Third-ranked Clemson earned a second straight ACC Championship with a 42-35 victory over 18th-ranked Virginia Tech in Orlando, Florida on Saturday.
The Clemson Insider graded each position group’s performance following the win.
The only reason this grade isn’t higher is the lofty bar Deshaun Watson set in his previous two games. The junior completed 68 percent of his passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns. He was also Clemson’s leading rusher in both carries (17) and yards (85), and he piled on another two touchdowns on the ground. There were a couple of series at critical moments where Watson just completely took over the game. When that happened, the Hokies could not stop him. The only wart was the tendency to have passes deflected at the line of scrimmage. One of those deflections became Watson’s only interception.
Running Backs: B+
The tailbacks for Clemson combined for 99 yards on 22 carries. That’s an average of 4.5 yards per carry, more than adequate against a quality defense and in a game in which the quarterback run game was paramount. Wayne Gallman tied Watson with 17 carries in the game and rushed for 59 yards and a touchdown. CJ Fuller’s late-season escalator ride continued, as he ran for 40 yards on only five carries, including a 27-yarder that was tied for the longest run of the game for either side. When Clemson’s running game bogged down, it didn’t appear to be the fault of the backs (more on that in a moment).
Wide Receivers: A
Clemson’s wideouts had a monster game. Every one of the key contributors from this group made some sort of high-caliber play at a critical time. Mike Williams was the most targeted, as he hauled in five of nine balls for 57 yards. Artavis Scott led the team in catches with seven and accumulated 48 yards. The leader in yardage was Deon Cain, who gained 69 yards on two receptions. Also, the lone touchdown of the bunch went to Hunter Renfrow, whose two catches and 46 yards came on the Tigers’ final scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Some of Clemson’s biggest plays were sprunt by receivers blocking on the edge and downfield, a strength of last season’s unit that hasn’t been there with this one all the time.
Tight Ends: A+
Jordan Leggett may have earned himself some money with his performance in Orlando on Saturday night. The senior—already highly touted by scouts at the next level—caught four of his five targets for 49 yards and two touchdowns. He found himself free in coverage on a couple of other occasions, as well, and he consistently beat his man to the spot, no matter what position that man may have been playing. The most impressive thing for Leggett is how he outplayed Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech’s utility weapon at tight end, both in catching passes and blocking.
Offensive Line: C+
It’s hard to dock too many points to other position groups for the entire blocking scheme, so it’s happened here, and it’s probably not fair. Still, the blocking apparatus produced some moments of bewilderment in Saturday’s game. The Hokie defense deserves credit for some of this, but there were times when it appeared Clemson just simply did not want to engage anybody. Those inconsistencies were rooted in the line but extended to the backs and receivers. What made the contrast so stark is how dominant this group was against a solid Virginia Tech front when it wanted to be. Another issue was false starts late in the game—three on the Tigers’ final two substantial offensive drives. Those critical errors won’t be negligible in the playoff.
Defensive Line: A-
This group dominated and overwhelmed Virginia Tech at times. The Hokies only averaged 2.9 yards per carry in spite of their collective dedication to be balanced. The Tech protection is has been fairly decent this year, but the Tigers managed to pressure Evens all night long—many times with only a four-man rush. Clemson sacked Jerod Evans four times. All of those sacks came courtesy of defensive linemen, led by Dexter Lawrence’s two. Clelin Ferrell and Carlos Watkins both had a sack and combined for four of Clemson’s eight tackles for loss—six of which came from defensive linemen. Lawrence also had a quarterback pressure in the game. The Tigers found particular success twisting and stunting defensive tackles to confuse the interior of the Hokie offensive line on passing downs.
It could have been a bad game for this group, but effort and desire turned it into a good one. When Dorian O’Daniel was ejected for targeting in the first quarter, it meant a busier day for Jalen Williams at the nickel/SAM spot. Williams delivered, racking up nine tackles, a tackle for loss, and a pass breakup. There were times when Williams’ weaknesses were exposed, but there were other times when he executed tiny details of plays that allowed others to succeed. Kendall Joseph and Ben Boulware were Clemson’s leading tacklers with 11 and 10 stops, respectively. The aforementioned Hodges was a tough matchup for the Tigers, particularly as it involved the Tiger linebackers, so much of the credit for his one-catch day has to reside here.
Defensive Backs: B-
Weighing the good and the bad was tough with this group, too. The pass interference flags are becoming commonplace, and even in this offense-friendly era of football, it’s an issue. One-on-one battles are less likely to result in a deflection or interception than they were earlier in the year. Run support isn’t an automatic with this group, particularly from cornerbacks. However, when Clemson needed a big play, the DBs provided it more often than not on Saturday. Cordrea Tankersley had two interceptions in the game, and he and Ryan Carter each deflected a pass. Because of how Virginia Tech deploys Hodges, this group gets credit for his quiet game, too, but it also gets the blame for Cam Phillips hauling in a dozen balls for 92 yards and a score.
Special Teams: D+
First, let’s discuss the good. No Virginia Tech kick return went for more than 27 yards. The Hokies’ only punt return totaled two yards. That’s not negligible, but it was far outweighed by complete ineptitude elsewhere. Greg Huegel couldn’t keep the Hokies from returning the ball on kickoffs more often than not. Artavis Scott went backwards five yards on two punt returns, but that’s not the worst of it. Andy Teasdall had an absolutely abysmal game, averaging just 34.6 yards per punt in five tries—none of which pinned the Hokies inside the 20-yard line. It wasn’t a typical day in that regard, as Teasdall only had one realistic chance to put Virginia Tech back inside its own red zone, but he uncorked his worst punt of the day in that spot and failed to flip the field. Clemson won despite losing the field position battle all day long, and it was completely unavoidable.