Less than five minutes after Virginia Tech’s Oct. 1 loss to Clemson, the Hokies gathered in their locker room underneath the stands of Lane Stadium. Running back David Wilson had just finished delivering an emotional postgame speech that brought him to tears, as he promised his teammates there would be no more losses this season.
So Coach Frank Beamer stood up on a footstool in front of his dejected team, reminding them that in 2007, the Hokies had lost to Boston College during the regular season only to beat the Eagles in the ACC championship game. And then he set the course for the rest of this season.
“You write it down,” Beamer said. “We’ll get ’em in the ACC championship game.”
On Saturday night in Charlotte, No. 6 Virginia Tech (11-1) has a chance to make that vision a reality when it takes on No. 21 Clemson (9-3) in the ACC championship game. Since their first meeting two months ago, the Hokies and Tigers have taken divergent paths.
Virginia Tech has won seven consecutive games and is on the brink of the first 12-win season in school history. The Tigers, meantime, have lost three of their past four.
Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said his team did a “poor job of handling success” and attributes the late-season swoon to turnovers. The Tigers have committed 12 in the past four games, but with his team still just one win away from securing Clemson’s first ACC football title in 20 years, Swinney countered this week that, “it’s irrelevant what we’ve done, good or bad.”
Even after Virginia Tech’s first matchup with Clemson, Beamer never questioned the Hokies’ easy nonconference schedule to start the year, but safety Eddie Whitley acknowledged this week his teammates may not have been prepared to beat a team the caliber of the Tigers in October.
“It was kind of like we had four exhibition games; competition in the first four games wasn’t as — I don’t know — as powerful, dominant as we would like,” Whitley said. “But going into the Clemson game everybody was on a high horse. It was a wake-up call . . . I guess we got caught off-guard.”
The path these two teams have embarked on since Oct. 1 can be traced back to their quarterbacks. Through eight games, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had thrown 24 touchdown passes and just three interceptions. He has just four touchdowns and seven interceptions since and has been sacked 11 times over the past two games.
Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas, on the other hand, has accounted for 23 touchdowns and thrown just two interceptions since the Hokies lost to the Tigers, their only conference defeat over the last two seasons. Thomas passed for just 125 yards in that game, even as Clemson stacked the box and dared him to throw the ball deep, but said, “I learned a lot about myself” from the defeat.
And now that Virginia Tech has risen to No. 5 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, Thomas said he thinks about whether the Hokies would be on the cusp of the BCS championship game had they not lost to Clemson the first time. Others on Virginia Tech, though, aren’t so sure.
“After these past two weeks and seeing how the polls work, I mean we went up to a U-Va. team that a lot of experts were picking us to lose and won in a shutout and then we get jumped by Stanford,” said Wilson, who this week was named the ACC’s player of the year. “Even if we went undefeated, who knows, they still probably would have excluded us from the conversation.”
So what is Virginia Tech’s motivation Saturday, other than a chance to appear in the Orange Bowl for the third time in four years? Revenge, of course. As Wilson put it, “We can say we beat every team on our schedule this year.”
Even on that cold and rainy night two months ago, his coach wouldn’t have it any other way.
“They beat us, plain and simple,” Beamer said this week. “I look at this year and people said at the beginning, [we’d] be in this game, but this hasn’t been an easy journey. We’ve had to go around a few curves in this season. So I’m really proud of how we got here.”