BLACKSBURG, Va. — With its top two middle linebackers out of the game due to injury, things looked a little bleak for No. 3 Clemson early on at Virginia Tech on Saturday night.
Middle linebackers James Skalski and Jake Venables both left the game early. Though he tried to give it a go, Skalski’s injured groin was too sore, while Venables broke his arm after replacing Skalski in the lineup. The Hokies took advantage of the injuries for a little while as they controlled the football and had the game tied late in the first half.
However, the Clemson defense adjusted and with the offense struggling to get its momentum going, the Tigers’ D forced three second half turnovers that turned the tide in a 45-10 victory at Lane Stadium in Blacksburg, Va. The Tigers scored the last 35 points of the game.
“Defensively, we really just settled in and dominated the second half,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Just an incredible performance. We got three turnovers in the second half. It was just incredible.”
The win clinched a spot in the ACC Championship Game for Clemson, the sixth straight year it will play in the league’s title game. The Tigers, who will play Notre Dame on Dec. 19 in Charlotte for the title, has won the last five ACC Championships.
Though Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence was 12-of-22 for 195 yards in the win, he still accounted for three touchdowns—two on the ground—while adding another 41 yards on seven carries.
Lawrence was picked off in the end zone by Virginia Tech’s Divine Deablo to stymie a potential third-quarter scoring drive, but the Clemson defense got him the ball back. Defensive end Myles Murphy stripped the ball from Hokies’ quarterback Braxton Burmeister and Mario Goodrich recovered the loose ball at the Virginia Tech 12.
It took Clemson just two plays to capitalize as Lawrence earned his second rushing touchdown of the night with a seven-yard run for a 24-10 lead with 4:45 to play in the third quarter.
After an exchange of punts, including just a seven-yard punt by Clemson punter Will Spiers, the Tigers’ defense came up with another big play. This time cornerback Derion Kendrick picked up a Hendon Hooker fumble and raced 66 yards for a touchdown.
Kendrick’s scoop-and-score gave Clemson a 31-10 lead with 1:28 to play in the third quarter.
The Tigers (9-1, 8-1 ACC) forced three second-half fumbles, while limiting Virginia Tech to 119 total yards in the second half. The Hokies had 214 yards in the first half.
Virginia Tech finished the night with 333 total yards and to just 131 yards on the ground, 119 yards under its season average of 250, which led the ACC coming in.
“We held them to 130 yards rushing. Again, they are similar to an option team, rushing for 250-plus, ninth in the country coming into this thing,” Swinney said. “So, I am really proud of our guys. I knew it was going to be a a little uncomfortable early and probably in spots, but we settled in and did what we needed to do.”
It did not help Virginia Tech (4-6, 4-5 ACC) that it lost Hooker and his backup, Braxton Burmeister, to injury in the game. Hooker left after the Hokies opening drive and tried to return later in the game, but he eventually had to leave the game due to some kind of muscle spasms. Burmeister had to leave the game in third quarter due to an undisclosed injury.
Lawrence, who set a Clemson record with a 33-1 record as a starter, added a 65-yard touchdown pass to Cornell Powell in the fourth quarter and backup running back Darien Rencher ran 50 yards for a touchdown to complete the Clemson rout. The 50-yard run is the longest of Rencher’s career.
Clemson finished the game with 238 rushing yards.
Lyn-J Dixon rumbled 19 yards for a touchdown with 1:06 left before the half, giving Clemson a 17-10 lead at halftime.
Lawrence had a 17-yard touchdown in the first quarter, while throwing for just 99 yards on 7-of-12 passing in the first half. Clemson also got a 28-yard field goal from B.T. Potter.
Virginia Tech running back Khalil Herbert scored on a four-yard touchdown in the first quarter. He finished the evening with 96 yards on 21 carries. He had 74 yards in the first half.
Virginia Tech used a ball control offense to keep the Tigers at bay in the opening half.
Virginia Tech deliberately ran the play clock down to about 13 seconds consistently, eating up the clock, while keeping Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables guessing on what it would do next. The scheme allowed the Hokies to drive 75 yards for a touchdown on one drive and eat up nearly five minutes off the clock. They also had a second-quarter drive that did not get any points, but it took up 7:14 off the clock.
“I knew this was going to be that type of game and it was going to take a little while to settle in unless some crazy things happened early because of their style of play,” Swinney said. “Give them credit. They completely kept the ball away from us in the first half. They had it like twenty minutes to our ten. We only had like four possessions. But we scored on three out of the four and that was really, really big.”
Clemson took a 3-0 lead after it drove the ball 61 yards on seven plays on its opening drive of the game. B.T. Potter kicked a 28-yard field to cap the drive, which took to 2:48 off the clock. A Lawrence to Braden Galloway 49-yard pass set up the field goal.
The Hokies answered the Potter field goal with a four-yard Herbert touchdown run. The Herbert score capped a seven-play, 75-yard drive, which included a 48-yard pass from backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister to Tayvion Robinson to the Clemson four.
Herbert’s touchdown gave the Hokies a 7-3 lead with 3:45 to play in the first quarter.
Lawrence answered the Virginia Tech touchdown with a 17-yard scamper for a 10-7 Clemson lead with 12 seconds left to play in the first quarter. Lawrence kept the ball on a zone-read play and ran off the left side for the touchdown, his fifth of the season.
Virginia Tech tied the game at 10 with 3:52 to play in the half, as kicker Brian Johnson made a 54-yard field goal after a short drive by the Hokies netted just 13 yards.
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