NCF Nation: Andre Branch

Tajh BoydDouglas Jones/US PresswireClemson's Tajh Boyd fumbles after being sacked by West Virginia's Bruce Irvin.


MIAMI – You want to be first in line at the movies?

Stand behind Clemson’s defense, they’ll let you in.

First through the door at the Esso?

Don’t worry, Clemson’s defense will hold it open for you. And you might want to stay a while after watching the Tigers in Wednesday night’s 70-33 beatdown by West Virginia in the Discover Orange Bowl. If you watched more than three quarters, you lasted longer than most of the Clemson fans in Sun Life Stadium, which cleared out faster than a middle school during a fire drill.

Embarrassed isn’t the right word, said defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.

“Ass-kicked,” he said. “Excuse my language.”

The language can be excused. It was Clemson’s performance that was insulting.

The ACC champions. The Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year. And the most points ever scored by a team in any bowl game. Ever.

“It’s probably as bad a defensive performance as I’ve seen in a long, long, time,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “It’s incredibly disappointing.”

Just when you think the Tigers put it all together, they fall apart. Fine. We’re used to that. After an 8-0 start this season, Clemson lost three of its last four regular season games. It’s not unusual for Clemson to follow a stellar performance like the one in the ACC title game with a flop like the loss to NC State.

But this one – this one was a monumental fail, even by Clemson’s standards. It wasn’t just an embarrassment for the school and the program, but also for the ACC. Thanks to Clemson, West Virginia alone now has more BCS wins (three) than the entire ACC (two). With the loss, the ACC finished its bowl season with a forgettable 2-6 record and an 0-2 record in BCS bowls. The ACC was supposed to celebrate and bask in the achievement of having two teams qualify for BCS bowls for the first time in history. Instead, those two games made ACC fans cringe.

Don’t confuse Clemson’s debacle with Virginia Tech’s loss to Michigan, though. This was nothing like what happened to the Hokies in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, or even last year against Stanford in the Discover Orange Bowl. That was the ACC getting kicked in the shins. This was the ACC getting pantsed.

“Am I embarrassed?” said quarterback Tajh Boyd, “definitely. I’ve never been a part of, never actually been on that side of getting beat like that.”

“You have to be slightly embarrassed because we know we’re better than that,” said defensive end Andre Branch. “For someone to say they’re not embarrassed is kind of false.”

And Clemson’s defense “kind of” allowed quarterback Geno Smith 427 yards of total offense – just 16 yards shy of what Clemson’s offense totaled as a team.

Clemson had five weeks to prepare for this game. It looked like they practiced for five days – against T.L. Hannah High. Clemson hadn’t been to the Orange Bowl in 30 years, and it will be another 30 before it returns unless the defense makes drastic improvements.

“We’ve got to do a better job and it’s my responsibility,” Steele said. “I take responsibility for it. In this business, you stand in the paint, take your shots and get better. It’s what you do.”

After allowing 589 yards of total offense, seven touchdowns in seven trips to the red zone, and 49 first-half points, Clemson’s defense was more effective in paving the way for the Mountaineers than West Virginia’s offensive line. The Mountaineers were 10 of 16 on third-down conversions.

“We just got outplayed, point-blank, period,” said Branch. “They just out-executed us and made more plays than we did.”

The offense, with its four turnovers, didn’t exactly help matters.

You want to be the first out of Sun Life Stadium on Wednesday night?

So did Clemson.
It's up to Clemson to carry the banner for the ACC this year in the Discover Orange Bowl. The league is 0-3 against Big East teams in bowl games. Here's a quick preview of tonight's game:

WHO TO WATCH: Quarterback Tajh Boyd. This game will feature two of the nation’s more high-powered offenses, and while true freshman receiver Sammy Watkins gets a lot of the hype, it’s Boyd who orchestrates it all. When he is at his best -- as he was as the unanimous MVP of the ACC championship game -- the Tigers are at their best. Boyd has set school records for passing yardage, touchdown passes, touchdown responsibility and total offense in a season. He will face a defense that struggled to replace seven starters from 2010 but made game-changing plays down the stretch to win the Big East.

WHAT TO WATCH: Clemson’s defense against West Virginia’s playmakers. While the offenses will provide the excitement in this game, the better defense will win it. The Tigers have had an inconsistent season, but they played one of their best games in the ACC championship game against Virginia Tech. Clemson will face Tavon Austin, who averages 191.2 yards per game and ranks second in the nation in all-purpose yards, and quarterback Geno Smith, who is ninth in the nation in total offense. Clemson has the No. 62 scoring defense in the country, allowing 26.15 points per game. West Virginia has the No. 19 scoring offense with 34.92 points per game.

WHY TO WATCH: It’s another opportunity for the ACC to improve upon its 2-11 record in BCS bowls, and because it’s been 30 years since Clemson has played in the Orange Bowl. Clemson is returning to the bowl in which it defeated Nebraska 22-15 to win the national championship on Jan. 1, 1982. That season Clemson finished 12-0. This year, the Tigers have a chance to win 11 games and win a BCS-level bowl both for the first time since 1981.

PREDICTION: Clemson 31, West Virginia 28. All signs point to this being a high-scoring game, but one of the differences will be the Tigers’ ability to run the ball. West Virginia’s rushing offense is No. 100 in the country, but Clemson running back Andre Ellington has 1,062 yards in 12 games, has scored 10 touchdowns and is second on the team in all-purpose yardage with 1,302. The Mountaineers depend heavily on the arm of Smith and a pair of outstanding receivers, and while it’s worked so far, Clemson has more options. Clemson’s defense, led by Andre Branch, will make just enough plays to win.

Video: Clemson's Branch adds swagger

January, 2, 2012
1/02/12
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Clemson CB Coty Sensabaugh interviews DE Andre Branch before the Discover Orange Bowl.
It was only a year ago that Clemson’s defense was No. 13 in the country, holding opponents to just 18.77 points per game.

“I certainly wish we would’ve had that,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “We probably could’ve won it all.”

The ACC championship and a trip to the Discover Orange Bowl isn’t a bad consolation prize for a team that lost three of its final four regular-season games, and Swinney knew the defense would have some growing pains this year after having to replace some key players. Clemson enters Wednesday’s Orange Bowl against West Virginia with the nation’s No. 62 scoring defense, allowing 26.15 points per game. The Mountaineers are averaging 34.92 points per game.

While Clemson’s high-powered offense has gotten the bulk of the spotlight this year, the Tigers will need an above-average performance from their defense if they’re going to beat West Virginia. Clemson’s defense has been inconsistent this year, but it has also come up with enough game-changing plays to help the Tigers to their first Orange Bowl appearance in 30 years.

“I knew we were going to be a little bit of a work in progress over there, and we have been,” Swinney said. “But we’ve had some huge moments. You look at the stop we had against Florida State. The stop we had against Auburn. We’ve had some big, big plays defensively.”

Including against Coastal Division champ Virginia Tech. The Tigers set the tone early in the ACC title game, creating a turnover on the first play of the Hokies’ first possession to set up a short field and a 7-0 lead. Virginia Tech was 1-of-3 on fourth downs in the title game, and David Wilson was held to 32 yards on 11 carries in the 38-10 loss. During the regular season, Clemson held Virginia Tech to just 4-of-16 third-down conversions and kept the Hokies out of their own end zone for the first time since 1995.

Defensive end Andre Branch said the Tigers had “a couple of lapses” in the three losses, but the ACC championship game was the true indicator of what the defense is capable of.

“We know what we have on that side of the ball and we know if we play as a solid defense and everybody does their job, the results will show just like they did against Virginia Tech,” Branch said. “They have a very potent offense and they’re high-tilt. They’re quick, real fast, quick on the edges and high-speed. You can’t get used to that unless you practice against it, and our offense is very high-speed also. But they have great athletes on that side of the ball.”

West Virginia is No. 7 in the country in passing offense, No. 17 in total offense and No. 19 in scoring offense. Quarterback Geno Smith is ninth in the nation with 326.6 yards per game, and receiver Tavon Austin has 7.42 catches per game to rank 12th in the nation.

“We have to compete and defend on every pass play,” Swinney said. “They will throw it. We’ve got to disrupt their timing, we’ve got to get pressure on the quarterback for us to have a chance to win some of those matchups. Because if you let him hold the ball, then it’s going to be hard to cover those guys. They’ve got a ton of ability, a lot of speed and athleticism.”

So does Clemson’s offense. This time, though, the defense could be the story.

ESPN.com's ACC all-conference team

December, 9, 2011
12/09/11
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Editor’s Note: Tune into the “AT&T ESPN All America Team Show” on Saturday (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET) to see who ESPN’s writers and experts selected.

ESPN.com is announcing its all-conference teams, and there was only one change here from the all-conference ACC team that the members of the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association voted on in late November. Offensively, the biggest toss-up was Wake Forest receiver Chris Givens versus UNC’s Dwight Jones, but Givens did more with fewer catches. Defensively, it was difficult. I can understand why Virginia Tech and Florida State coaches and players felt slighted, but in the end, there were better individual performances elsewhere. Here’s a look at ESPN.com’s All-ACC team:


ACC title game helmet stickers

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
2:23
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Consider these the MVP edition of helmet stickers for the Dr Pepper ACC championship game:

Offensive MVP: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. He finished the night with 240 passing yards and three touchdown passes. He had a fourth rushing touchdown, giving him 31 touchdown passes and five rushing for the season — 36 total. Those are season records. Boyd also established the Clemson record for passing yards in a season and total offense in a season in the 38-10 victory over Virginia Tech. Boyd now has 3,578 passing yards, ahead of the 3,561 Charlie Whitehurst had in 2003. He had 268 in total offense tonight and now has 3,764, surpassing Woody Dantzler’s record of 3,661, set in 2001.

Defensive MVP: Clemson defensive end Andre Branch. He was a big reason the Tigers' defensive line had the advantage and was a difference-maker up front. He also had a key fumble recovery on Virginia Tech's first offensive play of the game that set up Clemson's first touchdown. His ability to pass rush flustered quarterback Logan Thomas, and his fumble recovery was Clemson's first takeaway in the past four games. It gave the defense confidence it needed early.

Clemson shines when it matters most

December, 4, 2011
12/04/11
2:05
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – As the offensive team bus turned into the stadium near the West End Zone last Saturday night following Clemson’s third consecutive loss to rival South Carolina, the bus driver turned the lights on, and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris took the opportunity to stand up in front of his players and tell them he wasn’t giving up on them.

“I promised them if they come to work on Monday, we’ll get it right,” he said, “and I told them we’ve lost our last football game. I’m sick of it.”

Apparently, so were they.

While Clemson’s convincing 38-10 upset of fifth-ranked Virginia Tech in the Dr Pepper ACC championship game shocked many on Saturday night, those within the program say there was no shortage of motivation in the week leading up to the most important game of the season. After back-to-back losses to finish the regular season, there was what tight end Dwayne Allen called a “come to Jesus meeting” on Monday, in which coach Dabo Swinney “laid it on us, and it was much-needed.” There was Swinney’s highly publicized Thursday night rant about rival South Carolina that got his team all jacked up. And then there was Friday’s meeting, in which every player was required to stand up and pledge that he would give 100 percent against Virginia Tech.

Whatever it took, and no matter how they did it, the Tigers have found a way this season to win the games that matter most. It just so happened that two of those games were against Virginia Tech, and for the second time this season, the Tigers played their best game of the year against the Hokies. Say what you will about Clemson’s infamous implosions -- none bigger this season than an inexplicable loss to an unheralded NC State team, and an anemic offensive showing in last week’s 34-13 loss to South Carolina. In the end, though, it was Virginia Tech that “pulled the Clemson.”

Dwayne Allen
Bob Donnan/US PresswireA first-quarter scoring strike to Dwayne Allen was the first of three touchdown passes for Clemson's Tajh Boyd.
“We’ve been pretty ugly here in the last few weeks, and tonight we got back to our formula,” Swinney said. “We created turnovers, we took care of the ball. My quarterback showed back up. I told him, I said, ‘We’ve been like a team with the flu or something.' We got better. We needed some early momentum, we needed a spark.”

They didn’t just get a spark; Clemson got a third quarter filled with offensive fireworks. Clemson outgained Virginia Tech 181 to minus-2 total yards on the first three drives. The game was tied at 10 at halftime, but Clemson scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter. The Tigers outgained Virginia Tech in total yards 210 to 51 in the third quarter and scored three touchdowns on five plays in a span of 4:24.

“It was just one of those things that just didn’t happen right,” coach Frank Beamer said. “If you’ve been in athletics and you’ve been in games, sometimes it gets rolling like that, and it got rolling, and we didn’t do a good job of stopping it.”

Clemson’s defense, on the other hand, smothered Virginia Tech. Again. And running back David Wilson didn’t seem too thrilled about it. The ACC Player of the Year had only 11 carries for 32 yards. He openly questioned the staff’s play calling.

“I mean, I never got to get in a rhythm. … A lot of times we were calling a run straight into their blitzes," Wilson said.

“Part of the reason we stopped running the ball, I guess the coaches thought that it wasn’t being successful. But at the same time, you have to get your guys going. The offensive line has to get them moving, and you have to get your running backs into the flow of the game. … When we run our plays into their blitzes, it’s not gonna work.”

Nothing seemed to work for the Hokies. It was the worst margin of defeat for Virginia Tech since it joined the ACC. The Hokies were beaten soundly up front by Clemson’s defensive line, and Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, the game’s unanimous MVP, picked apart a secondary that was depleted by a stinger to cornerback Jayron Hosley.

It wasn’t injuries, though, or officiating that determined the outcome of this game. It was Clemson’s 457 total yards of offense. It was Virginia Tech’s three turnovers and nine penalties. And it was Clemson’s transformation this week from choking to champion.

“You know, we don’t listen to the outside world,” Clemson defensive end Andre Branch said. “Basically like Coach Swinney always said, we play for each other. So yeah, we lost some, but we can either pout about it and keep losing or we can man up and just do what we’re capable of doing.”

It’s been 30 years, though, since they’ve had a chance to do it in the Orange Bowl. Clemson won its first ACC title since 1991, and will play in the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1981.

“Coach said it all along,” Allen said. “The only team that can beat Clemson is Clemson. If you watch the film, it’s not South Carolina physically beating us, it’s not NC State physically beating us, it’s us not doing our jobs. Guys are going to kick someone’s butt every now and then, but when you don’t have your eyes in the right spot, when you’re not in your gap, you can’t win.”

Clemson didn’t beat South Carolina or NC State this year, but more importantly, with a championship on the line, the Tigers finally didn’t beat themselves.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Hokies were favored to win this game, but Clemson has done a good job of getting the ball to Sammy Watkins in space, and DeAndre Hopkins was wide open on another big gain, as was tight end Dwayne Allen. Short passes have turned into some long gains for Clemson, and the Hokies have missed tackles and gotten beat on a few plays.

Meanwhile, the ACC's Player of the Year, David Wilson, hasn't been enough of a factor. His 11-yard gain late in the second quarter was the Hokies' longest run of the half. One thing that's similar to the first meeting between the two teams earlier this season, is that Logan Thomas has struggled to find guys open downfield, and there was also a turnover on the Hokies' first offensive play of the game. Both teams have made costly mistakes, in particular penalties. Here's a look back at the first half:

Turning point: Clemson defensive end Andre Branch was flagged for roughing the passer late in the first half, which gave Virginia Tech an automatic first down on Clemson's 48-yard line. It was a foolish, unnecessary hit and gave the Hokies new life. The penalty was followed by gains of 19 and 13 yards. The Hokies got as close as the 14-yard line, but Clemson got a break when Jaymes Brooks was called for holding, and the Hokies lost about 14 seconds off the clock because they seemed to be aware of it and were forced to kick a field goal. The penalty on Branch, though, gave them that opportunity.

Stat of the half: Wilson's 21 yards on six carries tied a season-low for rushing yards in a first half. He also was held to that many against Boston College, but finished with 134 yards.

Best player in the half: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. He's already had a much better game than what he did in last week's loss to South Carolina. Boyd has completed 14 of 21 passes for 118 yards and one touchdown. Chad Morris is putting him in positions to be successful, and he's only been sacked once after 11 sacks in the previous two games.
Those within Clemson’s program don’t seem too surprised to see little ol’ Wake Forest standing in their way of the Atlantic Division championship this weekend. After all, the Tigers weren’t exactly expected to win the division, either.

“Well, we were 6-7 last year, and we were a long way away from competing for the division,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “You know, that's just college football.”

It’s true: Both of these teams have been surprises this year. Wake Forest, though, was 3-9 in 2010, and picked by the media in July to finish last in the Atlantic Division. Ask Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe, and even he will tell you he’s a little bit surprised to see his Deacs trailing only No. 9-ranked Clemson in the division standings heading into Saturday’s game at Death Valley.

[+] EnlargeChris Givens
AP Photo/Michael DwyerChris Givens and Wake Forest take a lot of confidence into Saturday's game.
“I really thought we were going to be a better football team, but I knew our schedule was really, really tough,” Grobe said. “That's our biggest issue right now. We're better, but we're playing so many great teams every week, it's hard to catch your breath sometimes. But I knew we'd be better. I didn't expect that we'd be this late in the season and still have a chance to win the division.”

That’s exactly what opportunity awaits, though, as Wake Forest heads to Clemson on Saturday for a game that could put the Deacs in the driver’s seat in the Atlantic Division. Wake Forest has not won in Death Valley since 1998, and Clemson has won each of the past five games against the Deacs there, outscoring them 205-73 in the process. Despite the history of the series, Clemson defensive end Andre Branch said the Tigers learned a lesson from their Oct. 29 loss to Georgia Tech: To expect every opponents’ best shot and not to take anyone lightly -- including the smallest school in the BCS.

“Wake Forest was young last year, but we knew when we played them last year that they had a lot of talent,” said Branch. “Those players are just maturing now. We don’t want to take any opponent lightly. They’ve always had talent, but at the same time they were young at certain spots. They have a veteran O-line, and that’s where it all starts, in the trenches.”

Despite Wake’s success this year, the Deacs are facing an uphill battle against a Clemson team that ranks among the top 15 in the country in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The Tigers had a bye week to rest and regroup from their lone loss of the season, while Wake Forest is coming off its only back-to-back losses of the season -- an uncharacteristic turnover-filled performance against North Carolina and a respectable loss to a talented Notre Dame team.

Regardless of what outsiders expect, Wake Forest receiver Chris Givens said the Deacs can leave Death Valley with a win.

“We’re pretty confident,” Givens said. “Clemson is a great team, and they’re doing great things this year, but we feel like we’re a good team as well. If we put all of the parts together on Saturday and play how we’re capable of playing, it should be a good game.”

One thing these two teams have in common? A win over Florida State, which was easily Wake Forest’s biggest win of the season. Wake Forest is 1-18 all-time against ranked Clemson teams, and Grobe is 0-3 against them.

Still, it’s a far cry from where the program was at this time a year ago -- 2-8 with just one ACC win.

“It's nice to have something to play for,” Grobe said. “Last year, we were out of so many games by halftime, so young. We're still a pretty young football team. But it's nice to have something to play for. I think the thing that keeps your feet on the ground is knowing how talented Clemson is.”

Wake Forest isn’t exactly a pushover. The Deacs have the No. 32 passing offense in the country, and the ACC’s leader in receiving yards per game in Givens.

“They're a good program, incredibly well coached, and if you look at their roster, they redshirt just about everybody,” Swinney said. “They were very young in some spots last year, and a lot of those guys are just growing up. They do a great job with teaching their system and developing guys within their program. They have a lot of pride in the program. So I'm not surprised at all. Wake is a team that can line up and beat anybody on any given day.”

This Saturday, though, is the one that could mean the most -- for both teams.

ACC superlative tracker

November, 2, 2011
11/02/11
1:00
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There is a new name on this list, and you’ll find it in the Coach of the Year section. Welcome to the show, Mike London.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:

Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd: Despite his underwhelming performance last weekend at Georgia Tech, Boyd is a major reason the Tigers are leading the Atlantic Division. His accomplishments as a first-year starter grasping a new offense have been critical. Boyd leads the ACC in passing average per game with 297.1 yards and is fourth in passing efficiency (154.8). He has 25 touchdowns and five interceptions.

Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins: He’s had a phenomenal first season, and leads the ACC with 7.1 receptions per game and is second with 108.7 yards per game. He’s also tied for second in the ACC in touchdowns scored with 11, is second in the league in kick return average, and first in all-purpose yards.

Virginia Tech running back David Wilson: He leads the ACC in rushing yards per game with 131.8, and has seven touchdowns. He has surpassed the 100-yard rushing mark eight times in nine games this season. His 1,185 yards are the most of any running back in the FBS.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:

Miami linebacker Sean Spence: He is the ACC’s active career leader in tackles for loss, and ranks 12th nationally in tackles with 10.71 per game. He also has three sacks and is second in the ACC with 1.43 tackles for loss.

Clemson defensive end Andre Branch: He leads the ACC with 8.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He also has one pass breakup, a forced fumble, and 12 quarterback pressures.

Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly: He has had 30 straight games of at least 10 tackles, the longest current streak in the FBS. He also has two interceptions, a team-best 8.5 tackles for loss, one pass breakup and two quarterback hurries.

COACH OF THE YEAR:

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney: The Tigers are 8-1, the ACC’s highest-ranked team in the BCS standings, and the leader in the Atlantic Division standings.

Virginia coach Mike London: The Hoos are one win away from bowl eligibility, in contention to win the Coastal Division, and look ahead of schedule in just the second season under London.

Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe: It’s hard to believe this team was 3-9 a year ago, as Grobe has the Deacs in a position to win the Atlantic Division.

ACC midseason overview

October, 10, 2011
10/10/11
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This was supposed to be Florida State’s year.

The Seminoles were picked by the media to win this year’s ACC title and many were giving the Noles a legitimate chance as a darkhorse contender for the national title.

As it turns out, the only title Florida State has earned in the first half of the season is the ACC’s most disappointing team.

No matter.

Florida State is out, and Clemson and Georgia Tech are in. It happened faster than Maryland changed uniforms in the season opener against Miami. The ACC enters the second half of the season with two undefeated teams, a surprise winner in Wake Forest, and marquee wins over Auburn and Ohio State. Rarely, if ever, does the ACC follow the script, and the first half of the 2011 season has been no exception. Florida State and Miami are on the brink of irrelevance in the ACC race, Wake Forest is 3-0 in ACC play for the first time in school history, and Clemson and Georgia Tech – two programs that had losing seasons a year ago -- are now the teams to beat.

And that’s just the ACC stirring things up on the field.

On Sept. 18, following the biggest nonconference weekend the ACC has ever seen, the league announced the addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh as the ACC became the first BCS conference to expand to 14 teams. It happened quickly, quietly, and stabilized the ACC in one of the most uncertain times ever in college football. The news came on the heels of a weekend in which the ACC hosted four ranked teams for the first time in conference history and came out with a respectable 2-2 record. The weekend was no doubt a highlight for the conference in the first half of the season, as it took a step back the following week with four unexpected losses, none worse than Maryland’s 38-7 home loss to Temple.

Maryland coach Randy Edsall and Miami coach Al Golden have both struggled in their first seasons, but they’re hardly alone. Wake Forest and Clemson are the only two teams in the Atlantic Division with winning records. The Coastal Division has proven more competitive, with Virginia Tech and North Carolina both hovering over Georgia Tech, waiting for the Jackets to trip up. UNC first-year coach Everett Withers is on pace to win more games than his predecessor ever did, and is building his résumé to be the Tar Heels’ next coach.

The divisions, though, are Georgia Tech’s and Clemson’s to lose.

Clemson’s success, which included wins over three straight ranked opponents, has given the ACC’s image a boost. The Tigers -- so long as quarterback Tajh Boyd recovers from a hip injury he suffered against Boston College -- are a legitimate top 10 team with a win over the defending national champs. The hire of offensive coordinator Chad Morris has proven to be one of the best in the conference. Georgia Tech has far exceeded expectations, as it was only months ago that there was some uncertainty surrounding quarterback Tevin Washington’s grasp on the starting job.

Florida State, meanwhile, has been troubled by a rash of injuries to key players, including starting quarterback EJ Manuel, poor play on the offensive line, a lack of discipline and three straight losses.

It was supposed to be FSU’s year, but the conference has heard that story before. Once again, ACC fans can expect a different ending.

[+] EnlargeBoyd
AP Photo/Richard ShiroQuarterback Tajh Boyd has led the Clemson Tigers to a 6-0 start to the season.
Offensive MVP: Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd. He started his career with six consecutive wins, tied with Mike Eppley for the most consecutive wins to start a career as a Clemson quarterback. Before he was injured against Boston College, Boyd had 320 yards of total offense. He has had three 300-yard total offense games this year and six straight games of at least 200 yards passing.

Defensive MVP: Clemson defensive end Andre Branch. He is tied for 15th in the country in tackles for loss (1.58 per game and 9.5 overall), and he is tied for seventh in the country in sacks with six. He is second on the team with 39 tackles, which is unusual for a defensive lineman. He also has one pass breakup, three quarterback hurries, and a forced fumble.

Biggest surprise: Wake Forest. The Deacs are 3-0 in the ACC for the first time in school history. It’s the program’s best start since 2006, and the team is 4-1 for the first time since 2008. Not a bad start for a team that was 3-9 last year.

Biggest disappointment: Florida State. No national title. Likely no Atlantic Division title. No wins over BCS-caliber opponents. A roster decimated by injuries, including a shoulder injury to starting quarterback EJ Manuel. Not much has gone right for the Noles in the first half of the season.

Best game: Virginia Tech 38, Miami 35: In a game that featured two teams trying desperately to avoid an 0-2 start to conference play, both teams played like their season was on the line. Quarterback Jacory Harris and Logan Thomas, both who have been criticized for their uneven performances, were spectacular. The game featured two of the ACC’s best running backs in David Wilson and Lamar Miller. It was a wild, entertaining finish that came down to Thomas’ 19-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-one with 56 seconds remaining.

Best coach: Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. You could easily make a case here for Paul Johnson or Jim Grobe, but what the Tigers have done in the past four weeks is both remarkable and out of character. Not only did they become the first ACC team to defeat three straight opponents ranked in both polls, but they have also shown a consistency that has been lacking. Clemson is 6-0 for just the ninth time in school history, and 3-0 in the ACC for the first time since 2000. It’s also the earliest the Tigers have been bowl eligible since 2000. And they’ve done it with a new offense, a new quarterback, and a new offensive coordinator.

ACC helmet stickers: Week 5

October, 2, 2011
10/02/11
12:21
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You'll notice a trend here. These performances all came against ACC opponents or on the road against tough competition. Or in Clemson's case, both. Here are your top performers for Week 5:

Clemson defensive end Andre Branch: The native of Richmond, Va., tied his career-high with 11 tackles, had a career-high three sacks and a career-high five tackles for loss in the Tigers’ 23-3 upset win of the Hokies. His tackle for loss total is tied for the second-best in Clemson history for a single game, and his five tackles for loss were the most ever by a Clemson player in a road game.

Georgia Tech A-back Orwin Smith: He ran for three touchdowns in the Jackets’ 45-35 win over NC State and got 74 yards out of nine carries. He has now passed 900 career rushing yards, and became the first Georgia Tech player to rush for three touchdowns in a game since Anthony Allen on Oct. 9, 2010 against Virginia.

UNC quarterback Bryn Renner: He threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions on the road in the Tar Heels’ 35-20 win at East Carolina. He completed 13 of 20 passes for 230 yards. He also had a 75-yard touchdown pass to receive Erik Highsmith.

Duke running back Juwan Thompson: The Blue Devils’ passing game gets all of the credit and deservedly so -- they had two 100-yard receivers in the 31-27 win over FIU, but it was Thompson’s two fourth-quarter touchdowns that helped Duke to a come-from-behind win. Duke’s running game continues to struggle, but the Blue Devils got what they needed on the ground when they needed it most against FIU.

Wake Forest quarterback Tanner Price: His arm was the difference in the Deacs’ 27-19 road win against Boston College on Saturday. He threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to Chris Givens on the first possession of the second half and finished with 252 yards, one touchdown and one interception on 19 of 29 completions.
It was a busy weekend in the ACC. Here's a look back at the highlights from the scrimmages, according to the sports information departments of the teams that provided reports:

BOSTON COLLEGE

Coach Frank Spaziani told reporters after the 70-minute scrimmage that there were some good things, but "it's like a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces in the box; they're not connected yet."

Offensive highlights:
  • Quarterback Chase Rettig completed 12 of 19 passes for 124 yards and two touchdowns. “I think Chase showed the progress he's been making,” Spaziani said. “The obvious things were fine; there were some subtle things he needs to work on.”
  • Rettig connected on passes of 10 yards six times, including a 30-yard pass to Colin Larmond, Jr., a 24-yard touchdown pass down the middle of the field to receiver Bobby Swigert and a 3-yard touchdown pass to senior captain Ifeanyi Momah.
  • Larmond (3 receptions for 53 yards), Swigert (3-for-33), junior receiver Donte Elliott (3-for-37) and redshirt freshman tight end Jarrett Darmstatter (3-for-16) led a total of 12 receivers that registered at least one reception each.
  • Rettig and fellow quarterbacks Mike Marscovetra and Dave Shinskie combined for four touchdowns as Marscovetra went 6-for-9 for 30 yards and a touchdown pass of five yards to junior receiver Hampton Hughes and Shinskie connected on 4-of-5 passes for 38 yards and a touchdown to sophomore tight end Mike Naples.
  • Tailback Rolandan Finch carried the ball 10 times for a total of 30 yards to lead all running backs while sophomore Andre Williams broke free for a 20-yard touchdown run during red zone drills. Williams finished with five attempts for 21 yards and redshirt freshman Tahj Kimble accounted for 20 yards on five carries.
Defensive highlights:
  • Linebacker Nick Clancy and defensive back Sean Sylvia led the team with four tackles each.
  • Sophomore linebacker Jake Sinkovec had one interception and one fumble recovery.
CLEMSON

Quarterback Tajh Boyd had an impressive performance, as he completed 10 of 12 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown to highlight the new offense in Clemson’s 75-play scrimmage in Memorial Stadium on Saturday morning.

Offensive highlights:
  • Boyd completed each of his final eight passes to six different receivers. He threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to receiver DeAndre Hopkins, then connected on a 3-yard score to Dwayne Allen in a goal-line situation.
  • Allen had three receptions for 66 yards, including a diving catch over the middle for 14 yards and a first down. Brandon Ford had three receptions for 37 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown pass from Cole Stoudt.
  • Stoudt was 4-of-14 passing, but threw for 71 yards and two touchdowns, one to Ford and one to Bryce McNeal (23 yards).
  • Rod McDowell was the leading rusher with four carries for 68 yards, including a 39-yarder on his first carry of the day. Andre Ellington had five rushes for 41 yards and added two receptions, while freshman Mike Bellamy had five carries for 40 yards.
Defensive highlights:
  • The first-team defense did not allow a scoring drive.
  • Martin Jenkins led the team with seven tackles, including a tackle for loss.
  • Corico Hawkins had five tackles and a fumble recovery, while freshman defensive end Corey Crawford had five stops, including a sack.
Special teams highlights:
  • Clemson’s three kickers, Chandler Catanzaro, Ammon Lakip and Brian Symmes were a combined 16-of-16 on the day in field goal attempts and extra points against a live rush.
Notable:
  • Three Tigers missed the scrimmage because they were going through graduation exercises across the street from Memorial Stadium in Littlejohn Coliseum. Starting offensive tackle Landon Walker, starting safety Rashard Hall and reserve defensive end Kourtnei Brown all graduated from Clemson on Saturday. It was especially noteworthy for Hall, who has been at Clemson just three years. He joins Nick Eason (now in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals) as the only scholarship football players to graduate with two years of athletic eligibility remaining.
  • Four players missed the scrimmage due to injury. Those players were defensive back Xavier Brewer (sprained foot), defensive back Garry Peters (bruised calf), Andre Branch (head injury), DeShawn Williams (sprained ankle).
GEORGIA TECH

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson had mixed reviews after the Yellow Jackets' first scrimmage, which ran 90 minutes inside Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday morning.

"It was like a lot of first scrimmages, there were way too many balls on the ground and way too many penalties," Johnson said. "But we hit some big plays. When you play against each other there's positives and negatives on both sides. It's a starting place and we'll look at it and try to make some improvements."

Offensive highlights:
  • While no official statistics were kept, quarterback Tevin Washington passed for well over 100 yards, including a 63-yarder to senior A-back Roddy Jones. Redshirt freshman quarterback Synjyn Days threw the only touchdown of the day, to true freshman Jeff Greene.
  • Greene ran with the first unit Saturday as most of the veterans -- junior Stephen Hill, senior Tyler Melton, sophomore Jeremy Moore and junior Daniel McKayhan -- all sat out with injuries.
  • Washington scored the only other touchdown Saturday on a 1-yard QB keeper.
Defensive highlights:
  • Defensive end Emmanuel Dieke had a sack, true freshman Jamal Golden intercepted a Vad Lee pass, and Steven Sylvester and Isaiah Johnson both recovered fumbles.
Special teams highlights:
  • Sophomore Justin Moore booted a 45-yard field goal on his only attempt.
  • David Scully's 52-yard attempt was long enough, but just wide left.
MIAMI

The most important news out of Miami's first scrimmage was that quarterbacks Jacory Harris and Stephen Morris combined for five touchdown passes and only one interception. That sounds like improvement. Miami's quarterbacks combined for 407 passing yards on 38-of-52 passing for six touchdowns and only one interception.

Offensive highlights:
  • Receiver Tommy Streeter had the best offensive day for the Canes, catching five passes for 71 yards and three touchdowns, two of which came from Harris.
  • Lamar Miller had runs of 16 and 31 yards on the opening drive.
Defensive highlights:
  • Senior defensive back JoJo Nicolas led all defenders with eight tackles (six solo), with two tackles for loss.
  • Ramon Buchanan and freshman Gionni Paul and each had six total tackles, with Paul also recording a tackle for loss.
  • The defense totaled eight tackles behind the line of scrimmage for a total loss of 29 yards
VIRGINIA TECH

The Hokies' offense was the highlight, but what does that mean for the defense? Coach Frank Beamer pointed out that there were some long plays allowed, as the offense racked up 398 yards of total offense in the 78-play scrimmage at Lane Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The touchdowns came against Tech's second- or third-team defense, though, so the jury is still out.

"I thought it was a good first scrimmage -- better than most," Beamer said, according to the team's scrimmage report. "You take into consideration that you're trying to get everyone some work, people who don't know quite what they're doing, and that makes things a little ragged. I thought overall, though, it was a sharp scrimmage. The quarterbacks made some nice plays and Wilson got a couple of long plays against the defense, and we need to see what's going on there. Overall, the effort was good and the play was good."

Offensive highlights:
  • Backup quarterback Mark Leal led the quarterbacks with 116 yards passing, completing 6 of 13. He also threw an interception. Beamer said Leal is No. 2 on the depth chart behind Logan Thomas. Ju-Ju Clayton, who has dropped to No. 3 on the depth chart, completed 6 of 10 for 51 yards, while starter Thomas completed 4 of 8 for 79 yards, with an interception, in limited action.
  • Tailback David Wilson scored against the Hokies' second-team defense on a 22-yard run. Wilson led all rushers with 57 yards on five carries. Freshman Michael Holmes added 54 yards rushing on a game-high 11 carries.
Defensive highlights:
  • Freshman tackle Luther Maddy led the team with eight tackles, including two for a loss, and a sack. Freshman Michael Cole added six tackles, while Telvion Clark and Jack Tyler each finished with four.
  • Barquell Rivers had three tackles and an interception.
  • Jayron Hosley and freshman Ronny Vandyke also had interceptions. Hosley intercepted a Logan Thomas pass, while Vandyke intercepted a Trey Gresh attempt.
Special teams highlights:
  • The kickers connected on 5-of-6 attempts. Cody Journell hit from 35, 22 and 35 yards, while Justin Myer drilled a 52-yarder and a 28-yarder. "Cody's kicking extremely well," Beamer said. "Myer has a load of potential, and he needs to win some of the kicking contests during the week. That shows consistency, and that's where he is right now. Cody is usually winning it or right in the running at the end."

Position of power in the ACC

August, 12, 2011
8/12/11
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Heading into the 2010 season, there was an abundance of talent at the running back position in the ACC, as five 1,000-yard rushers returned for the first time in league history. This season, the ACC is deep and talented at several positions, but not so much so that there is one overwhelming strength. Offensively, the receivers are probably the deepest, most proven group, and defensively, the defensive ends could be the most fearsome group.

Which one, though, will be the position of power in the ACC this fall?

Defensive ends:The ACC has earned a reputation as a defensive conference, and these players will do their best to uphold that tradition. Brandon Jenkins at Florida State and Quinton Coples at North Carolina should be two of the best in the country, but they’re hardly alone in their pass rushing abilities. Izaan Cross at Georgia Tech is a name ACC fans will know by the end of the season. He’s underrated and has a chance to finish the season with all-conference accolades. His teammate, Jason Peters, can do the same. Together they should help bring noticeable improvement to the Jackets’ defense this year.

North Carolina also has Donte Paige-Moss at the other end position, another player who has already caught the attention of NFL scouts. Adewale Ojomo and Olivier Vernon at Miami are two veteran standouts, and NC State’s Jeff Rieskamp and Virginia’s Cam Johnson are also among the best in the league. Andre Branch at Clemson should get more recognition this fall, especially with the early departure of Da’Quan Bowers, and Max Holloway at Boston College hasn’t reached his potential yet but began to make a name for himself last season.

There aren’t a lot of veteran quarterbacks in the ACC this year, but there are plenty of defensive ends ready to give the rookies a not-so-warm welcome.
The quarterbacks in the ACC are not strong this year. They're not weak, either.

They're a complete unknown.

With more than half of the ACC introducing first-year starting quarterbacks, there's not enough on tape yet to determine how this group will fare. There is enough evidence, though, to pinpoint which position groups -- based on past performances and future potential -- enter this fall as the strongest and weakest in the ACC:

STRONGEST/OFFENSE

[+] EnlargeDwight Jones
AP Photo/Steve HelberDwight Jones had 62 receptions for 946 yards last season, both good for fourth in the ACC.
Wide receivers: The ACC overfloweth this year with veteran receivers. Virginia Tech, Florida State and Duke come to mind first, but don't forget about North Carolina. The Tar Heels didn't lose any receivers from last year, and Dwight Jones had 946 yards last year. Colin Larmond Jr. at Boston College, who is making his way back from a season-ending knee injury, Kris Burd at Virginia and Miami's fast and talented group will also highlight ACC passing games. With Leonard Hankerson gone at Miami, somebody is going to have to emerge as the go-to receiver, and Tommy Streeter gets my vote, but he must be more consistent.

WEAKEST/OFFENSE

Center: There are three above-average centers in the league this year: Cam Holland at North Carolina, Tyler Horn at Miami, and Dalton Freeman at Clemson. Beyond that, it's a thankless yet vital position that's in transition throughout the conference. Brian Moore is replacing a three-year starter at Duke, Florida State loses one of its best players in center Ryan McMahon, the same with Georgia Tech and Sean Bedford, Virginia Tech and Beau Warren, and Wake Forest and Russell Nenon. With the exception of Freeman (22), and Holland (20), no returning starter at center in the league has more than 13 career starts.

STRONGEST/DEFENSE

[+] EnlargeFlorida State's Brandon Jenkins
AP Photo/Steve CannonFlorida State's Brandon Jenkins had 13.5 sacks as a true sophomore.
Defensive ends: The ACC has had a reputation as a defensive conference, and this year shouldn't be any different. Conference fans should be excited about the talent up front. Brandon Jenkins at Florida State and Quinton Coples at North Carolina should be two of the best pass-rushers in the country, but they're not the only players with all-league potential. Andre Branch at Clemson, UNC's Donte Paige-Moss, Virginia's Cam Johnson, and Miami's Adewale Ojomo and Olivier Vernon are all going to cause opposing quarterbacks some pain.

WEAKEST/DEFENSE

Cornerbacks: Unless, of course, you're Florida State, where Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes should be one of the best duos in the country. Chase Minnifield at Virginia and Jayron Hosley should also be candidates for national honors, but that's about where the confidence in corners comes to a halt. North Carolina has to replace its entire secondary, and so does Georgia Tech. Clemson also lost two starting corners in Marcus Gilchrist and Byron Maxwell, and Miami lost two starters in Brandon Harris and Ryan Hill.

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