BLACKSBURG, Va. — As it prepared for its ACC opener this week against No. 13 Clemson, undefeated Virginia Tech tried not to flinch when every bit of rhetoric leading into the game included the same caveat: that the Hokies hadn’t beaten anyone.
If Saturday night was any indication, though, No. 11 Virginia Tech may have more chinks in its armor than even some of the skeptics thought.
Doomed by an ineffective passing game, poor red zone execution and some untimely special teams gaffes, the Hokies fell to Clemson, 23-3, on a rainy, mistake-filled night at Lane Stadium. It was Virginia Tech’s first conference loss since Oct. 29, 2009 — a span of 702 days — and the first time since a 1995 loss to Cincinnati that the Hokies were held without a touchdown in a home game.
The Tigers, meanwhile, became the first ACC team ever to win three straight games over ranked opponents. But perhaps more importantly, the victory proved that Clemson, not the Hokies, is the team to beat in the ACC this year.
“We understand . . . that now it becomes win your side and try to get to the [ACC] championship game,” said Virginia Tech Coach Frank Beamer, who later addressed the team’s early-season schedule.
“You can say what you want to, but we played four good teams and I don’t think the schedule had anything to do with us turning the ball over and losing when we had things going our way a little bit,” he added.
The ironic part in all this is that in Beamer’s 300th game at Virginia Tech, his vaunted special teams units played a direct role in Clemson’s decisive touchdown drives.
The biggest blow came in the third quarter, when maligned punter Scott Demler mustered just an 11-yard effort after Virginia Tech’s first drive of the second half stalled at Clemson’s 45-yard line. The Tigers struck quickly when tight end Dwayne Allen beat safety Eddie Whitley on a 32-yard touchdown catch to give the Tigers a 17-3 lead.
In the second quarter, Clemson got its first touchdown of the game after Hokies linebacker Wiley Brown committed a personal foul penalty on a kickoff that set up the Tigers inside Virginia Tech territory. After Tajh Boyd found wide receiver Sammy Watkins for a 23-yard gain on a third and eight, running back Andre Ellington rumbled into the end zone from one yard out to give Clemson a 10-3 lead entering halftime.
That would be more than enough on a night when the Hokies’ offense, and particularly their passing game, struggled mightily. In his first start against a ranked opponent, redshirt sophomore quarterback Logan Thomas completed just 15 of 27 passes for 125 yards and an interception. He was also sacked four times.
The Hokies’ longest pass of the game went for just 16 yards, and though running back David Wilson had 20 rushes for 123 yards, it mattered little with Thomas and Virginia Tech’s receiving corps posing no threat to Clemson’s secondary.
When asked about what needed to be fixed in the passing game during his postgame news conference, a sullen Thomas only responded, “I couldn’t tell you.”
Clemson’s defensive line “kept me on my toes,” he said. “They didn’t give me a chance to get a good feel.”
For Beamer and play caller Mike O’Cain, the main concern was the Hokies’ missed opportunities.
Virginia Tech dominated the early stages of the game, pounding the ball with Wilson and stifling Clemson’s offense with its nickel package and some unorthodox blitzes. But the Hokies couldn’t seem to get out of their own way.
On Virginia Tech’s first drive of the game, Thomas had a pass tipped by wide receiver Jarrett Boykin, which resulted in an interception by Clemson’s Xavier Brewer. On the Hokies’ next possession, running back David Wilson had his third fumble in three games, and the Tigers soon took a 3-0 in the first quarter after a 31-yard field goal by place kicker Chandler Catanzaro.
Midway through the second quarter, cornerback Jayron Hosley read Boyd’s eyes and jumped a route by wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins for his third interception of the season. But Virginia Tech couldn’t get in the end zone even after getting a first and goal at the 5-yard line. The Hokies had to settle for a 24-yard field goal by place kicker Cody Journell that tied the score at 3.
That failed drive set the tone for the rest of the evening, even though Virginia Tech’s defense held the Tigers to 323 yards and became just the second unit to hold Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris to less than 28 points during his 18-game career in the collegiate ranks.
After the game, Beamer reminded reporters that in 2007, Virginia Tech lost to Boston College at home on a last-second touchdown pass by quarterback Matt Ryan, only to come back and beat the Eagles in the ACC championship game.
“That’s why I’m saying next week will be a real important game,” Beamer said. “There’s no question we need to improve as a football team, but this thing’s not over.”