Orange Bowl preview: West Virginia-Clemson
The 2011-12 bowl season continues Wednesday night with the Orange Bowl between West Virginia and Clemson in Miami.
Two of the top offenses in college football will be on display at Sun Life Stadium as both teams look to claim a victory for their embattled leagues. The Tigers, who started 8-0, dropped three of their next four contests before beating Virginia Tech a second time in the ACC title game. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, claimed a share of the Big East title for the third time in the last five seasons but will be making their first BCS bowl trip since the 2008 Fiesta Bowl. These teams have met only once before, with Clemson scoring a 27-7 victory in the 1989 Gator Bowl.
Let’s take a look at this contest a little more closely…
Orange Bowl preview: West Virginia (9-3) vs. Clemson (10-3) at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
In their first season in Dana Holgorsen's spread attack, the Mountaineers finished seventh nationally in passing offense, but the consistent rushing attack fans were used to with backs such as Noel Devine was missing, ranking 100th in the nation on the ground. Dustin Garrison, however, did emerge from a pack of backs to lead the team with 742 yards. However, Garrison will miss the game with a knee injury, so Shawne Alston (339 yards and 10 touchdowns) and freshman Andrew Buie will be leaned on when West Virginia does run the ball.
ICONGeno Smith threw for 463 yards against LSU earlier this fall.
But the main focus of this offensive attack is junior quarterback Geno Smith, who threw for 3,978 yards and 25 touchdowns against only seven picks. He looked comfortable in Holgorsen's offense even going back to spring practice, and he will likely be on a lot of preseason Heisman Watch lists entering 2012. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin give him explosive receiving weapons, which will test Clemson's defense. Bailey led the team with nearly 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns, and Austin had 89 catches. Ivan McCartney and Devon Brown also help stretch the field. The Tigers' secondary ranks 38th nationally in pass defense, but keep in mind that Smith threw for 463 yards against LSU earlier this fall. The Mountaineers will rack up their yards through the air; the Tigers just want to keep them out of the end zone as much as possible.
West Virginia also thrives in the return game, ranking No. 16 nationally in punt returns and No. 26 in kickoff returns. Austin leads the unit with two kickoff returns for scores, and he ranks No. 5 in the nation in punt return average at 14.1 yards and No. 18 in kickoff return average at 26.5. In a game where both offenses are expected to score a lot, having a shorter field to work with could be the difference. But Clemson punter Dawson Zimmerman is one of the best in the country, and star true freshman Sammy Watkins is explosive on kickoff returns. So even special teams, in a game with two evenly matched teams, could be a wash.
The Tigers, meanwhile, thrived in Chad Morris' first season running the offense. And the biggest beneficiary of his arrival was dual-threat quarterback Tajh Boyd, who threw for 3,578 yards and 31 touchdowns in his first season as the starter. Behind Boyd, who added five rushing touchdowns, the Tigers averaged 33.6 points and 440.6 yards per game. The signal-caller set school records for passing yards, touchdown passes and total offense this fall.
Watkins, fellow receiver DeAndre Hopkins and star tight end Dwayne Allen are Boyd's top targets, and this passing attack will be helped by the fact that West Virginia will be without starting safety Terence Garvin, who made 72 tackles and had 3.5 sacks this fall. Look for the Tigers to attack that weak safety spot. Also watch for Clemson to establish a rushing attack behind running back Andre Ellington, who has 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns this fall. The Tigers' ability to run will play into their desire to control the tempo.
Keep an eye on: Clemson's defensive line. The Tigers, led by end Andre Branch's 10.5 sacks, will look to take advantage of a Mountaineers offensive line that allowed over 2 sacks per game and struggled to open up running lanes. The WVU starting five up front was juggled late in the year, but whoever lines up in this one will have to be able to give Smith time to throw.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave