ORLANDO, Fla. — For the first time in 28 years, Clemson has won ACC Championships in back-to-back years.
The Tigers got 373 total yards from quarterback Deshaun Watson and five total touchdowns as No. 3 Clemson held off a fierce rally from No. 18 Virginia Tech for a 42-35 victory on Saturday night at Orlando’s Camping World Stadium.
“That was a special moment to celebrate with our team and I’m just proud of them. That’s what championship football is all about,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said.
Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley picked off a Jerod Evans pass at the Clemson 14-yard line to seal the Tigers’ victory. The win more than likely secures the Tigers a second straight spot in the College Football Playoff, which will be announced on Sunday at noon on ESPN.
“I’m really just happy to be a part of it. I’m just embracing this moment,” Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware said afterwards. “I have exhausted it. It is running out quick. Hopefully, two more games, and I realize that. I’m really just trying to embrace each opportunity I get with each game with my teammates.”
The Hokies (9-4) moved the ball from their own 41 to the Clemson 23-yard line late in the fourth quarter, but on third down Evans was stopped for no gain and then on fourth-and-six from the 23-yard line, Tankersley picked off Evans’ pass after linebacker Kendall Joseph and Boulware hurried his throw with 1:11 to play.
It was Tankersley’s second interception of the night.
“They were two terrific plays,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “That one at the end was huge. They were both pivotal plays, and that one on the sideline was was pretty, just used his tippy-toes. I’m proud of him.”
Tankersley first interception came midway through the third quarter, setting up a two-yard Watson touchdown run for a 35-14 lead with 4:45 to play in the quarter. It seemed like the Tigers had control of the game as Virginia Tech started the third quarter with minus-14 yards in their first three possessions.
However, Evans finally hooked up with 6-foot-7 tight end Bucky Hodges for a 42-yard gain. After that, the Hokies could not be stopped. They scored on three straight possessions to erase the Tigers’ 21-point lead.
After Evans pass to Hodges, Travon McMillian ran the ball in for a 27-yard touchdown to make the score, 35-21 with 2:27 to go in the third.
Virginia Tech then got the ball back, and Evans, who was 21-of-35 for 264 yards, ran for a five-yard score with 11:35 to play to make it a one-score game.
Watson, who threw for 288 yards and ran for 85 more, answered Evans and the Hokies with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with 7:33 to play. The two hooked up earlier on the drive when Renfrow caught a 19-yard pass on second-and-19 play from the Clemson 16.
Virginia Tech was not done, Evans found Cam Phillips for a 26-yard pass with 5:43 to play, setting up the dramatic last five minutes of the game.
Watson was named the game’s Most Valuable Player as he completed 23-of-34 passes and had three touchdowns. He also ran for two scores. Watson became the first player in the 12-year history of the ACC Championship Game to win back-to-back MVP honors.
“He certainly does not do it by himself, but when you’ve got a quarterback like we have, you have 13-0 and 12-1 seasons,” Swinney said. “So sure, I’m glad he has been playing for the Tigers.”
Clemson (12-1) opened the game with a nine-play, 75-yard drive which Watson capped with a three-yard run. That gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead with 11:47 to play in the first quarter.
The Tigers upped their lead to 14-0 when Watson found a wide open Jordan Leggett down the middle of the field for a 21- yard touchdown with 5:57 to play in the first quarter. Watson opened the game by completing his first 10 passes.
The Hokies rallied on the ensuing possession. Thanks to a fake punt as punter Mitchell Ludwig threw a 20-yard pass to Terrell Edmunds to keep the drive alive. Before that Clemson’s Dorian O’Daniel was flagged for targeting and disqualified after he hit fullback Sam Rogers too high.
Another Clemson penalty on a halfback pass from Rogers cost Clemson on the next play as Tankersley was flagged for pass interference on Hodges. That penalty set up McMillian’s one-yard run with 0:51 seconds to play in the quarter.
Clemson answered the touchdown with one of its own as Watson guided the Tigers on 10-play 75-yard scoring drive, which he capped with his 10-yard pass to Leggett.
Isaiah Ford caught a 53-yard pass from Evans late in the second quarter which keyed the second touchdown of the night for the Hokies as Evans went in from 11 yards out.
Wayne Gallman, who went over 1,000 yards on the season with his 59 against Tech, had an eight-yard run to open the scoring in the third quarter.