(A)nother (C)lemson (C)hampionship....Tigers survive Hokies to claim crown


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Clelin Ferrell with the early sack
Clelin Ferrell with the early sack

ORLANDO, FL – College Football Playoff bound.

Cordrea Tankersley intercepted Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans on fourth down with just over a minute to play, and Clemson held off a determined Virginia Tech Hokie team 42-35 in the ACC Championship Game in Camping World Stadium Saturday night.

The third-ranked Tigers improve to 12-1 overall while Tech falls to 9-4.

Virginia Tech roared back from a 35-14 deficit and was driving for the tying score, but Clemson’s pass rush forced the errant pass and the Tigers were able to run out the clock.

"That was a special moment to celebrate with our team and just proud of them. That’s what championship football is all about," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "When you’re in a championship game, there’s an opponent, and they got
here for a reason, and I just want to congratulate Virginia Tech because we could just not put them away. I mean, we were up three touchdowns, two touchdowns, and it just never seemed like enough. Those guys just kind of found a play here or there. So they had a tremendous heart of a champion out there here tonight. They’ll be a heck of a program for many years to come with Justin.

"I’m proud of our guys, though. I’m proud of our team. Happy for our seniors, happy for our fans. This was special. You know, this is our fourth appearance and our third title. And they’re all special. Every one
of them has kind of its own story. It was its own journey."

The Tigers will await the College Football Playoff Committee’s noon decision to see where they wind up for the bowl season.

Deshaun Watson was 23-fo-34 for 288 yards and three scores, and he added 17 rushes for 85 yards in earning Most Valuable Player honors.

"We started 124 days ago we had our first team meeting, and we said in 124 days we want to be in the ACC Championship. We thought it was going to be in Charlotte at that time so we had a little detour," Swinney said. "But what a blessing to be a part of this season, the journey that we’ve had. I’m just so thankful for these
guys. Our 16th title and, again, back to back years. Our seniors, this was our seniors’ 47th win. I mean,
just unbelievable the career they’ve had. They’re the winningest senior class in the history of the school
now, and they did it in grand fashion on a big stage to win the 16th ACC title.

"So just, you know, thankful, thankful for the good Lord to give me the opportunity to be a part of this team
and to have guys like this that are so easy to coach. I mean, just so easy to coach. I’ve got the easiest job in
the world when you have your best players that are the most committed guys, hardest working guys, humble
guys, and just flat out lay it on the line every single day from a preparation standpoint and then a performance
standpoint."

The Hokies won the toss and elected to defer, but that decision backfired because Clemson’s opening drive was a thing of beauty. The Tigers started out with a designed run by Watson, who only gained three yards, but it was enough to put the defense on their heels as the Tigers marched 75 yards in nine plays. Watson was 5-for-5 for 50 yards on the drive, but he scored on a three-yard run up the middle for a 7-0 lead just over three minutes into the game.

Clelin Ferrell sacked Tech’s Jerod Evans on the Hokies first play from scrimmage, setting the stage for a quick three-and-out. Following a 60-yard Hokie punt, the Tigers took over on their 17. Nine plays later the Tigers were back in the endzone. The score came after Watson faked a pitch to Gallman, then found Jordan Leggett wide open in the middle of the field for a 21-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.

The Hokies appeared to be stopped on three plays on the ensuing drive, but a third-down tackle by Dorian O’Daniel was ruled targeting, and O’Daniel was booted from the game and the Hokies had new life. The Tigers forced a fourth down, but a fake punt gave the Hokies the ball in Clemson territory. There was initially a penalty for ineligible man downfield on the play, but the play was reviewed and the call was reversed. The Hokies later scored on a one-yard run by Sam Rogers and it was 14-7 Tigers late in the first quarter.

The Tigers responded with another grueling drive, this one covering 10 plays and 75 yards. Facing a 3rd-and-7 at the Hokie 10, Watson threw a laser to Leggett on a crossing route in the back of the endzone and Clemson had a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter.

The Tigers failed to capitalize after forcing another Tech punt, and the Hokies made the Tigers pay early in the drive with a 54-yard throw from Evans to Isaiah Ford. That catch helped the Hokies cover 70 yards in just five plays, with Evans scoring on an 11-yard run that made it 21-14 with 4:09 left in the half.

The scored stayed that way until the half, and the Tigers promptly forced a Hokie punt. However, Watson’s first pass of the second half was tipped and intercepted deep in Clemson territory. A sack on third down by Carlos Watkins forced a Hokie punt and the Tigers took over at their own 11.

The offense, which had stagnated in the second quarter under the Hokie blitz, got physical with Watson and Gallman carrying the load. Watson carried the ball four times for 34 yards on the drive, Mike Williams had a 20-yard reception on third down and Gallman capped the drive with an eight-yard run over the left side behind tackle Mitch Hyatt. Just like that, the Tigers held a 28-14 lead with 9:17 to play in the third quarter.

Clemson’s defensive line continued to harass Evans, and on the ensuing drive Evans was forced to throw a ball up for grabs on the sideline. It was grabbed by Cordrea Tankersley, whose interception gave the Tigers at the Tigers’ 49-yard line. The key play in the drive was a 39-yard completion from Watson to Deon Cain to the Hokie 12, and three plays later Watson bull rushed his way into the end zone for a two-yard score, and Clemson led 35-14 midway through the third quarter.

It took a total of five plays for the Hokies to answer, getting a 27-yard touchdown by Trayvon McMillian that made it 35-21 at the 2:27 mark of the third quarter.

Clemson bumbled through another possession and was forced to punt, and this time it was the Hokies who got physical, marching 65 yards in 12 plays and scoring on a five-yard run by Evans that made it 35-28 with 11:35 to play.

Needing to stop the bleeding, the Tigers needed someone to step up and make a big play. The drive started badly – a false start penalty and a four-yard loss by Gallman – but on 2nd-and-19 Watson hit Hunter Renfrow on a 31-yard strike that set the Tigers up in Hokie territory. Two more false start penalties seemed to hurt the drive, but on 3rd-and-14 Watson hit Cain on a 30-yard pass to the Tech 14. On the next play, Watson looked like he was about to run to the right side, but it was RPO (run pass option) and he flipped it out to a wide open Renfrow for the score and Clemson led 42-28 with 7:33 to play.

The Hokies wouldn’t go away, however, and Evans hit Cam Phillips on a 26-yard scoring toss six plays later that made it a game again, with Clemson holding a tenuous 42-35 lead with 5:43 to play.

A controversial holding call and another false start penalty forced another Clemson punt, and Virginia Tech took over at their own 40 with just over four minutes to play.


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