CLEMSON - Winning by three touchdowns shouldn’t be this hard, but Clemson’s bedeviled defense delivered its best performance of the season Saturday when the offense had its worst.
The 38-17 victory over Virginia Tech came despite a season-low 295 yards by a nationally ranked Clemson team 13th in total offense.
“Obviously,” said offensive coordinator Chad Morris, “we’ve played a lot better offensive football around here.”
On the flipside, Clemson was 97th in total defense and had allowed 111 points in its past three games. Though Virginia Tech scratched out 406 yards, three interceptions provided the salve, two by senior safety Jonathan Meeks, including a 74-yard return for a TD.
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Outside a 61-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter, Clemson limited Virginia Tech to 97 yards during the second half. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said it was an encouraging and satisfying step forward, coming off the bye week.
“We certainly haven’t arrived, that goes without saying, but I’m happy for our guys to see them have some success,” said Venables after his seventh game with Clemson.
“I was happy for them,” he said. “And I don’t have to be as miserable tonight.”
Twice Clemson started a drive on the Virginia Tech side of the 50 and failed to score, yet while it wasn’t a tour de force by the offense, running back Andre Ellington had a productive day, rushing for 96 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.
Sammy Watkins had a game-high eight “receptions” for 84 yards. DeAndre Hopkins caught three, including a 37-yard touchdown in the third quarter. And quarterback Tajh Boyd ran for a couple touchdowns and threw for one on a day in which — to borrow a baseball cliché — he didn’t have his best stuff. Boyd lacked touch on several easy passes requiring it and overthrew open receivers on some others. He blamed “technique” on his throws. Virginia Tech was credited with five sacks, but at least two were the result of Boyd holding the ball too long.
“Definitely not his best game,” Morris said of Boyd. “He was off; especially some of the easy throws that could keep drives alive.”
Boyd said the win reflected the team’s maturity.
“It just happens sometimes,” he said. “It was just one of those grind-it-out games.”
Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, tall as a California redwood, accounted for 306 of Virginia Tech’s total yardage, but Clemson never allowed him to find a comfort zone. Pressure from the inside set the table defensively, and the crowd of 81,500 in Death Valley was loud and animated on Military Appreciation Day.
Clemson tied the school record with its 11th straight home victory, and the third straight over Virginia Tech including last year’s ACC championship game.
Senior corner Xavier Brewer suggested the extra week to prepare might have been overkill. “They really didn’t surprise us. We knew everything they were going to do.”
Brewer said he imagined fans had not been pleased with the defense the first six games. “That’s not Clemson defense,” he said. “We re-evaluated ourselves over the break, and we had to come out like a defense Clemson fans know.”
Coach Dabo Swinney called it a “big win,” if for no other reason than the pedigree of the team it beat.
There’s virtually no rest for this ambitious team. Clemson (6-1, 3-1 ACC) has another conference game Thursday night at Wake Forest, and practice is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Sunday.
“We’re a team that’s growing and getting better, in all phases,” said Swinney. “It’s not always going to be perfect. You just keep playing.”