Clemson is going back to the College Football Playoff later this month thanks to a third quarter change in offensive strategy and a huge defensive stand late in the fourth quarter of a 42-35 win over Virginia Tech in the ACC Championship Game in Orlando. The win gives the Tigers their second straight ACC title, their 16th overall, and it’s their first back-to-back crowns in 28 years.
Clemson looked great early in the game and jumped to a 14-0 lead after its first two possessions. The Hokies fought back, however, and when we went to halftime Clemson led 21-14 but Tech had the momentum and was getting the ball to start the second half.
The Hokies went three and out on that first possession of the half but got the ball back quickly with an interception of Deshaun Watson at the Clemson 38 off a ball tipped a the line. But Clemson’s defense pushed the Hokies back five yards and forced a punt.
That’s when Jeff Scott and Tony Elliott decided it was time to unleash that secret weapon, Watson the runner. Gains of 12 and 10 yards by Watson jump started the drive that included a pair of down the field completions to Mike Williams. Ultimately the Tigers got into the end zone and back on their game.
The defense continued to hammer away at the Hokies as the lead grew to 35-14 on Watson’s second rushing touchdown of the game. But Virginia Tech would not go away. After that ragged third quarter start, the Hokies got their offense churning and closed to within 35-28.
Watson then orchestrated the drive that provided what turned out to be the winning points. Hunter Renfrow made a great catch for a 31 yard gain and Watson hit Deon Cain for 30 yards. That set up a 15 yard pass from Watson to Renfrow as Watson faked a read option run and threw to Renfrow on the right sideline, and he ran in untouched for the score.
And the Tigers needed that score because the Hokies scored two minutes later to make it a one possession game again. Adding to the anxiety of Clemson fans everywhere, Tech got the ball back with 4:03 to play and drove to the Tiger’s 23. But on fourth and sixth, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables sent pressure at Hokie quarterback Jerod Evans forcing him to rush a pass that was intercepted by Cordrea Tankersley at the 14.
The Tigers were able to run out the clock thanks to an 11 yard Watson run for a first down and finally put away the Hokies who were 10 point underdogs. Clemson failed to cover for the 7th time in 13 games.
Watson accounted for five touchdowns on the night, three thru the air. He passed for 288 yards and rushed for 85 yards and was named the game’s MVP.
The Tigers are 12-1 as they head to the College Football Playoff. The question now is, will the committee send them to Phoenix to face either Ohio State or Washington, or will they put the Tigers in Atlanta to play Alabama. That answer will come Sunday around 12:30 PM.
Dabo Swinney press conference opening comments:
Swinney on final defensive series
Deshaun Watson talks about team’s commitment to success