ORLANDO — Jerod Evans remained on the turf after throwing his last pass of the night. The Virginia Tech quarterback’s fourth-down pass deep in Clemson territory was intercepted, ending a valiant Hokies rally a few yards short of a tie and securing an ACC championship for the third-ranked Tigers, 42-35.
Evans finally lifted himself up off the turf, deaf to his teammates’ words of encouragement, but the pain on his face was clear at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium. The Hokies trailed all night, but their final drive had them poised to force overtime before Cordrea Tankersley snatched Evans’s final throw, likely sending the Tigers back to the College Football Playoff.
No. 23 Virginia Tech and first-year Coach Justin Fuente hung with the reigning league champion, and though the Hokies themselves will not be happy with second place, a fan base thirsting for glory days of old will have little to complain about.
“I told them that the reason they hurt so bad is because they sold out for the cause,” Fuente said, referring to Saturday’s game and also his takeover of the program after longtime Coach Frank Beamer retired last year.
“They poured their heart and soul into winning the game. They believed that they were going to do that, and we came up short. There was nothing I could tell them to make them feel better, because they did do that. That’s why it’s disappointing. But I’m awfully proud to be able to sit in front of you all and tell you that I’m their coach. I’m proud of the way they played, I’m proud of the way they competed, I’m proud of the way we handled the ups and downs of the games, the emotion. And we have come a million miles since we started. We still have one more opportunity to play, and our mission is to send our seniors off the right way and get to 10 wins, and that work will start shortly.”
Evans completed 21 of 35 passes for 264 yards and one touchdown, and rushing for two more. He threw two interceptions.
His night was not much different from Heisman Trophy candidate Deshaun Watson’s, who ended the game as chants of “Heisman, Heisman” rang out from what was left of an announced crowd of 50,628.
The difference: Watson was able to change the game’s tide at will. The junior completed 23 of 34 for 288 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for two more. He ignited the Tigers whenever they needed a score.
“This right here is the best player in the country,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said after, “and it ain’t even close.”
Evans, meanwhile, had to depend too often on Bud Foster’s defense to open up opportunity.
Clemson, which lost to Alabama in last year’s national championship game, started fast and, for a quarter, the game appeared a mismatc. Watson didn’t miss a single throw through the Tigers’ first two offensive drives, both of which resulted in touchdowns. He sliced through Foster’s defense for 89 yards, collecting 11 first downs along the way, then really made the Hokies look like they were fighting above their weight class with a 21-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Jordan Leggett, a 6-foot-5, 260 pound senior tight end.
In contrast, Virginia Tech (9-4) had to toil for its offensive success. The Hokies needed two trick plays — one of which was punter Mitchell Ludwig finding Terrell Edmunds for a first down on a designed fake. A one-yard run from Travon McMillian capped the drive and kept Virginia Tech in the game.
As good as Clemson (12-1) was at the start (the Tigers entered the game having mauled opponents 152-20 in first quarters), the Hokies’ defense evened things out in the second quarter.
Virginia Tech had been forced to punt twice at the start of the second quarter and desperately needed a momentum swing. Foster’s unit responded by stifling Clemson for just 13 yards in five plays — and then skipped around the sideline imploring the crowd to raise the decibel level.
On the next possession, Evans threw a 53-yard pass to Isaiah Ford to get a 70-yard touchdown drive rolling. Four plays later Evans ended an 11-yard run in the end zone on his feet, and the Hokies were trailing 21-14.
For a time, it seemed Foster had cracked a code for slowing the Tigers. The Tigers gained just 32 yards on 19 plays in the second quarter, compared to 170 yards on 21 plays in the first.
But Swinney had a solution of his own. Running Watson, for 10 and 12 yards to start an early series in the third quarter, loosened Virginia Tech’s defense enough to drive 89 yards in nine plays for a touchdown that put the Tigers back on top 28-14.
Watson’s speed and bulk as a runner proved successful for Clemson. The junior ended with 17 rush attempts, tying a season high, and 85 yards. The Tigers outrushed the Hokies, 182-102.
The Hokies’ offense laid dormant for periods as well. Virginia Tech slogged through three consecutive drives of five yards or less in the third quarter before starting the fourth by leaning on Evans’s legs. He drove the Hokies 75 yards, with the help of a pair of 10-yard passes to Ford and Cam Phillips, before nabbing his second rushing touchdown of the night on a five-yard run.
Again, Virginia Tech was within one touchdown of tying the game. Again, Watson had an answer.
On Clemson’s next drive, the Watson closed out an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive — his fifth such drive of at least 75 yards — by dodging a blitzing Mook Reynolds, then fooling Foster’s defense. He capped the drive with a 15-yard scoring pass to Hunter Renfrow for a 42-28 Clemson lead.
Cam Phillips’ 26-yard catch brought Virginia Tech within one touchdown yet again, setting up the drama of the final minutes.
Now, the Hokies will await their bowl bid. The Tigers thirst for something bigger.