been practicing against each other so long and trying to keep our roster healthy. So, I would say I was pleasantly surprised by our level of tackling, and certainly there’s room to improve.”

Grant said the secondary is focused on what needs to be done on the big-play front.

“Last year, our secondary didn’t hold up our end of what we need to do, defending the receivers on the deep routes, so they were basically doing anything they wanted to,” Grant said. “I feel like we fixed a lot of that when we went up against Florida, and we kind of got used to playing those caliber of people, NFL talent receivers, NFL talent at quarterback and running back.

“We’ve been working all offseason, just placing a huge emphasis on defending deep routes. And we believe that that itself can keep the points down,” Grant said.

You’re not going to stop them. That’s a big part of the battle.

You know going in that they’re going to come after you early and often.

“I can’t say they’re better than everyone they play, but they’re better than 95 percent of the teams they play,” Howell said. “So, how do you match up? Like, yeah, the extra stuff has got to be there. You’ve got to be sound. You’ve got to disrupt.

“I think culture is a big deal. I think mindset is a big deal. And so, just being prepared to play your very best game with really good mindset, I think is what you got to do,” Howell said.

Story by Chris Graham

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