By Will Vandervort
CLEMSON — It took two quarters and nearly 13 minutes for the Clemson offense to wake up Saturday afternoon in Death Valley, yet the 13th-ranked Tigers still won quite comfortably, 38-17, over Virginia Tech.
On a day when the Clemson offense was not at its best—a low 295 yards under offensive coordinator Chad Morris—the defense stood tall, forcing four turnovers, including three interceptions to hold off the Hokies until Tajh Boyd and company finally came along near the end of the third quarter.
“I can’t praise those guys enough,” Boyd said. “We did not execute as well as we needed, especially in the first half, but they held together and stayed composed. They created turnovers and kept giving us the football.”
They also scored. Jonathan Meeks grabbed two interceptions for the Tigers (6-1, 3-1 ACC), including a 74-yard touchdown return late in the second quarter that allowed them to take a 17-10 lead into the break.
Prior to Saturday Meeks had not recorded an interception all year.
“That was a dream,” Meeks said. “I think the ball (on the touchdown) might have got tipped, but the guys blocked for me and I just ran with it. It was a good team effort.”
The defense kept making plays in the second half. In the third quarter, Clemson forced the Hokies to punt on each of their four possessions to set the tone. Finally Boyd, who had struggled much of the afternoon, got going on the Tigers’ third possession. With a first down at his own 48, he led Clemson on a seven-play, 52-yard drive.
Still leading 17-10, and facing third down-and-six from the Virginia Tech 37, Boyd finally found Watkins on a deep pass for a 26-yard gain down the near sideline. Two plays later, running back Andre Ellington capped off the drive with an 11-yard run up the middle for a 24-10 lead.
On the Hokies next possession, the Clemson defense forced its third three-and-out of the afternoon and the second in the quarter. It took just 50 seconds for the Clemson offense to take advantage as Boyd this time hit DeAndre Hopkins down the near sideline for a 37-yard touchdown pass and a 31-10 advantage.
“Those guys came out to play,” Boyd said. “They have been hearing all season that ‘the defense isn’t this’ or ‘the defense isn’t that.’ But they made plays and they played outstanding.”
The defense again came up big in the fourth quarter. With Virginia Tech (4-4, 2-2 ACC) trying to crawl back in the game, the Hokies dialed up a throwback-pass to quarterback Logan Thomas. But, safety Xavier Brewer sniffed out the play and intercepted the pass, all but sealing the Clemson victory.
“The defense had a great performance,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “From the sidelines, I believe it was their best game of the season. We struggled with some missed tackles, but they did really well at getting turnovers, including the pick six.
“They had some big stops in the second half. They put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, which caused some hesitancy on his part and forced him to throw off target.”
It wasn’t a good day for Boyd, who was sacked five times and completed just 12 of 21 passes for 160 yards. However, he did run for two scores. Ellington finished the afternoon with 96 yards on 19 carries, while Watkins had eight catches for 84 yards. Hopkins had three catches for 68 yards.
Thomas led the Hokies with 207 passing yards and 99 rushing, but threw two interceptions.
Clemson took a 10-7 lead with 9:29 to go in the second quarter when Boyd dove over the pile on first-and-goal from the one. The touchdown capped a 27-yard drive after the Tigers recovered a fumble that bounced off a Virginia Tech player who was blocking on punt coverage.
Virginia Tech opened the game by sacking Boyd twice, and then on the ensuing possession, quarterback Thomas led the Hokies on a 7-play, 58-yard drive, which he capped with a 29-yard touchdown pass to Corey Fuller. That have Tech a 7-0 lead with 10:28 to play in the first quarter.
Boyd was picked off by safety Michael Cole on Clemson’s next possession at the Hokies’ 13, which started a 15-play drive that climaxed at the Tigers’ 18. On fourth-and-one, Corey Crawford and Corico Wright stopped J.C. Coleman for no gain.
From there, the defense took control of the game and never really lost it.