BLACKSBURG, Va. _ Three wins over top 15 teams before the end of the September hadn’t happened since 1990.
Clemson is defending national champion for a reason.
“A heckuva game and we will keep moving,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney, whose Tigers also defeated top 15 clubs Auburn and Louisville in the first month of the season. “I didn’t know that is the first time ever there has been a team win against three top 15 teams in September.
“I don’t know how many people have had an opportunity to do that, but it is still a heck of a deal. Hats off to our guys.”
The rematch of last year’s high-scoring ACC championship game didn’t materialize in this one, as No. 2 Clemson forced three turnovers and Kelly Bryant played much like DeShaun Watson in leading the Tigers to a 31-17 Atlantic Coast Conference decision over No. 12 Virginia Tech on Saturday night in front of a sold out audience of 65,532 at Lane Stadium.
It was a disappointing conclusion to a thrilling day in Blacksburg which started with ESPN College GameDay making its return to Virginia Tech.
“I want to commend the Hokie Nation,” Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente said. “I’m sorry. I wish we could have played better. We had a really good opportunity today that highlighted some mistakes quickly.
“I thought the show the Hokie Nation put on was absolutely fantastic. The festivities earlier today and the crowd, it was everything you could ever want and more. Sorry that we couldn’t find a way to get it done.”
Virginia Tech (4-1, 0-1) cut a 10-0 second quarter deficit to seven with a 43- yard field goal by Joey Slye with 3:10 on the clock. Clemson, however, answered fast, with Bryant completing passes of 35 and 20 yards to Deon
Cain, and C.J. Fuller followed with a 1-yard run for the 17-3 lead at the break.
Clemson (5-0, 3-0) took a 3-0 lead on a 23-yard field goal by Alex Spence on the Tigers’ first possession, and then added seven more when a blown coverage left Tavien Feaster wide open in the left flat on a short pass from Bryant and dashed 60 yards for a touchdown and 10-0 lead.
That was one of two plays that Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster said were critical plays in the game. The other came in the third quarter when the Hokies stopped Clemson on the opening possession, but Dorian O’Daniel recovered a Travon McMillian fumble.
Bryant then led the Tigers on a 10-play, 51-yard drive, highlighted by his 24-yard run and an electifying scramble to avoid a sack and eventually pick one yard. Two plays later on 4th and goal, Fuller scored from the 1 for the 24-3 lead 7:12 to go in the third quarter.
Foster said Bryant, who ran for 94 yards and threw for 186 yards and a touchdown was the difference in the game for the Tigers. No Clemson back had more than 29 yards and no receiver had more than 35 yards.
“We didn’t execute a couple of technique things on that drive that was disappointing,” Foster said. “I thought that drive and obviously the busted coverage, those were two critical series in the game.
“They couldn’t get their running game started with their backs, which I was proud of, but the quarterback just had a phenomenal game. He is really dynamic football player, we couldn’t get him on the ground.”
Special teams helped Virginia Tech gets it first touchdown when Greg Stroman returned a line drive punt 43 yards to the 2. Sean Savoy followed with a 2-yard run to narrow the margin to 24-10 after the extra point kick by Slye.
The second of three second half turnovers doomed the Hokies on their next drive when Josh Jackson attempted to throw a short pass that deflected off the hands of Henri Murphy that was picked off by O’Daniel, who ran 22 yards for a score and an insurmountable 31-10 lead.
O’Daniel and Kendall Joseph had 10 tackles each, while J.D. Davis led the Tigers with 11 stops.
“That was right after the punt play. We had a bad tackle for loss, had to punt it away, and they got the ball after that touchdown,” said Swinney, whose Tigers also got a second half one-handed pick by Austin Bryant. “That was a huge play. They’re looking for anything to erupt and that settled everything down a little bit.”
Virginia Tech was forced to take chances, and were stopped on consecutive fourth down plays in the second half, once when stopped for negative-5 yards on a 4th and 3rd and then a fake punt that also proved unsuccessful.
“There are a lot of things I kick myself about. We get a stop and then we fumble. We had great field position and then we fumble the second play,” said Fuente, who was surprised Clemson didn’t play its normal attacking style of defense. “Great field position, crowds into it, that’s a really tough pill to swallow right there.
“That kind of forced our hand right there to start going for it. I just didn’t think kicking long field goals as going to win the game for us to be honest with you.”
Savoy added a second touchdown on a 30-yard reception from Jackson with 1:32 left on the clock for the final margin.
Swinney was definitely impressed by what he saw from the Hokies. He figures the Tigers might see them again, perhaps for a rematch in the ACC championship game for a second straight season.
“(Justin) is a heck of a coach and a good guy. He’s good for the business and someone you want coaching,” said Swinney, whose Tigers will host Wake Forest next Saturday. “He’s very fortunate to have a guy like (Frank) Beamer. He represents everything great about this business.
“Justin is going to do a hell of a job. They’s off to a great start. We might end up seeing them again in the championship. They aren’t a team that is going to go away. They’re going to be a handful for every team they play.”
Virginia Tech did out-gain Clemson by 10 yards (342-332), but the Tigers won convincingly on the scoreboard. Jackson threw for 251 yards, while Cam Phillips, who caught the 200th pass of his career, had seven receptions for 74 yards.
Terrell Edmnds led the Hokies with 11 tackles, while Reggie Floyd added 10. No Virginia Tech running back had more than 39 yards.
“I like playing good people. I can tell you that much and I thought we played a pretty good opponent right out of the box,” Fuente said. “We’ll see. The season will tell us how good everybody is.
“Each week is kind of its individual entity, but I enjoy playing the best and our guys do too. I didn’t feel nervous or anxious to play. I thought we were ready to compete.”
Virginia Tech will look for its first ACC win of the season next Saturday at Boston College, who always seems to give the Hokies fits.
“Clemson is a fine football team,” Fuente said. “Coach Swinney has done a great job there. I don’t see any weaknesses right now coming off the field from playing them.
“I do love the way our guys battled. I thought we were competitive. It wasn’t always pretty, but the guys out there in maroon and orange were competing their tails off. We weren’t good enough today.
“Our challenge is next week.”
BC-FBC—T25-Clemson-Virginia Tech Stats
No. 2 Clemson 31, No. 12 Virginia Tech 17
Clemson 10 7 7 7—31
Virginia Tech 0 3 0 14—17
CLE—FG Al.Spence 23, 9:58
CLE—Feaster 60 pass from K.Bryant (Al.Spence kick), 6:48
VT—FG Slye 43, 3:10
CLE—Fuller 1 run (Al.Spence kick), 1:19
CLE—Feaster 1 run (Al.Spence kick), 7:12
VT—Savoy 2 run (Slye kick), 14:00
CLE—O’Daniel 22 interception return (Al.Spence kick), 11:08
VT—Savoy 30 pass from Josh Jackson (Slye kick), 1:32
First downs 14 17
Rushes-yards 43-146 28-90
Passing 186 252
Comp-Att-Int 12-21-0 30-45-2
Return Yards 0 138
Punts-Avg. 7-30.0 5-39.0
Fumbles-Lost 0-0 1-1
Penalties-Yards 4-20 4-31
Time of Possession 30:44 29:16
RUSHING—Clemson, K.Bryant 19-94, Feaster 9-29, Etienne 8-19, Fuller 4-10, McCloud 1-2, (Team) 1-(minus 1), A.Rodgers 1-(minus 7). Virginia Tech, Fox 5-39, McMillian 6-29, Josh Jackson 9-13, McClease 3-9, Savoy 2-8, Carroll 3-(minus 8).
PASSING—Clemson, K.Bryant 12-21-0-186. Virginia Tech, Bradburn 1-1-0-1, Josh Jackson 29-44-2-251.
RECEIVING—Clemson, McCloud 3-35, Richard 3-14, Feaster 2-63, Cain 2-55, H.Renfrow 2-19. Virginia Tech, Phillips 7-74, Savoy 4-35, Fox 4-13, Carroll 3-45, Murphy 3-43, Kumah 3-17, McClease 2-14, McMillian 2-7, Keene 2-4.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Clemson, Al.Spence 41. Virginia Tech, Slye 45.