ACC: Cavs-Tigers 112109

Clemson leaves no doubt in Atlantic Division

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
8:33
PM ET
CLEMSON, S.C. -- They were watching the Boston College-North Carolina game in their hotel rooms. They were checking the score on their cell phones on the way to Memorial Stadium.

And in Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s pregame speech, he informed the Tigers that Boston College had lost, in turn making the Tigers this year’s Atlantic Division champs before they even set foot on the field.


AP Photo/Richard ShiroClemson wide receiver Jacoby Ford's career-high 211 all-purpose yards led the Tigers to a victory over Virginia.

But Saturday was about Clemson -- about avoiding yet another embarrassing letdown when the Atlantic Division was in the palm of their hands, about proving all of the doubters wrong, and about earning their first appearance in the ACC championship game -- not having BC hand it to them.

“We wanted to win it the real way,” said senior wide receiver Jacoby Ford, who did his part in making that happen with a career-high 211 all-purpose yards in the Tigers’ 34-21 win over Virginia.

“We wanted to win it outright,” said offensive guard Thomas Austin. “We didn’t want it to come to a tiebreaker. That’s what championship teams do.”

Now, for the first time since 1991, Clemson has a chance to be a championship team again. Clemson will meet Coastal Division winner Georgia Tech at 8 p.m. on Dec. 5 ACC championship game. The Tigers did it with a group effort on offense, and with adjustments in the second half on defense. They did it on a senior day that bid farewell to some of the program’s most accomplished players. They did it with a first-year coach who just turned 40 on Friday, a 30-year-old first-year offensive coordinator, and a redshirt freshman quarterback.

Sometimes, though, change is good.

“Our first goal was to clinch the ACC Atlantic Division, and we did that,” said Swinney, who received a rendition of “Happy Birthday” from the crowd with about three minutes left in the game. “Our next goal is to win a state championship against South Carolina next weekend. Our third goal is to win the ACC championship game. Our fourth goal is to win a bowl game. We’re happy today, but we’re not done yet.”

They can finally exhale, though.

After watching the Atlantic Division title slip away in 2005, 2006 and 2007, despite being in position to win it, even some of Clemson’s most loyal fans had lingering concerns heading into Saturday’s game against Virginia. Clemson did little to assuage those fears in the first half, holding a precarious 24-21 edge over a Virginia team that entered with a 3-7 record and hadn’t won a game since mid-October. Those 21 points were more than UVa had scored in each of its previous four games. The Cavaliers surprised Clemson with a lot of gimmick plays in the first half, but ran out of them in a scoreless second half.

“We got in at halftime and made some adjustments,” said first-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. “There were some technical things we needed to help them on, some calls, so we dusted off a few calls and gave it to them.”

Kavell Conner finished with a career-high 15 tackles, and the defense finished with seven sacks for 54 yards. It was a pedestrian performance for C.J. Spiller’s Heisman hopes -- he set the ACC single-season record for all-purpose yards, but finished with 58 rushing yards and one touchdown. Still, he got what he came back for -- the division title.

“I think people were still on the edge of their seats,” Spiller said. “I’m pretty sure a lot of people probably still doubted us, that we would have a letdown, but the good thing about this team, we never worry about what people say about our team. We worry about what we can control and the main thing for us is having a great week of preparation and going out and proving everyone wrong.”

That seemed to be the theme on Saturday -- quite a change from the program’s previous disappointments.

“It feels good to prove people wrong,” said Ford. “Can Clemson do it? Obviously yes, we can.”

No letdown for Tigers

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
6:40
PM ET
Clemson did it. Regardless of what happened in Chestnut Hill, the Tigers can head to Tampa knowing they avoided the upset in their home season finale against a struggling Virginia team, winning by a final score of 34-21. With 3:03 still left on the clock, the fans in Memorial Stadium sang Happy Birthday to coach Dabo Swinney, who turned 40 on Friday.

He couldn't possibly find a better way to celebrate it.

At the end of the day, Clemson left no doubt it was the better team, and sent the Cavaliers limping home to face a strong Virginia Tech team still playing for 10 wins. The Tigers have momentum and confidence heading into their season finale against South Carolina knowing that for the first time in school history, they'll play in the ACC championship game. And for the first time since 1991, they might actually win it.

Clemson penalty Virginia's best offense

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
6:25
PM ET
This has been Virginia's problem all year -- offense -- and save for the magic tricks the Cavaliers used in the first half -- a 15-yard facemask penalty by Clemson here in the second has been the Cavs best push forward. Virginia has had just two first downs in the second half. Clemson's defense has been everywhere here in the fourth quarter, smothering Virginia. It's unfortunate for Al Groh because he fired his son only to be in this position. Then again, how many of these players are Mike Groh's recruits? It doesn't matter now.

Simpson looks hurt

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
5:53
PM ET
CLEMSON, S.C. -- I'm looking at Virginia tailback Mikell Simpson on the sideline and he's got some sort of orange protective wrap around his shin and ankle and an ice bag wrapped around his leg. My apologies to Al Groh for the previous post. Looks like Simpson's absence isn't by choice. No word up here in the press box as to what the injury is or how severe it might be.

Simpson missing again

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
5:45
PM ET
CLEMSON, S.C. -- After being the best offensive option the Cavaliers had in the first half, Virginia tailback Mikell Simpson has disappeared again. Why? Why no Simpson for the first two series of the second half? It's almost as baffling as Simpson not playing at all last weekend against BC. Without Simpson, Virginia's offense has stalled so far. It doesn't matter if Jameel Sewell or Vic Hall is getting the snap. Virginia isn't going to be passing. Not against this secondary. Their best bet is what we saw in the first half -- running it with Simpson. Apparently they left that game plan in the locker room.

Clemson not a one-man show

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
5:36
PM ET
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Earlier this year, C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford became the NCAA's most accomplished all-purpose running classmates, but against Virginia, Ford has found a new connection, this time with quarterback Kyle Parker.

Ford has a career-high 205 all-purpose yards today, and Parker has 201 yards passing. Ford has five catches for 100 yards and one touchdown as I type this. What's most impressive about this offense this year is that it's not just Spiller. The tight ends have played a much more increased role, the backup tailbacks have helped share the carries and proven they're dependable options, and the receivers -- including Ford -- have gotten better as the season progressed.

A five-yard touchdown run by Andre Ellington put Clemson ahead 31-21, showcasing yet another option for the Tigers fans will see more of in the future. Much of this season has been about Spiller, but tonight it's been a group effort led by Parker and Ford.

Can Clemson hold off Virginia?

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
5:23
PM ET
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson went nowhere on its opening drive of the second half.

In case you missed it, it's only a three-point game here in Memorial Stadium.

Even though Clemson has already clinched the Atlantic Division title, Clemson's reputation -- and C.J. Spiller's chances at the Heisman -- will take a serious dive if the Tigers lose to a Virginia team that hasn't won a game since mid-October against lowly Maryland. Clemson needs to leave no doubt that it's the better team, but right now, Virginia's gutsy play calling has left that open for discussion.

Halftime: Clemson 24, Virginia 21

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
4:54
PM ET
CLEMSON, S.C. -- A few quick hits from halftime here in Death Valley.

Turning point: When Boston College lost to North Carolina. It anointed Clemson the Atlantic Division champs without the Tigers having to even set foot on the field. No? Ok, ok. How about when Virginia tailback Mikell Simpson fumbled at his own 24-yard line on a first down. It was the second lost fumble of the game, but this time, Clemson was able to do something with it. Three plays later, quarterback Kyle Parker found Jacoby Ford in the end zone for a 24-yard touchdown and a 24-14 lead heading into halftime.

Stat of the half: 14 carries for 84 yards. That’s what Virginia tailback Mikell Simpson has done so far. Why is that impressive? Because he didn’t even play last week against Boston College, a “coach’s decision.” Simpson also has two catches for 43 yards, including a touchdown as the clock expired. Not a bad day for a guy who didn’t even play last week.

Best player in the half: Clemson quarterback Kyle Parker. He started the game a perfect 10-for-10 for over 100 yards, and he’s kept his poise and the offense moving. He has completed 11 of 15 passes for 152 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. He has had great patience and vision to match his arm strength.

Clemson's Parker looking calm

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
4:30
PM ET
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Earlier this week, in an interview with Kyle Parker, I asked him what the biggest difference was with this year's offense. With a new coach, a new coordinator and a new quarterback, there were plenty of answers. But Parker said the offensive line's improvement.

He's right, and it's showing in this game and has been all month. Parker started this game a perfect 10-for-10 for 128 yards. Clemson still has the same talent it did under Rob Spence in guys like C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford. But now they're getting the blocks they need. Clemson's offense is moving today, and the reason Parker is looking more comfortable in it is because he's getting the protection he needs from the guys up front.

Virginia getting tricky

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
4:20
PM ET
CLEMSON, S.C. -- At this point in the season, Virginia has nothing to lose. So try the Wildcat. Make Clemson stop the run. Jameel Sewell to Vic Hall back to Sewell for a big gain. Reverse option pass for a touchdown from Hall to tight end Joe Torchia.

Clemson is baffled.

Virginia is in this game, tied at 14.

Al Groh and offensive coordinator Gregg Brandon are reaching into their bag of tricks. They're finding ways to use the athletes they have. Too bad they waited until now to do it.

Spiller watch

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
4:11
PM ET
CLEMSON, S.C. -- Clemson running back C.J. Spiller's four-yard touchdown run just gave the Tigers a 14-7 lead less than a minute into the second half.

His all-purpose yardage is worth keeping an eye on today, as he needs just 140 yards to become the fifth player in NCAA history to reach 7,000 for his career. Right now he's got 65 yards. Jacoby Ford has 93 all-purpose yards so far. The two of them are in a track meet I've always wanted to see.

Virginia making use of Wildcat formation

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
4:01
PM ET
CLEMSON, S.C. -- No, Virginia didn't switch quarterbacks. Al Groh has lined up running back Mikell Simpson in the Wildcat formation, taking the direct snap, and it's working. He's done it repeatedly here in the first quarter, and Clemson hasn't been able to stop it. It's surprising because Simpson hasn't had the year many expected.

In fact, Simpson, who was supposed to be one of the Cavaliers' top offensive playmakers, didn't even play last week. It was the "coach's decision." And a very questionable decision at that unless Simpson violated some sort of team rule we're all unaware of. Regardless, it was Simpson who put the Cavaliers in position for the game-tying touchdown. Simpson had five straight carries for 43 yards and quarterback Jameel Sewell punched it in with a six-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7.

Defenses set tone early

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
3:51
PM ET
Clemson celebrating? Already? Go figure.

The Atlantic Division champs were called for excessive celebration after Kyle Parker's 16-yard touchdown pass to Dwayne Allen put the Tigers ahead 7-0 in the first quarter. Clemson has been making great use of its tight ends this season -- that was the seventh touchdown reception by one this year. But it's not as if the Tigers have been having their way with Virginia's defense. They've gotten some good field position.

Virginia fumbled on the first play of its opening possession, and Clemson was unable to do anything with it in the red zone. Clemson got as close as Virginia's four-yard line, but the Cavs' defense held strong. If you haven't seen him yet this year, pay attention to Virginia's Steve Greer, who made a critical stop on Clemson's first drive and entered the game with 80 tackles, the most by a UVA freshman since 2002.

Pregame notes from Death Valley

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
3:01
PM ET
CLEMSON, S.C. -- There are no lineup changes here in Death Valley for either team, but backup quarterback Marc Verica did not travel with the Cavaliers because of a head injury. Riko Smalls would be the backup quarterback if need be.

It's another chance for C.J. Spiller to make a push for the Heisman. Spiller has scored a touchdown in all 10 games this season. He and Boise State WR Austin Pettis are the only players in the FBS to have scored a touchdown in every one of their team’s games. Heisman ballots were mailed to voters on Tuesday and are due back by Dec. 7. There are 926 electors this season, including 55 living Heisman winners. Each must rank his/her top three players. Eight of the nine Heisman winners this decade have been quarterbacks (Reggie Bush was the exception).

A few other notes ...
  • Dabo Swinney’s seven wins this year are the most by a Clemson coach in his first full season since Ken Hatfield went 10-2 in 1990.
  • Clemson is 3-0 in ACC home games this season. The Tigers have not been perfect in conference home games since 2003.
  • Virginia has not lost eight games in a season since going 3-8 in 1986. The Cavaliers have already secured their second straight seven-loss season -- their first such streak since 1980-82.

If UNC holds onto its 28-13 lead over BC in the fourth quarter, it won't matter what Clemson does on the field here at Memorial Stadium. The Tigers will have clinched the Atlantic Division thanks to BC's loss. That's certainly one way to avoid an upset.

BC could make life easy for Clemson

November, 21, 2009
11/21/09
1:27
PM ET
CLEMSON S.C. -- One word: Scoreboard.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he wouldn’t have any TVs on in the locker room before kickoff today, but that it would be hard to keep his players from finding out the scoop about what’s going on in Chestnut Hill, and quite frankly, with the way UNC’s defense has been playing, it’s been hard to ignore.

Fact is, if BC continues to struggle against the Tar Heels and loses today, it won’t matter how Clemson plays against Virginia. With a BC loss, Clemson clinches the Atlantic Division. They can take the field for the first time in what must feel like an eternity with no pressure, and considering how tough it’s been for the program to make it back to the ACC title game, these guys will take it however they can get it.

This should be a day of celebration for Clemson – the final home game for the seniors, a good day for C.J. Spiller’s Heisman numbers, and a guaranteed chance at the school’s first ACC title since 1991. It’s a beautiful, sunny day here. The tailgaters have been out since well before noon. They’ve been waiting for this day for a long, long time.

But it’s not over until it’s over, and Virginia still has a pulse, despite its 3-7 record.

Don’t forget that last year, Virginia held Spiller to 18 yards rushing and a season-low 1.3 yards per carry. Virginia is 0-3 against ranked teams this year, though, and has struggled on offense all year. As long as Clemson doesn’t turn the ball over and make careless mistakes, the tailgating here is likely to continue long after the game has ended.

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