CLEMSON - The ghost of Billy McMullen roams Death Valley no more.
Two years ago, McMullen scored a game-winning touchdown in the final seconds for Virginia on a play in which he appeared to push off to gain separation. Saturday it was the same script, only with a decidedly Clemson-flavored ending.
Kevin Youngblood's leaping 4-yard reception in overtime gave the Tigers a dramatic 30-27 victory over visiting Virginia in a key Atlantic Coast Conference matchup. The win improves Clemson to 2-1 in the conference (4-2) overall, while Virginia falls to 4-2 (3-1 ACC).
Youngblood, like McMullen two years ago, appeared to push defensive back Jamaine Winborne while the ball was in the air. However the two had been battling for position in the left corner of the end zone, and the officials ruled contact was incidental.
After that, with a 7-inch height advantage on the 5-foot-10 Virginia cornerback, Youngblood had no problem coming down with the jump ball.
"That last play was intended for me. It surprised me when they signaled it in," Youngblood said. "As soon as we got the play, my adrenaline went up as high as it could go."
"We were in the same situation here two years ago. Two years ago our guy went up and won the game; today their guy went up and won the game, and that's all that counts," said Virginia head coach Al Groh. "The kid (Whitehurst) made a good throw, and the kid (Youngblood) made a good catch, and that's all that needs to be said about it. I congratulate them for winning."
Youngblood's winning grab capped off a wild afternoon full of momentum changes and emotional ups and downs on both sides.
Clemson led early by 10, fell behind by seven in the third quarter, rallied to take a late lead only to see Virginia tie the game with less than a minute to go. Along the way they lost another key performer - defensive end J.J. Howard - to injury, but may have discovered the much-needed toughness in the running game thanks to a resurgent Yusef Kelly.
Whatever the findings, it was a huge win for both the Tigers and head coach Tommy Bowden. Coming into Saturday Bowden was 1-16 vs. teams that finished the season ranked in the Top 25, and in a year during which his job status is examined by fans and media almost on a week-to-week basis, Saturday's win could prove to be huge.
"I wish it was something I said," Bowden said about his team's motivation. "Sometimes it's just the chemistry of the team. They just get into a mindset. Our defense set the tone early in the game that it was going to be a heck of a match for (Virginia's) offense. The offense responded, too."
The Tigers appeared to have blown a golden opportunity earlier when, after leading 10-0 at halftime, they watched Virginia storm out of the locker room and score 17 unanswered points in the third quarter.
Unable to rush the ball at all in the first half (14 carries, 28 yards), Virginia produced two quick touchdowns on consecutive drives consisting of nothing but passes. The first, a 12 play, 60 yard drive, was capped off by Matt Schaub's 11-yard pass to tight end Heath Miller.
The second drive covered just 35 yards in four plays, the last a 5-yard scoring strike to Patrick Estes for a 14-10 lead. The Cavs made it 17-10 late in the period on a Connor Hughes 26-yard field goal.
But Clemson responded with a pair of impressive drives to regain the lead in the fourth quarter, scoring once on a one-yard plunge by quarterback Charlie Whitehurst and again on a bruising 12-yard touchdown run by Kelly.
The first touchdown was set up by Derrick Hamilton's reverse pass to Youngblood at the one yard line; Kelly's score put the Tigers on top 24-17 with 3:20 to go.
"I think I bring a physical presence to the offense," he said. "I think that when the guys in front of me look back and see me there they want to get the first down. They want to blow their man off the ball.
"All it takes is one player to spark an offense. I don't know if it was me, but somebody definitely did it today."
Bowden, who faced questions this week about whether or not Kelly had been benched for some reason other than injuries, was complimentary of his junior tailback.
"He hadn't been in the doghouse. He was legitimately hurt," Bowden said. "He jumped right back into his mold, like last year against South Carolina. Virginia plays defense with a lot of zone blocking and he was able to move the pile."
But Virginia drove right down the field to tie the game - helped by a long kickoff return by Tony Franklin to the Clemson 47 yard line.
Schaub completed four passes in the next six plays, including a 20-yarder to Alvin Pearman that set up the Cavs at the Clemson one yard line. Pearman pulled the Cavs even on the next play with a short scoring run at the :57 mark.
It appeared Virginia would have a shot at a last-second field goal, stopping Clemson on three straight plays and forcing a Cole Chason punt with :37 left. But Tye Hill intercepted Schaub on a third-and-5 at :05 left, forcing the extra period.
"We just kept telling ourselves 'we are not going to lose this game,'" said Clemson linebacker John Leake. "That's the temperament I had. I told the defense to keep telling that to themselves. If we gave it 110 percent we would not lose this game."
Virginia was able to muster a Hughes 33-yard field goal to open the overtime, but the lead proved to be short-lived.
Moments later Youngblood made the most important catch of his career, touching off a wild celebration that started in the corner of the end zone and spilled out of the stands and onto the Death Valley turf.
"That's something I've dreamed about forever, making the game-winning catch," Youngblood said. "I finally did it. I appreciate the coaches for that."
Clemson's first-half points came on Aaron Hunt's 26-yard field goal, and a Whitehurst-to-Hamilton 19-yard touchdown pass.
- Senior defensive end J.J. Howard was taken off the field on a cart after injuring his knee in the second half. He did not return, and is scheduled for an MRI today (Sunday).
Meanwhile, in the day's most bizarre injury, holder Gene Pate fell and broke his leg during the pregame run down the hill at Howard's Rock. Punter Cole Chason took over holding duties and performed well in his place.
- Saturday's overtime win was the third in Clemson history in as many opportunities, the second for Bowden.
The Tigers beat Georgia Tech two years ago in Atlanta on a Woody Dantzler scoring run. Clemson also beat Duke in Death Valley back in 1997.
- Virginia entered Saturday's game leading the ACC in rushing, but left beaten and bruised.
The Cavs mustered just 53 net yards on 22 carries. Wali Lundy, the conference's leading rusher at 102.4 yards per game entering Saturday, was held to just 26 yards on 12 carries before leaving the game with an injured right leg.
- Clemson's rushing attack rolled up 194 yards on 46 carries, averaging 4.2 yards per attempt. Kelly led the team with 25 carries for 88 yards (3.5), while Duane Coleman had 46 yards on 8 carries. Derrick Hamilton carried once for 52 yards, running a reverse on Clemson's first play from scrimmage.
- Whitehurst improves to 7-4 as Clemson's starting quarterback, recording his first victory over a ranked opponent.
Clemson 3, Virginia 0
Scoring Drive: 6 plays, 70 yards in 2:32
Scoring Play: Aaron Hunt's 26-yard field goal at 10:22.
Key Play: Derrick Hamilton's 52-yard run on a reverse to the Virginia 26.
Clemson 10, Virginia 0
Scoring Drive: 13 plays, 63 yards in 5:43
Scoring Play: Whitehurst's 19-yard pass to Derrick Hamilton at 9:03.
Key Play: Jasmin's 9-yard run to the Virginia four yard line on fourth-and-1.
Clemson 10, Virginia 7
Scoring Drive: 12 plays, 60 yards in 4:14.
Scoring Play: Schaub's 11-yard pass to Miller at 7:47.
Key Play: On third-and-7 from the Clemson 46, Schaub completes to Hagans for 8 yards.
Virginia 14, Clemson 10
Scoring Drive: 4 plays, 35 yards in :31.
Scoring Play: Schaub's 5-yard pass to Estes at 5:44.
Key Play: Schaub's 23-yard pass to Luzar to the Clemson 5.
Virginia 17, Clemson 10
Scoring Drive: 9 plays, 82 yards in 3:01.
Scoring Play: Hughes' 26-yard field goal at :08.
Key Play: Facemask penalty on Clemson which negated a 14-yard sack and kept the drive alive.
Clemson 17, Virginia 17
Scoring Drive: 4 plays, 43 yards in :58
Scoring Play: Whitehurst's one-yard run at 8:41.
Key Play: Hamilton's 29-yard reverse pass to Youngblood to the Virginia 1.
Clemson 24, Virginia 17
Scoring Drive: 11 plays, 74 yards in 3:36
Scoring Play: Kelly's 12-yard run at 3:20.
Key Play: Jasmin's four yard run to the Virginia 22 on fourth and 1.
Clemson 24, Virginia 24
Scoring Drive: 7 plays, 47 yards in 2:23.
Scoring Play: Pearman's 1-yard run at :57.
Key Play: Schaub's 20-yard completion to Pearman to the Clemson 1.
- Virginia 27, Clemson 24 on Hughes 33-yard Field Goal
- Clemson 30, Virginia 27 on Whitehurst's 4-yard TD pass to Youngblood.