By Jordan Dominick || After being embarrassed in consecutive games, few college football pundits gave the No. 20 Clemson Tigers a chance against 5th-ranked Virginia Tech in Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference championship game at Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
Having been dominated by N.C. State two weeks ago and then defeated – and dissed – by their arch-rivals from the University of South Carolina last week, it seemed unlikely that Clemson would turn things around against the Hokies, who had won three of the last four ACC crowns.
But behind a revived offense and a suddenly stultifying defense, Clemson resumed its “shock the world” tour by dominating No. 5 Virginia Tech 38-10 – claiming its first ACC title since 1991, its first-ever BCS berth and its first Orange Bowl appearance in thirty years.
“We’re a championship program and tonight we added to a great tradition,” Clemson Head Coach Dabo Swinney said.
Surprised? Don’t be. This is what Clemson (10-3, 6-2 ACC) has historically done – the exact opposite of what they’re predicted to do.
Clemson quarterback and championship game MVP Tajh Boyd – who had struggled mightily over the past month after emerging as an unexpected Heisman contender earlier in the season – shone against the Hokies. Seemingly out of nowhere, Boyd returned to midseason form – throwing for 240 yards and three touchdowns while picking up another score on the ground.
“Somewhere you’ve just got to dig deep inside yourself, and work through things,” the Clemson quarterback said. “Obviously, you do get a sense of complacency, and if you let it, if you let the outside world influence how you carry yourself and how you act … I mean, that’s just one of the life lessons learned. That’s what happened. But it happened for a reason.”
An even bigger surprise than Boyd’s reemergence? The unexpected dominance of the Tiger defense. After South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw had his way with the unit a week ago, many doubted whether Clemson could stop Tech’s Logan Thomas – a bigger, stronger and more mobile passer.
In fact, Tigers defensive coordinator Kevin Steele found himself under some fire this week from fans and the media for Clemson’s inability to stop mobile quarterbacks throughout his tenure. And honestly, the Tiger defense hadn’t stopped much of anyone all season.
So who would have figured that Steele ‘s unit would have held the mighty Hokies to ten points – or that the embattled coach would be chest-bumping and celebrating with his players on the sideline throughout the game?
It was the defense that got things rolling early for the Tigers after defensive end Andre Branch recovered a fumble forced by freshman linebacker Stephone Anthony at the Hokies’ 24.
Three plays later, Boyd found All-ACC tight end Dwayne Allen for a touchdown that give them an early 7-0 lead.
After Virginia Tech (11-2, 7-1) tied it up on a 45 yard bomb from Thomas to receiver D.J. Coles, the teams traded field goals to send the game into the half even at 10-10.
From there Clemson’s offense – which had been completely anemic in its prior two games – reminded everyone why it was receiving such lofty praise only a month earlier.
The Tigers’ first drive of the second half went 10 plays for 87 yards and ended with Allen’s second touchdown catch of the night with 10:45 left in the third quarter. After forcing a three-and-out on defense, offensive coordinator Chad Morris went for the throat.
On the first play of the ensuing drive Boyd found freshman All-ACC receiver Sammy Watkins for a 53-yard touchdown connection.
Watkins – who is in the running for all sorts of national honors – broke Rod Gardner’s school record for receiving yards in a season (1153) while tying Aaron Kelly’s record for receiving touchdowns (11).
After stifling Virginia Tech’s offense again, the Tigers took over on the Tech 41.
That’s when junior running back Andre Ellington – who has had a disappointing, injury-marred season – showed why he was predicted to be the focal point of Clemson’s offense at the start of the season. Back at 100 percent – with his speed and cutting ability unhindered – Ellington took over on this drive.
After a 12-yard run up the middle, Ellington sprinted 29 yards for a touchdown that gave the Tigers a 31-10 lead with 6:21 left in the period. Only four minutes earlier, the game had been tied.
Ellington finished with 125 yards on 20 carries – his first 100-yard game in nearly two months.
This wasn’t how this championship game was supposed to go down.
In typical Hokie fashion, Frank Beamer’s team had been improving every week since losing to Clemson in Blacksburg in early October. Just last week, Virginia Tech decimated Virginia 38-0, holding the Cavaliers to just 30 yards rushing.
Meanwhile Clemson had been imploding, losing three of their last four and getting blown out in the previous two. After throwing just three interceptions during Clemson’s 8-0 start, Boyd had thrown seven picks in his four previous games.
Clemson fans have to be experiencing mixed emotions. Their team has captured its first conference championship in two decades and its first ten-win season since 1990, but it can’t be completely satisfying in light of all the “what ifs.”
Also, getting blown out by their rival for the third consecutive year has to leave at least a small black mark on a season that otherwise would have been labeled an overwhelming success.
The loss at South Carolina is one thing, though – coming as it did against a quality opponent in a tough environment. It’s the loss against N.C. State that’s inexplicable. In fact, those are the kinds of late-season implosions that Dabo Swinney’s program must eliminate if it plans on parlaying this season into bigger and brighter things in the future.
College football’s version of Jekyll and Hyde continues to be just that – only this year Clemson managed to overcome its its schizophrenic tendencies long enough to bag a conference championship.
Also, in light of the preseason expectations – or more precisely, the lack thereof – Clemson clearly outdid itself this year.
Not a single major preseason publication picked the Tigers to win the Atlantic Division this season – yet alone the ACC crown. The Tigers entered 2011 unranked and unrespected – but they’ll finish the year in a BCS bowl with a chance to tie the school record for wins in a single season.