It was Clemson’s third victory over Virginia Tech in a little more than a year. But more perplexing was that it represented the third time the Tigers’ maligned defense — one that gave up 70 points to West Virginia in last season’s Orange Bowl — has bottled up the Hokies over that span. Clemson finished last year ranked No. 81 in the country in scoring defense and entered the weekend allowing 523 yards and more than 37 points per game this season against ACC foes.
Virginia Tech mustered 406 yards Saturday, and the Hokies could do little when it mattered after halftime, gaining just 59 yards and picking up three first downs on their first five drives of the second half. The extended malaise gave Clemson just the opening its high-octane offense needed on an afternoon when quarterback Tajh Boyd was sacked five times and the Tigers finished with 295 yards, 230 less than its season average.
To close the third quarter, running back Andre Ellington scored on a 12-yard scamper and wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins beat Virginia Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller for a 37-yard touchdown catch on consecutive drives that put the Tigers up 31-10.
The sequence ruined what had been a galvanizing effort by defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s unit, which also had to compensate for four Virginia Tech turnovers. Quarterback Logan Thomas added a late 19-yard touchdown run, but the damage had been done. Clemson (6-1, 4-1) has now outscored the Hokies, 62-7, in the second half during three games the past two seasons.
“We did everything we wanted to on offense,” said Thomas, who finished 15 for 28 for 207 yards and two total touchdowns and also led the team with 99 rushing yards. “We were able to move the ball, but it didn’t [equate] to points because of turnovers. . . . It wasn’t that we couldn’t score points. It’s just that we didn’t score points.”
Beamer was also not critical of his offense’s play, instead focusing on a few plays that could have changed the trajectory of Saturday’s game.
“If you’ve got 400 yards, you’re doing something pretty good,” he noted.
Virginia Tech jumped to an early 7-0 lead when Thomas hit wide receiver Corey Fuller on a 29-yard touchdown pass, and O’Cain said the Hokies used a script on that first series, a concept he and Stinespring scoffed at just a few weeks ago. But the Hokies entered halftime down seven points largely because of their own gaffes.
The first came on special teams when a short, bouncing punt by Clemson’s Spencer Benton hit Virginia Tech wide receiver Christian Reeves in the back and the Tigers recovered the live ball in Hokies territory. Soon thereafter, Boyd leapt over the pile into the end zone from one yard out to put the Tigers up, 10-7.
Thomas made things worse just before halftime.
With pressure in his face on third and 12, he overthrew wide receiver Dyrell Roberts and the sailing pass landed directly in the hands of Clemson safety Jonathan Meeks. It was the second time Thomas had overthrown Roberts on Saturday, and Meeks ended up with his first two interceptions of the season. But this one he took 74 yards to the end zone, a pick-six that put Clemson ahead, 17-7, and sent the capacity crowd of 81,500 at Memorial Stadium into delirium.
On the third play of the second half, Thomas again missed Roberts when he was streaking down the middle of the field wide open. A completion would have likely tied the game at 17, and Thomas admitted the momentum changed from there.
“It kind of put us in a hole,” said Thomas, who now has as many interceptions through eight games this year (10) as he did a season ago.
The Hokies were also on the wrong side of two controversial calls by the officiating crew. Midway through the third quarter, Thomas completed a pass to running back J.C. Coleman on third and eight, but referee Brad Allen ruled that Thomas was down even though he was standing upright with a tackler around his feet.
Two plays later, it appeared Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins fumbled at the end of a 10-yard reception, but after a booth review the play was ruled a completion. The drive then ended with Ellington’s 12-yard touchdown run.
It was fitting, though, that the game effectively ended on a Virginia Tech offensive play that was doomed from the start. After attempting it once earlier in the game, O’Cain — with Beamer’s approval — called a wide receiver pass in which senior Marcus Davis caught a lateral and turned into a quarterback for one down. But Clemson sniffed out the trick play right away, and linebacker Xavier Brewer intercepted Davis’s cross-field pass.
O’Cain later called it the sort of play where “they can be really big or they can be really bad, and you’ve got to take those chances.” But he could offer little in the way of concrete answers for a fan base clamoring for them after another befuddling loss.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of reevaluating what we’re doing,” O’Cain said of the offense. “It’s a matter of doing what we’re doing better. And again, I know I keep saying it over and over: Make plays when your number is called.”