No. 2 Clemson gets big test at No. 12 Virginia Tech (Sep 30, 2017)

BLACKSBURG, Va. — A difficult early-season schedule doesn’t get any easier for No. 2 Clemson on Saturday when it visits No. 12 Virginia Tech.

The Tigers (4-0, 2-0) will put their school-record 11-game road winning streak on the line against a Hokies team looking to rejoin the ACC’s elite.

Clemson dispatched a gauntlet of foes over the first month of the season, beating No. 13 Auburn at home and No. 17 Louisville before surviving a tough home clash with Boston College last Saturday, 34-7.

The Tigers scored 27 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to break up a contest that was much closer than expected.

“We’re a little bit battle tested. I thought we got our noses bloodied a little bit (against BC) and we responded,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

The defending national champions pay their first visit to Blacksburg since beating the Hokies 23-3 on Oct. 1, 2011. That game signaled a shift in the hierarchy in the ACC. Virginia Tech, winner of four ACC championships from 2004-10, was on its way down, while Clemson was on its way up, winning three ACC titles and the 2016 national championship since then.

The Tigers beat the Hokies in the ACC title game in 2011 and ’16. Last year’s title game result was particularly agonizing for Tech.

The Hokies were 23 yards away from reaching the end zone and tying or winning the game in an eventual 42-35 loss.

“We haven’t talked about it. We won’t talk about it,” Tech coach Justin Fuente said of the loss.

“I think everybody handles those things differently and on an individual basis. That was last year. My message was that was last year’s team, last year’s Virginia Tech team vs. last year’s Clemson team. This is a completely different situation.”

Tech (4-0) has won five straight since that loss and dispatched its first four opponents this season in convincing fashion, starting with a big victory over rival West Virginia and proceeding with three straight blowouts over Delaware, East Carolina and Old Dominion.

The Hokies have gained notice with their early-season success. They have reached their highest rank in the Associated Press poll since 2011.

And Saturday’s matchup with the defending national champs has created substantial buzz.

ESPN GameDay, the popular Saturday morning traveling show, will pay its first visit to Blacksburg in more than 10 years, and the 8 p.m. ET game will be televised nationally by ABC.

The Tigers are the highest ranked team to visit Lane Stadium since No. 1 Ohio State in the 2015 season opener.

This will be the first matchup of two AP Top 12 teams in Blacksburg since Sept. 26, 2009, when then-No. 11 Virginia Tech toppled then-No. 9 Miami 31-7 in the rain.

The Hokies will have their work cut out for them if they expect to pull off an upset this time against the ultra-talented Tigers.

“Well, you’re not going to get away with much of anything,” Fuente said. “You don’t even have to make a mistake. You can take one step in the wrong direction or hesitate for half a step when you’re playing the type of talent that we’re going to go up against.

“It’s like defusing a bomb. Like one small snip of the wire that’s incorrect and, ‘Boom!’ You blow your hands off. That’s how talented and how good they are.”

Clemson’s stout defense is ranked third nationally in fewest yards and points allowed, and its 17 sacks are tied for second-most in the country behind Michigan’s 18.

The Tigers’ defense kept Saturday’s game close against Boston College before their offense came through with an avalanche of points in the final quarter.

“It’s not always going to be perfect. We’re still learning a lot about our team,” Swinney said.

Clemson has a lot of new faces on offense this year, including starting quarterback Kelly Bryant, a junior who has proven to be a handful as a passer (67.9 completion percentage) and rusher (268 yards, team-leading seven touchdowns).

The Tigers average 272 rushing yards a game, thanks to a bevy of contributing ball-carriers. Freshman running back Travis Etienne leads the team with 292 rushing yards, but he is one of three Clemson players with at least 249 yards on the ground.

With two shutouts in its first four games, Virginia Tech has shown the ability to slow opposing offenses, particularly on the ground. The Hokies’ last three opponents have rushed for 211 yards combined, and Tech has yet to give up a rushing touchdown on the season.

Offensively, the Hokies continue to progress with redshirt freshman quarterback Josh Jackson. Jackson has completed 65.2 percent of his passes for 1,127 yards, 11 touchdowns and only one interception. His 177.4 efficiency rating ranks eighth nationally.

Tech has excelled against the likes of Delaware, ECU and ODU the last three weeks. They’ll face a much tougher challenge this Saturday.

“(We’re) making sure we’re on point with everything we’re doing, crystal clear with our directives and our assignments and being able to play well,” Fuente said. “Because everything will be difficult. A first down will be difficult. A defensive stop will be difficult. Running the ball and covering the punt will be difficult. It’s just all amplified. …

“Every step you take is amplified when you play talent like this.”