BLACKSBURG — September is over. The evidence is clear. The verdict is in.
Clemson boasts one of the best football teams in America — perhaps even the best one in the land.
The defending national champion Tigers did not begin this season ranked among the top four teams in the Associated Press or coaches Top 25 poll, nor by Sports Illustrated, Street & Smith’s, Athlon Sports or Lindy’s.
But it turns out that Clemson was a bit underrated. By defeating then-No. 12 Virginia Tech 31-17 on Saturday night, Clemson became the first team to ever notch three wins over top-15 foes during the month of September.
Clemson (5-0, 3-0 ACC) had previously beaten then-No. 13 Auburn at home on Sept. 9 and won at then-No. 14 Louisville on Sept. 16.
“A heck of a deal. Hats off to our guys,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said of the trifecta. “We know we’re good enough. We know what it takes. They’re battle-tested. They’ve been on the road. They’ve played tough teams.”
The Tigers have one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. The Hokies mustered just 10 points before scoring a touchdown against the second string in the waning minutes.
“Having a chance to win at a place like this, you’ve got to play great defense. And boy, our guys did,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said.
The second-ranked Tigers held Tech to half as many points as it scored in in last year’s ACC title game, which Clemson won 42-35. The Tigers had vowed to beat Tech more decisively this time.
“Last year we gave up some big plays, so we were really honed in on not doing that,” defensive end Austin Bryant said after Saturday’s win. “What we [had] seen on film throughout the week was pretty much what they did. There wasn’t really any wrinkles that we weren’t prepared for.”
Clemson forced three turnovers Saturday and held Virginia Tech to 90 yards rushing.
“Defensively, man, we were relentless,” Swinney said. “We played fast.
“The story of the game was just the turnovers — and how we controlled the line of scrimmage. … Our defense was just awesome.”
Tigers linebacker Dorian O’Daniel, who was ejected for targeting in the first quarter of last year’s ACC title game, made more of an impact in the rematch. He recovered a Travon McMillian fumble to pave the way for a third-quarter touchdown and recorded his second pick-six of the season in the fourth.
O’Daniel was playing in zone coverage when Tech’s Henri Murphy bobbled Josh Jackson’s pass. The ball bounced off Murphy’s helmet and into the arms of O’Daniel, who returned the interception 22 yards to extend the lead to 31-10.
“I saw it bounce off his head and I was like, ‘I’m going to try to catch it,’” O’Daniel said.
Bryant also helped the defense shine.
When Sean Savoy caught a screen pass on fourth-and-3 from the Clemson 47, Bryant tackled him for a 5-yard loss to end a third-quarter drive.
“We had seen that play on film throughout the week,” Bryant said.
In the fourth quarter, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound Bryant leapt and snared a Jackson screen pass with his right hand for his first career interception.
“The play before, I actually missed one. I thought I had a great opportunity to catch that one. In my head, I’m like, ‘I’ll never have an opportunity like that again,” Bryant said. “Lo and behold, the next play, I had the same opportunity and I was able to catch it.”
“He’s an honorary member of Wide Receiver U. now,” Swinney cracked. “Wow. That was just an unbelievable play.”
Another player named Bryant also hurt the Hokies.
Quarterback Kelly Bryant had another good outing in his first season as a starter, completing 12 of 21 passes for 186 yards and one touchdown.
“They showed some man coverage, so I saw some matchups that I liked out there with my receivers,” he said.
“Kelly played a heck of a game, … made some big plays with his legs and his arm,” Swinney said.
The junior signal-caller rushed for 94 yards on 19 carries. But his most impressive run was for only a 1-yard gain.
After Bryant scrapped a planned shovel pass on second-and-goal from the VT 4, it appeared he would be sacked for about a 20-yard loss. But he evaded three Hokies as he scrambled back up to the VT 4. Two plays later, the Tigers scored to extend the lead to 24-3 in the third quarter.
“The guy … tackled at me, but I just kept my legs going,” Bryant said.
“That’s one of those plays in the game where they’ll look back and say, ‘Dadgum it, we had him,’” Swinney said. “We were going, ‘Oh no, no, no, yes, yes, yes, yes!”