First, some perspective: Justin Fuente has performed magnificently since he succeeded the legendary Frank Beamer as Virginia Tech’s head football coach.
The Hokies won ten games last year in his first season, claimed their first ACC Coastal Division championship in six years and took Clemson to the wire before falling, 42-35, in the league championship game.
The Hokies then staged the greatest comeback in school history in the Belk Bowl, rallying from a 24-0 deficit to stun Arkansas, 35-24.
Fuente’s 12th-ranked Hokies entered Saturday’s showdown with No. 2 Clemson with 14 victories in 18 games. That’s no small feat for a guy who took over a team recruited by someone else, replaced most of the assistant coaches and installed a new offensive system.
But as has so often been the case when Tech takes on an elite team, the Hokies failed miserably Saturday night on a national stage.
Stymied by a swarming Clemson defense, and unable to contain quarterback Kelly Bryant, the No. 12 Hokies succumbed to the Tigers, 31-17, in a game that felt more lopsided than the final score.
Losing high profile games has become a depressingly familiar refrain for Tech (4-1), which has dropped 30 of 31 contests against teams ranked in the Associated Press top 5.
Clemson (5-0), meanwhile, has won 36 of its last 38 games and won 12 consecutive ACC road games in a row.
Pollsters may rank the Tigers behind No. 1 Alabama, but no one has faced such a difficult early-season schedule and looked so good.
Clemson won at home against Auburn, 14-6, then rocked Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson, 47-21, and sleepwalked through a 34-7 victory over Boston College.
The Tigers crushed the Hokies at Lane Stadium, where the sellout crowd of 65,632 was full-throated even after the game got out of hand.
“That may be the best team in the nation,” Tech wide receiver Cam Phillips said.
This game was perhaps Tech’s biggest since the Hokies met Alabama in Atlanta in 2009. It was televised by ABC and ESPN’s GameDay set up shop on Saturday at Alumni Hall.
Former Tech and NFL star Bruce Smith, a Norfolk native, was the guest picker and chose the Hokies, to the delight of thousands of Tech fans. Fuente briefly led a Hokie cheer.
After the game, Fuente was apologetic.
“I thought the show that Virginia Tech put on for the nation to see was absolutely fantastic,” Fuente said. “The festivities and the crowd, it was everything you could want and more.
“I’m sorry we couldn’t find a way to get it done, that we couldn’t play better.”
Tech had to play a nearly-perfect game to win, and the Hokies were far from perfect. They committed three turnovers, and had some defensive lapses uncharacteristic of a Bud Foster defense.
Late in the first quarter, Clemson’s Tavien Feaster found himself all alone in the right flat. Bryant lofted a soft pass in his direction, and he ambled 60 yards untouched.
The Hokies had more first downs and offensive yards than Clemson, but Fuente acknowledged that didn’t mean a thing. Neither did the fact the Hokies lost by just 14 points. It might as well have been 40.
Every time Tech threatened to make the game competitive, Clemson responded with a big play.
A 43-yard punt return by Greg Strohman gave Tech a first down at the Clemson 2, setting up a Sean Savoy TD run that narrowed the lead to 24-10 with 14 minutes left.
Tech’s defense then forced the Tigers to punt, and the Hokie faithful were on their feet as Jackson faded back to pass.
Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound redshirt senior, then snared a pass that bounced off of Henri Murphy and returned it 22 yards for a touchdown that sealed the victory for the Tigers.
The Hokies got a meaningless touchdown against Clemson’s substitutes when Jackson fired a 30-yard pass to Savoy with 1:32 left.
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Vanables, who coached Oklahoma’s defense during its 2008 national championship run, keeps churning out NFL players, and then turns around and reloads.
“We knew the sledding would be difficult,” Fuente said. “That defensive line is as good as any I’ve seen.”
The Tigers entered Saturday’s game third in the nation in scoring and total defense.
“Defensively, we were relentless,” Swinney said. “We were fast. We tackled well.
“The three turnovers were huge. The pick six was huge for sure.”
Swinney, who is 5-0 against the Hokies, is in his 15th season at Clemson and his ninth as head coach. He’s had plenty of time to build his staff and his roster. He said Fuente is on a similar path at Tech.
“Justin is fortunate to have a guy like Frank Beamer, who has his arm around him and is supporting him in every way,” he said. “He’s done a heck of a job. They’re going to be a handful.”
Because Tech and Clemson are in different divisions, they are not scheduled to meet again until 2024. That’s just one of the many scheduling quirks caused by the ACC’s relentless expansion, which caused the league to split into two divisions.
In spite of the ACC’s scheduling rules, a rematch could come later this season: on Dec. 2 in the ACC championship game in Charlotte.
“If we can somehow find a way to get to the championship, we might have to play them again,” Swinney said.
“That’s a good football team. They’re not going away.”