ORLANDO, Fla. — More than anything, the motivation for Clemson senior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley is his infant son.
Cameron, who was born in October, drives Tankersley to be his best every day, both on and off the field. And on Saturday night in the ACC championship game, the thought of his son helped bring out the best in him.
Tankersley recorded two interceptions in a game for the first time in his career during No. 3 Clemson’s 42-35 win over No. 23 Virginia Tech at Camping World Stadium — including one at the end of the contest that essentially sealed the victory — to help the Tigers win their second straight conference title, a feat the program hasn’t accomplished since the 1986-88 seasons.
After Virginia Tech drove into Clemson territory late in the fourth quarter, down by seven points, Tankersley virtually ended all hopes of a Hokie comeback with his second pick of quarterback Jerod Evans that occurred with 1:11 left on the clock.
Clemson’s offense then took over and got one first down before a kneel-down ended the game.
“When I saw the ball, the only thing I could really honestly think about was my son — go get it for him, and I went and got it for him,” Tankersley said.
Virginia Tech lived up to its gritty and pesky reputation on Saturday. Trailing by two touchdowns on multiple occasions throughout the game, and trailing by as many as 21 points late in the third quarter, the Hokies fought back each time and kept the game close to the finish.
After quarterback Deshaun Watson’s second rushing touchdown that was part of his five total scores put Clemson ahead 35-14 near the five-minute mark of the third quarter, Virginia Tech scored on its next three possessions to make it a 42-35 game with 5:43 left in the fourth quarter.
The Hokies were in position to at least tie the game after taking possession with 4:03 remaining and the score still 42-35. But after moving the ball 36 yards to Clemson’s 23-yard line on eight plays, Evans dropped back to pass and was intercepted along the near sideline by a diving Tankersley, who got up and sprinted past midfield in celebration.
Virginia Tech first-year head coach Justin Fuente said after the game that he “absolutely” would have attempted a two-point conversion in an attempt to win the game had his team scored a touchdown on its final possession.
But because of Tankersley’s pivotal play, he never had to make that call.
“I was praying for the ball to come my way, so for it to come, it was like a dream,” Tankersley said. “I didn’t think I was going to get the interception. I was thinking they were going to throw a jump ball up to the 6-foot-7 guy and I was just going to knock the ball down and celebrate, but to have that moment, I couldn’t ask for a better moment.”
Earlier in the second half, it was Tankersley’s other interception that helped the Tigers build a big lead.
With Clemson up 28-14 at about the midway point of the third quarter, Evans rolled right and lofted a pass high in the air intended for one of his top targets, tight end Bucky Hodges.
Before Hodges could get to the ball, though, Tankersley snatched it out of the air and got both feet in bounds for the interception. Four plays later, a 2-yard touchdown run by Watson gave Clemson a 35-14 at the 4:45 mark of the third quarter.
Saturday’s game marked the second straight year Tankersley had at least one interception in the ACC championship game after he notched a pick during Clemson’s 45-37 win in the title match against North Carolina last season.
“We needed turnovers,” Tankersley said. “We wanted to win the turnover margin. The only way we could win the game was if we won the turnover margin. Credit to our defensive line for getting pressure, (forcing) the quarterback to get the ball out quick. Our corners just reacted to it, so I give all the credit to them and our coaches for having us in the right calls to make those plays.”
Clemson’s defense was far from perfect on Saturday. The 35 points allowed is the third-most Clemson’s defense has given up this season, while the 386 yards allowed is tied for the fifth-most Clemson’s defense has given up this season.
But like it did against Auburn, Louisville and Florida State during the regular season, Clemson’s defense came up with a stop when it needed one the most.
“We’ve made some huge stops and made some huge plays in a bunch of games this year,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said, “and great timing to get another one tonight.”
With the win, Clemson punched its ticket to the College Football Playoff for the second straight season.
And though Tankersley and the Tigers still have unfinished business they want to take care of after losing to Alabama in the national championship game a year ago, Tankersley is glad his final ACC game turned out the way it did.
“I give credit to Virginia Tech. They fought really hard,” Tankersley said. “They gave us everything they had, we just came out on top today. To win the ACC Championship my senior year is a blessed moment.”