- - Thursday, December 1, 2011

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Two months ago, Clemson was one of the hottest teams in the country, and it made a major statement on Virginia Tech’s home field with a 23-3 win over the Hokies.

At the time, it felt like a changing of the guard. The Hokies, winners of three of the past four ACC championships, seemed lost. The Tigers clearly were the team to beat in the ACC.

But then they lost. And lost again. And again. Now they’re reeling and trying to save their season after losing three out of their past four games.

Meanwhile, Tech has won seven straight since that loss to Clemson and is brimming with confidence heading into Saturday’s rematch in the ACC championship game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

“[The Clemson loss] was a wake-up call. After that game, we were like, ‘This is ACC play,’ ” Hokies senior free safety Eddie Whitley said. “Obviously, we knew how it was going to be, but I guess we got caught off guard a little bit.

“But after that, everybody woke up, and we knew what we had to do for the rest of the season, and that’s why we’ve been winning since.”

A lot has changed since the Tigers embarrassed the Hokies on Oct. 1.

For one, Tech’s offense has thrived since sputtering in the Clemson loss. In that game, the Hokies gained a season-low 258 yards and were held out of the end zone for the first time since 2006.

In the seven games since, Tech has been one of the most productive offenses in the country, averaging 31.2 points and 442.3 yards.

“They have a ton of momentum, and momentum plays into it a lot,” Tigers tight end Dwayne Allen said.

Sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas, who has completed 63 percent of his passes and accounted for 23 touchdowns and only two interceptions since the Clemson loss, certainly has had a big hand in the offense’s improvement.

Senior wide receiver Danny Coale said the rest of the team followed Thomas’ lead.

“I think not only has [Thomas] progressed, but I think all three phases of the game - the offense, defense and special teams - have jelled and come together after that loss and played better,” Coale said.

Tech’s defense has played consistently well despite several injuries to key players, including middle linebacker Bruce Taylor, who was the team’s leading tackler when he was lost for the season with a foot injury Oct 22.

“These guys have really improved, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence, so it’s going to be a big challenge,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

While Tech cruised into the ACC championship game, Clemson sputtered. After winning eight games to start the season, the Tigers are searching for answers as they prepare to face a Tech team bent on revenge.

Turnovers have been a major problem. During the Tigers’ eight-game win streak, they turned the ball over only eight times. In the past four games, they’ve committed 12 turnovers.

Clemson sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd, who leads the ACC in passing yards, total yards and touchdowns, has been more mistake-prone recently. He has thrown seven interceptions in the past four games and passed for only four touchdowns.

“We’ve just not done some of the things well that we were doing well,” Swinney said. “We’re missing some plays, we’re not protecting quite as well and there’s a combination of things. We’ve got a few guys that aren’t playing quite as well as maybe they played earlier in the season.”

Swinney is hoping the opportunity to win the school’s first ACC championship since 1991 is enough of an incentive to motivate his players to get things turned around.

The Tigers, who are coming off back-to-back blowout losses to N.C. State and South Carolina, need to make drastic improvements if they want to repeat what they did earlier this year against the Hokies.

“We know a lot about them. They know a lot about us, having played already this year, but that game is irrelevant to this one,” Swinney said. “We’ve just got to get our team’s confidence back and get our focus back on execution and fundamentals and technique and try to just get back to playing winning football, because right now we’re not doing that.”

Read more about Virginia Tech football at VTeffect.com.

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