Clemson returned to the ACC Championship game for the second consecutive year. Virginia Tech came in with a good defense and we knew it would be a competitive game.
The Tigers got off to a fast start. After taking the opening kickoff, the offense executed a nicely balanced drive that ended with a 3-yard touchdown run by Deshaun Watson. The Tiger defense responded with a 3-and-out. On the second Clemson possession, Watson was doing a masterful job of reading the Hokie defense and Wayne Gallman was running well. Jordan Leggett scored on a 21-yard touchdown pass to put the Tigers up 14-0. Things were clicking.
On the next Virginia Tech possession, Dorian O’Daniel was ejected for targeting. You’d think defenders would have gotten the message by now that the officials are not going to allow high hits like that. His presence was missed during the rest of the game. The Hokies ran a well-executed fake punt that was initially called back for having an ineligible receiver downfield, but the penalty was overturned on review. A pass interference call on Cordrea Tankersley allowed the Hokies to get into scoring position. They scored on a 1-yard run to make the score 14-7.
On the ensuing Tiger drive, C.J. Fuller ran very well, including a 21-yard scamper on 2nd-and-1. The drive ended with Leggett scoring again on a 10-yard catch, giving the Tigers a 21-7 lead. The Clemson defense again stopped the Hokies and the Tiger offense was back on the field, but this time the inept version of the offense showed up. Tyrone Crowder completely whiffed on his block and Watson was sacked. The drive ended with the first punt of the game by the Tigers. The Hokies responded with a good drive that included a 53-yard pass that completely caught the Tiger secondary off guard. Scoring on an 11-yard power run by their quarterback, the Hokies were back in the game at 21-14.
We’ve grown accustomed to seeing the Tigers execute good 2-4 minute drives at the ends of halves, but we didn’t see that this time. Gallman seemed to be running uncharacteristically tentatively. On a screen pass, the linemen were again standing around watching rather than finding someone in the wrong color jersey and planting him into the ground. The Tigers punted but the defense managed to keep Virginia Tech from doing anything. The half ended at 21-14. Which Tiger offense would show up in the second half?
They both did. The Jekyll and Hyde act continued, and the defense also had a similar second half. The defense held the Hokies on their opening drive. Watson began to get more designed runs and Mike Williams made a nice catch in the drive to move the sticks. Gallman punched it in from 8 yards to give the Tigers a 28-14 lead. The Tiger defense held the Hokies on the following drive with a third down sack by Carlos Watkins.
Then the Tiger offense started their next drive well, but couldn’t keep it going and punted. Tankersley ended the next Virginia Tech drive with an impressive toe-tapping interception on the sideline. The Tiger offense responded with a Watson touchdown run on a drive that had a very nice catch and run by Deon Cain. I started to get comfortable about the game. Man, was that a bad idea.
The Tiger defense did something I don’t think I have ever seen a defensive do in four decades of watching/playing/coaching this game: they rushed no one on a 3rd-and-9. No one. The Hokies obliged them with a 42-yard pass. I was dumbstruck. I have no idea what they thought they were going to accomplish with that. Maybe the Tiger defenders were as dumbstruck as I was because they caught the arm-tackling bug and the Hokies scored, making it 35-21. The inept version of the Tiger offense came out on the next series and did nothing of note.
The Hokie offense responded with a good scoring drive, and suddenly it was 35-28 and I was getting nervous, having flashbacks to last year’s ACC championship game. The good Tiger offense came out on the next series. Hunter Renfrow, who had been uncharacteristically quiet, made an acrobatic catch during the drive to keep it going. Cain also had a good drive-saving catch. Renrow then scored on a beautifully executed run-pass option by Watson to put the Tigers up 42-28.
Virginia Tech, refusing to go away, responded with a good drive and scored to tighten things back up at 42-35. With a bit over five minutes left in the game, the Tigers needed a good time-eating drive, but the inept version of the offense took the field. Mitch Hyatt, normally quite reliable, committed a false start and a holding penalty that put the Tigers in a deep hole that they couldn’t climb out of. They punted the ball away with about four minutes left.
The Hokies responded with a nerve-wracking drive for Tiger fans. They got deep into Tiger territory but the Clemson defense tightened and Tankersley, having an MVP night, picked the ball off on a 4th-and-6 with about a minute left. The Tiger offense then ran the clock out to secure the first back-to-back conference championship since 1988.
STS will have complete coverage of tonight’s game and over the next few weeks we’ll have previews of the Tigers’ opponent in the first round of the college football playoff, almost certainly the Ohio State Buckeyes. Let’s hear you thoughts on tonight’s game and the upcoming playoff in the comments below. It’s hard to believe that the season has gone by so quickly, but the Tigers get a place at the big dance again. Let’s see if they can get it done this time around.