ORLANDO, Fla. — No. 3 Clemson defeated No. 23 Virginia Tech 42-35 on Saturday night at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., to win the 2016 ACC Championship. The Tigers improved to 12-1, while Virginia Tech dropped to 9-4. Here is a look back at how Clemson earned the victory:
Clemson came out of the gates fast offensively, scoring touchdowns on its first three possessions courtesy of a 3-yard touchdown run by Deshaun Watson and a pair of touchdown passes from Watson to Jordan Leggett. However, Virginia Tech kept the game close with a 1-yard touchdown run by Travon McMillian in the first quarter following a fake punt by the Hokies before Jerod Evans made it a one-score game at 21-14 with an 11-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Early in the second half, Virginia Tech looked like it might tie the game up after a tipped pass resulted in an interception by Watson that set up the Hokies at Clemson’s 38-yard line. But a sack by Carlos Watkins forced Virginia Tech to punt, and the Tigers capitalized on the ensuing possession with an 8-yard touchdown run by Wayne Gallman that gave them a 28-14 lead.
Watson added a 2-yard touchdown run later in the third quarter to give Clemson a 35-14 lead, but Virginia Tech responded with touchdown runs by McMillian and Evans on its next two possessions to get back within one score again.
Then, after Watson found Hunter Renfrow for a 15-yard touchdown on Clemson’s next possession, Evans hooked up with Cam Phillips for a 26-yard score that chipped Clemson’s lead to 42-35.
Despite wearing down in the second half, Clemson’s defense ultimately made another game-saving stand. With Virginia Tech driving into the red zone late in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, down by seven, Cordrea Tankersley intercepted a pass from Evans on fourth down. Clemson took over, got a first down and took a knee to end the game.
What went right?
Watson continued to make his case for the Heisman Trophy with another stellar effort, accounting for five touchdowns and 373 total yards. Watson completed 23 of 34 passes for 288 yards while rushing for 85 yards on 17 carries. Overall, Clemson’s offense posted 470 yards of total offense and 30 first downs, and the offensive line didn’t allow a sack.
Leggett also played a key role in the game, especially in the first half when he caught a couple of touchdown passes from Watson as part of his four receptions for 49 yards.
What went wrong?
Several things didn’t go Clemson’s way, but the biggest was Clemson’s inability to put the Hokies away when it had the chances. The Tigers were up by two scores on several occasions — and up by 21 points at 35-14 late in the third quarter — but each time, the Tigers allowed Virginia Tech to creep back into the game and make it close down the stretch.
Also, Clemson was penalized eight times for 65 yards. Several of those penalties were costly, including a targeting call against linebacker Dorian O’Daniel in the first quarter that resulted in his ejection from the game.
There were a number of pivotal plays in this one.
Watkins’ sack early in the third quarter proved to be one of them. After Virginia Tech scored on its last possession of the first half to make it a one-score game, the Hokies picked off a pass from Watson on Clemson’s first possession of the third quarter and had all of the momentum. Virginia Tech took over at Clemson’s 38-yard line and was in position to tie the game with a touchdown, but the sack by Watkins on third down and 10 forced Virginia Tech to punt.
Clemson then capitalized with a touchdown on its next possession, which came via an 8-yard run by Gallman that put the Tigers ahead by two scores.
Plays of similar magnitude were long receptions by Renfrow and Deon Cain near the midway mark of the fourth quarter. After Clemson was up by as much as 21 points in the second half, Virginia Tech scored on back-to-back possessions to draw within a single score at 35-28.
However, Clemson answered with a touchdown to take a 42-28 lead at the 7:33 mark of the fourth period. Renfrow caught a 31-yard pass on second and 19 before Cain hauled in a 30-yard pass on third and 14, both of which kept the drive alive before Watson found Renfrow for a 15-yard touchdown to cap the possession.
But the biggest play of all was Tankersley’s second interception of the game. With Virginia Tech down by seven points, facing a fourth and 6 at Clemson’s 23-yard line, Tankersley picked off a pass from Evans that essentially ended the game and sealed Clemson’s second straight ACC title. It marks the first time in 28 years that Clemson has won back-to-back ACC championships.