CHARLOTTE, N.C. – As the offensive team bus turned into the stadium near the West End Zone last Saturday night following Clemson’s third consecutive loss to rival South Carolina, the bus driver turned the lights on, and Clemson offensive coordinator Chad Morris took the opportunity to stand up in front of his players and tell them he wasn’t giving up on them.
“I promised them if they come to work on Monday, we’ll get it right,” he said, “and I told them we’ve lost our last football game. I’m sick of it.”
Apparently, so were they.
While Clemson’s convincing 38-10 upset of fifth-ranked Virginia Tech in the Dr Pepper ACC championship game shocked many on Saturday night, those within the program say there was no shortage of motivation in the week leading up to the most important game of the season. After back-to-back losses to finish the regular season, there was what tight end Dwayne Allen called a “come to Jesus meeting” on Monday, in which coach Dabo Swinney “laid it on us, and it was much-needed.” There was Swinney’s highly publicized Thursday night rant about rival South Carolina that got his team all jacked up. And then there was Friday’s meeting, in which every player was required to stand up and pledge that he would give 100 percent against Virginia Tech.
Whatever it took, and no matter how they did it, the Tigers have found a way this season to win the games that matter most. It just so happened that two of those games were against Virginia Tech, and for the second time this season, the Tigers played their best game of the year against the Hokies. Say what you will about Clemson’s infamous implosions -- none bigger this season than an inexplicable loss to an unheralded NC State team, and an anemic offensive showing in last week’s 34-13 loss to South Carolina. In the end, though, it was Virginia Tech that “pulled the Clemson.”
“We’ve been pretty ugly here in the last few weeks, and tonight we got back to our formula,” Swinney said. “We created turnovers, we took care of the ball. My quarterback showed back up. I told him, I said, ‘We’ve been like a team with the flu or something.' We got better. We needed some early momentum, we needed a spark.”
They didn’t just get a spark; Clemson got a third quarter filled with offensive fireworks. Clemson outgained Virginia Tech 181 to minus-2 total yards on the first three drives. The game was tied at 10 at halftime, but Clemson scored 21 unanswered points in the third quarter. The Tigers outgained Virginia Tech in total yards 210 to 51 in the third quarter and scored three touchdowns on five plays in a span of 4:24.
“It was just one of those things that just didn’t happen right,” coach Frank Beamer said. “If you’ve been in athletics and you’ve been in games, sometimes it gets rolling like that, and it got rolling, and we didn’t do a good job of stopping it.”
Clemson’s defense, on the other hand, smothered Virginia Tech. Again. And running back David Wilson didn’t seem too thrilled about it. The ACC Player of the Year had only 11 carries for 32 yards. He openly questioned the staff’s play calling.
“I mean, I never got to get in a rhythm. … A lot of times we were calling a run straight into their blitzes," Wilson said.
“Part of the reason we stopped running the ball, I guess the coaches thought that it wasn’t being successful. But at the same time, you have to get your guys going. The offensive line has to get them moving, and you have to get your running backs into the flow of the game. … When we run our plays into their blitzes, it’s not gonna work.”
Nothing seemed to work for the Hokies. It was the worst margin of defeat for Virginia Tech since it joined the ACC. The Hokies were beaten soundly up front by Clemson’s defensive line, and Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, the game’s unanimous MVP, picked apart a secondary that was depleted by a stinger to cornerback Jayron Hosley.
It wasn’t injuries, though, or officiating that determined the outcome of this game. It was Clemson’s 457 total yards of offense. It was Virginia Tech’s three turnovers and nine penalties. And it was Clemson’s transformation this week from choking to champion.
“You know, we don’t listen to the outside world,” Clemson defensive end Andre Branch said. “Basically like Coach Swinney always said, we play for each other. So yeah, we lost some, but we can either pout about it and keep losing or we can man up and just do what we’re capable of doing.”
It’s been 30 years, though, since they’ve had a chance to do it in the Orange Bowl. Clemson won its first ACC title since 1991, and will play in the Orange Bowl for the first time since 1981.
“Coach said it all along,” Allen said. “The only team that can beat Clemson is Clemson. If you watch the film, it’s not South Carolina physically beating us, it’s not NC State physically beating us, it’s us not doing our jobs. Guys are going to kick someone’s butt every now and then, but when you don’t have your eyes in the right spot, when you’re not in your gap, you can’t win.”
Clemson didn’t beat South Carolina or NC State this year, but more importantly, with a championship on the line, the Tigers finally didn’t beat themselves.