Clemson drops third straight ranked foe

BLACKSBURG, Va. -- Shortly after Clemson fell to South Florida 31-26 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on New Year's Eve, losing for the fourth time in its last six games to finish 6-7 in 2010, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney gathered his players in a locker room of Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

"I'll fix it," Swinney told his players. "I'll fix it."

To fix the Tigers, who haven't won an ACC championship since 1991, Swinney knew he'd have to do more than hire a new offensive coordinator, which he did, and more than simply injecting his team's roster with a highly ranked recruiting class, which he also did.

Swinney knew he'd also have to adjust the mentality around Clemson's program.

"I told our guys, 'If you're going to change Clemson, you've got to change it from the inside out and eventually it will blossom,'" Swinney said.

Swinney also shared one of his favorite quotes with his players: "If you'll do the common things in an uncommon way, you'll command the attention of the world."

Swinney must have also added a few ounces of Miracle-Gro to his recipe for success, because it sure didn't take the Tigers long to turn things around.

The No. 13 Tigers defeated a nationally ranked opponent for the third game in a row on Saturday night, defeating No. 11 Virginia Tech 23-3 in front of a sold-out crowd of 66,233 fans. Clemson became the first ACC team to accomplish that feat and it also ended the Hokies' 12-game winning streak against ACC foes.

It was Clemson's first victory over Virginia Tech since 1989. The Tigers are 5-0 for the first time since 2000.

"Clemson has always had a championship team, but things are starting to change around here, just the atmosphere and mentality of the team," sophomore quarterback Tajh Boyd said. "These are different coaches and different players."

In the past, there was probably no way Clemson would win a game like the one it won Saturday night. The weather was wet and cold (the 43-degree temperature at kickoff was the coldest for an early October game in Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer's 25 seasons at the school) and the game was played in one of the most intimidating environments in the ACC.

And after Clemson used new offensive coordinator Chad Morris' fast-paced, spread offense to score 35 points or more in each of its first four games, the Hokies presented a completely different challenge. Clemson found the end zone only once in the first 30 minutes, but still it had a 10-3 lead at the half.

"I loved it," said Swinney, a walk-on receiver at Alabama from 1990-92. "10-3 at the half? I thought I was back at Alabama."

Virginia Tech's defense has been nearly as stout as the Crimson Tide's this season, albeit against lesser competition. Clemson gained 323 yards of offense, with Boyd completing 13 of 32 passes for 204 yards with one touchdown and one interception. His 32-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dwayne Allen put the Tigers ahead 17-3 with 10:42 left in the third quarter.

"Of course, I want to score on every play," Morris said. "But what impressed me the most was our guys picking themselves up after every play. We knew it was going to be a heavyweight fight. If you're going to have a championship-caliber football team, you've got to win games like this. It says a lot about our guys."

Although Morris likes the Tigers to play at full speed on every play, Swinney was encouraged that they could line up and smash someone in the mouth, too.

"This is a full night's work," Swinney said. "You have to earn every patch of grass you get."

But what might have been most impressive about the Tigers was their defense. Clemson's offense looked great during the first month of the season, but its defense was rather shaky, allowing 27 points to FCS foe Wofford, 24 to Auburn and 30 to Florida State.

On Saturday night, the Tigers held Virginia Tech to 258 yards of offense, including only 133 rushing. The Hokies came into the game averaging 211.8 yards on the ground, which ranked 30th nationally.

Most importantly, the Hokies never reached the end zone, the first time they didn't score a touchdown in a home game since a 16-0 loss to Cincinnati in 1995.

"We had just enough offense and a whole lot of defense," Swinney said.

The Tigers held Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas to only 125 yards on 15-for-27 passing and sacked him four times, including three by defensive end Andre Branch.

"Everybody's been questioning our defense and we just wanted to answer the bell," Branch said. "Our offense plays great every week. We wanted to answer the bell."

The Tigers answered the bell in each of the first five weeks of the season and their most difficult stretch is in their rear-view mirror. They should be favored to win their next three games, against Boston College (home), Maryland (road) and North Carolina (home). Their most difficult game left appears to be an Oct. 29 trip to No. 21 Georgia Tech.

"It's just as important to handle the success," Swinney said. "We're a target now. We're not an underdog. We're in the driver's seat."

And Swinney wouldn't have it any other way.

"For two years, we've been trying to build this program to where we could come to Lane Stadium and win a game like this," Swinney said. "It's been brick by brick for two years."

Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.