Clemson players and coaches have said throughout the 2016 season that this year feels completely different from 2015, but with 13 games complete the Tigers are back in a familiar place.
No. 3 Clemson (12-1, 7-1) topped No. 23 Virginia Tech (9-4, 6-2) 42-35 Saturday night in the ACC Championship game to clinch its second consecutive ACC title and second consecutive College Football Playoff berth.
The Tigers held off a furious Virginia Tech rally from down 21 points late in the third quarter to win back-to-back ACC titles for the first time in 28 years.
“I’m proud of our guys. I’m proud of our team… This is special,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “It’s just awesome to be a part of seeing a group of young people come together, lay it on the line for one another, and just play their guts out all year long.”
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was named the game’s MVP for the second straight year after accounting for 373 total yards and five touchdowns. He likely locked up another invitation to New York for the Heisman ceremony in the process.
Watson passed for 288 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 85 yards and two scores. His only turnover came on an interception on a tipped pass.
“This guy right here is the best player in the country and it ain’t close. I’ve seen it the last two years,” Swinney said. “There’s just nobody better. And it was on display tonight in big time, big time plays in crucial moments.”
Watson and the Tigers appeared to have the game in hand late in the third quarter as Clemson led 35-14 before the Hokies stormed back.
Virginia Tech cut the lead to 42-35 with 5:43 remaining and got the ball back with four minutes left down a score but drove to the Clemson 25 before Cordrea Tankersley’s second interception of the game wrapped up the win.
The Hokies had three straight touchdown drives with minimal resistance before Clemson’s defense got a stop when it needed it the most.
“We were at our best when we needed to be,” Swinney said. “They had momentum right there, and our defense had not played well the last couple times out. And, man, they were at their best when they had to be in that series and great to finish with an interception by Cordrea.”
Clemson tight end Jordan Leggett caught a pair of first-half touchdown passes and finished with four catches for 49 yards. He has 637 yards on the year, which is a Clemson record for a tight end.
Tigers receiver Hunter Renfrow caught only two passes but they were big ones.
With Clemson leading 35-28 midway through the fourth quarter, the Tigers were facing a second-and-19 when Watson found Renfrow over the middle. The sophomore made a diving grab for a gain of 31 yards.
Later in the drive, Watson found Renfrow for a 15-yard touchdown catch on a run-pass option where Renfrow did most of his damage after the catch.
Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans kept the Hokies in the game with 264 passing yards and a touchdown and two rushing touchdowns.
His favorite target was Cam Phillips, who caught 12 passes for 92 yards and a score.
Kendall Joseph led Clemson in tackles with 11, while fellow linebacker Ben Boulware added 10. Clemson’s third starting linebacker, Dorian O’Daniel, was ejected from the game in the first quarter for targeting.
Clemson will find out its playoff destination and opponent during the College Football Playoff selection show Sunday afternoon.
“We’re proud that we’re 12-1. We’ve earned an opportunity to go play in the playoff,” Swinney said. “I think we’ve got a heck of a football team. We’re going to be a tough out for somebody.”
HOW THEY SCORED
CLE: Watson 3 run (Huegel kick), 11:47
CLE: Leggett 21 pass from Watson (Huegel kick), 5:57
VT: McMillian 1 run (Slye kick), :51
CLE: Leggett 10 pass from Watson (Huegel kick), 11:46
VT: Evans 11 run (Slye kick), 4:09
CLE: Gallman 8 run (Huegel kick), 9:17
CLE: Watson 2 run (Huegel kick), 4:45
VT: McMillian 27 run (Slye kick), 2:27
VT: Evans 5 run (Slye kick), 11:35
CLE: Renfrow 15 pass from Watson (Huegel kick), 7:33
VT: Phillips 26 pass from Evans (Slye kick), 5:43
Time of Possession
RUSHING: Clemson, Watson 17-85, Gallman 17-59, Fuller 5-40, (Team) 2-(minus 2). Virginia Tech, Evans 21-46, McMillian 7-37, Rogers 4-10, Phillips 3-9.
PASSING: Clemson, Watson 23-34-1-288. Virginia Tech, Ludwig 1-1-0-20, Evans 21-35-2-264.
RECEIVING: Clemson, A.Scott 7-48, Mi.Williams 5-57, Leggett 4-49, Cain 2-69, Renfrow 2-46, McCloud 1-9, Gallman 1-7, Thompson 1-3. Virginia Tech, Phillips 12-92, Ford 4-89, Rogers 3-36, Hodges 1-42, Te.Edmunds 1-20, Carroll 1-5.
MISSED FIELD GOALS: None.