No. 14 Clemson (10-3) vs. No. 23 West Virginia (9-3)
Jan. 4, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Clemson and Morgantown are not exactly Arctic wastelands, but you won’t hear the Tigers or Mountaineers complaining about spending a chunk of January in South Florida. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney estimated, “It was like 34 degrees and raining when we left Clemson,” and the estimated high temperature on West Virginia’s campus on game day is a whopping 38. “It will probably be a little easier down here, there’s no doubt about that,” said WVU coach Dana Holgorsen.
The two young coaches are among the main attractions in the only current bowl game named for a piece of fruit. Neither is known for having a particularly reserved demeanor, and if ESPN wants to goose ratings it’ll run a closeup picture-in-picture window of whichever coach’s team has the ball at any given moment.
Holgorsen has taken his version of a laid-back approach to bowl week, explaining, “I’m low key and relaxed when things are going the way we need them to go and if things aren’t going the way we want them to, they know exactly what’s coming.” For his part, Swinney was very recently honored with the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award, but the prestige hasn’t dulled his tweaky sense of decorum. “I’d be surprised if there’s not some points scored in this one,” Swinney said. “I don’t think it’ll be a 6-3 ball game, you know, like maybe some of the other games around. This one should be an exciting game for fans.”
The droll wink is implied.
Three And Out
1. Double acts. The Orange Bowl is a homecoming of sorts for the Mountaineer duo of Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey, and carries particular significance. You’ll no doubt hear more than once during the game telecast that the quarterback and receiver credit their on-field chemistry to their shared history as high school teammates, but it gets better: They were high school teammates right here in town at Miramar High.
Smith: “I grew up right behind Sun Life Stadium. … I actually used to watch games on the Jumbotron sitting outside of my house and now I’m playing in the stadium. I never imagined it happening like this — it is kind of a storybook game for me.”
Bailey: “I was so excited to hear I would be playing in my hometown. I couldn’t ask for anything more than to play in front of my family and friends. … I am just so glad that my entire family can see me play in my hometown, because a lot of them haven’t been able to make it up to West Virginia to see me play.”
Smith ranks ninth nationally in total offense, while Bailey ranks 13th nationally in receiving yards per game. They won’t be the only high school teammates on the field, though: West Virginia defensive back Brodrick Jenkins was two years ahead of Clemson phenom receiver Sammy Watkins at South Fort Myers High School. Says the former of the latter: “The film says it all. Everyone knows he’s a real big threat. Just focusing on him will hurt us because they have other athletes too.”
WVU defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel concurs: ”I mean, we’re going to have to know where he’s at, but the problem with Clemson is they have three or four other guys you’d better know where they’re at, too.” It takes some doing to overshadow tight end Dwayne Allen, the reigning Mackey Award winner whose record-breaking contributions to this Tigers team cannot be overstated, but Watkins has been the more astonishing player this season thanks to his age. As a true freshman, Watkins was a top 15 receiver and a top 20 kick return threat and ranks fourth nationally in all-purpose yardage heading into bowl week. The kid concedes: “I am pretty explosive.”
Watkins will be catching passes from another elite offensive producer in Tajh Boyd, who was actually a West Virginia commit at one point, and whose change of heart allowed Smith to enter the picture in Morgantown.
2. Roster tango! The unhappy souls who had commemorative t-shirts with two-deeps on the back printed as soon as the bowl matchups were announced may want to consider leaving the custom threads at home and picking up a “LIFE’S A BEACH” tank top at a roadside stand instead. At this rate, whatever lineup fans expect their team to field will be wildly inaccurate by kickoff.
The most dire of the late injuries is to leading WVU rusher Dustin Garrison’s knee. Garrison, another true freshman revelation, tore his MCL and ACL during practice last Friday in a most ill-timed non-contact incident. His carries will go to Shawne Alston and Andrew Buie. (Ready for one last six-degrees tidbit? Alston played high school ball with Boyd.) ‘Eers offensive lineman Tyler Radar calls Alston “just a tank,” and he’s a tank with smarts: This is the guy who hauled a rattled Bailey back to the line of scrimmage to save the winning drive in the season finale.
Clemson will be down a back as well, having lost No. 2 rusher Mike Bellamy to suspension way back on ACC Championship Game weekend. And just to keep the coaches hopping, one freak accident apiece: Boyd’s second favorite target De’Andre Hopkins was concussed last week in a car crash (he’s expected to play) and WVU receiver Connor Arlia broke his leg jet-skiing with the team during bowl week activities Saturday (he most certainly is not expected to suit up).
3. Meet the 3-3-5. Viewers may not be familiar with the defense West Virginia runs. Neither are the Tigers. Clemson tight end Allen notes: “We don’t see this defense — period — in the ACC.” Casteel broke down its origins in a team press conference this week: “[When] we first came here, Rich [Rodriguez] — we thought that we’d be able to maybe get a niche in recruiting where we were having to go and recruit some of the three technique, so we thought it might be easier to get the tweener type kids, linebacker, the 6-foot-2, 185-, 190-, 200-pound kid and let them grow into 230-, 235-pound kids that could run. So we tried to get a niche that way defensively along with Rich bringing in the spread and trying to get a niche offensively that way. It’s kind of grown from that.”
If you’d like some very extensive (for the internet) reading on the subject, Clemson blog Shakin’ the Southland has a few thousand words to share:
What is the benefit to trying a 3-3-5 scheme? Versatility, deception, and adding speed on the field. The blitz can come from anywhere and it will come often. With 8 guys who have coverage skills, there will often be one dropping that you do not expect to drop, and a blitzer that your OL has not accounted for. CBs playing press can blitz and the WR can be picked up fairly quickly. Safeties blitz and a speedy LB can drop immediately into that zone. It is also a defense based out of an 8-man front concept against pro personnel groupings. There is no front look that a 3-3 team can’t employ to confuse. Also, adding the 5th DB in regular sets puts another guy with 4.5-4.6 speed on the field instead of a big slow lineman or moderately fast LB.
The Mountaineers’ odd look will have a couple new faces within its ranks, thanks to starting safety Terence Garvin’s recent knee surgery. As of this writing, a replacement starter has yet to be named, but both Wes Tonkery and Shaq Petteway are expected to see time at the position.
Clemson might not have “giving up” in its dictionary, as defensive back Coty Sensabaugh said after practice last week, but the Tigers are going to be giving up yards. WVU averages just a shade under 460 per game, and the Tigers aren’t far behind with 440.
I think it’ll be close. For the sake of living up to Monday’s Rose and Fiesta Bowls alone, I hope it’ll be close. And I wouldn’t presume to put money on this game for, well, money. Both these squads have had weird, bothersome losses in 2011, and both have been dealt major late-breaking blows to their ground games. To that end, let’s propose a wacky conclusion to their seasons: a what-the-hell two-point conversion that goes Holgo’s way.
The Pick: West Virginia 32, Clemson 31