BLACKSBURG, Va. — The Virginia Tech football team entered Saturday night's much anticipated showdown with Clemson seeking redemption and validation. The reigning national champions made certain the 12th-ranked Hokies left sold-out Lane Stadium with neither.
In a rematch of last season's Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in which Virginia Tech nearly staged an improbable comeback, this time the Hokies fell well short in a 31-17 loss in which No. 2 Clemson made a convincing case as the best team in the nation.
In dropping its ACC opener and fifth in a row to the Tigers, Virginia Tech (4-1) failed in its bid to move into contention for a berth in the College Football Playoff. Barring unforeseen chaos at the top of the rankings, the humbling result in front of an announced crowd of 65,632 all but assures the Hokies won't be part of that conversation.
Still, the loss comes against an ACC Atlantic Division opponent, affording the Hokies plenty of opportunities the rest of the season to claim the Coastal Division title and perhaps another crack at Clemson (5-0).
"I wish we could have played better," Virginia Tech Coach Justin Fuente said. "We played a really good opponent today that highlighted some mistakes really quickly. I thought the show that the Hokie nation put on was absolutely fantastic.
"Sorry we couldn't find a way to get it done."
A decisive sequence in the third quarter allowed the Tigers to forge their first 21-point lead of the game. It began when Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence jarred the ball loose from running back Travon McMillian. Linebacker Dorian O'Daniel recovered, giving the Tigers possession at their 49-yard line.
Ten plays later, tailback Tavien Feaster's one-yard touchdown on fourth and goal moved Clemson in front, 24-3, with 7:12 to go. Clemson went 2 for 3 on third-down tries in the series, including quarterback Kelly Bryant's 24-yard keeper on third and one.
The Hokies weren't able to reach the end zone until one minute into the fourth quarter on wide receiver Sean Savoy's two-yard run. Greg Stroman had put Virginia Tech at the 2 with a 43-yard punt return, but the Hokies' momentum—and any dim hopes of completing a rally—ended when O'Daniel took an interception back 22 yards for a 31-10 lead.
O'Daniel collected the turnover after quarterback Josh Jackson's pass went through wide receiver Henri Murphy's hands and bounced off his helmet. O'Daniel then ran untouched for the touchdown with 11:08 left in the game.
The Hokies committed three turnovers in all against the country's 10th-ranked defense, which allowed a cosmetic touchdown with 1:52 to play on Jackson's 30-yard pass to Savoy for the final margin.
"I give credit to those guys," Virginia Tech wide receiver Cam Phillips (seven receptions, 74 yards) said of the Tigers. "They did a good job of mixing up looks. I still take the approach that as long as we do our jobs and execute like we're supposed to, we're a really good football team."
Virginia Tech trailed at halftime, 17-3, after the Tigers went 75 yards on six plays capped by C.J. Fuller's one-yard run with 1:19 to play in the second quarter. Wide receiver Deon Cain had catches of 35 and 20 yards during the series. His 20-yarder initially had been ruled a 21-yard touchdown, but replay review determined his right knee was down at the 1.
The only points for Virginia Tech in the first half came courtesy of Joey Slye's 43-yard field goal with 3:10 to go. The senior place kicker had a 46-yard attempt sail wide right with seven seconds left in the half, ending a drive in which Jackson completed 4 of 6 passes for 48 yards.
The frenzied crowd grew nearly silent, save for the Clemson contingent, when the Tigers opened a 10-0 lead with 6:48 left in the first quarter on a 60-yard completion from Bryant to Feaster. The sophomore running back came out of the backfield around the right side to an area of the field free from defenders.
The pageantry surrounding Virginia Tech's second home game in three seasons against a top-two opponent — the Hokies hosted then-No. 1 Ohio State in 2015 — included ESPN's "College GameDay" crew broadcasting live outside of the stadium. It was the first appearance for "GameDay" in Blacksburg since 2007.
That also was the same year the Hokies last defeated Clemson, 41-23.
Virginia Tech had been promoting this game on social media as well, urging Hokies supporters to dress appropriately for a "Maroon Out." A short time prior to kickoff, the stands were filled with maroon-clad fans providing players with a standing ovation as they ran onto the field.
"Just a heck of an effort by our guys," Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said. "It's not easy to win, ever, much less to come into an awesome environment like they have here. I thought their crowd was awesome. The environment was great. I'm sure it was great on TV and all that stuff, but just our night tonight."