Sat Oct 01 09:35pm EDT
Clemson 23, Virginia Tech 3.
As a team sending a sophomore quarterback into Lane Stadium for the first road start of his career, Clemson fans inevitably spent a lot of time this week envisioning the worst-case scenario for Saturday night, and it probably went something like this: It's a dark and stormy night. Tajh Boyd completes 42 percent of his passes with an interception. The running game is stagnant. Sensational freshman receiver Sammy Watkins is largely a non-factor. The offense launches eight punts, goes three-and-out four times in the second half alone and is held dramatically below its season averages for yards and points.
In any actual pregame narrative, that thread ends with the Tigers getting exposed by the best team in the ACC and slinking back to South Carolina to lick their wounds and rue another missed opportunity to escape the middle class. In reality, they may have just survived that exact scenario to become the best team in the ACC themselves, thanks to the one plot twist no one saw coming: A dominant, best-case performance by the Clemson defense.
Yes, this would be the same Clemson defense that was ripped for 27 non-garbage-time points by Wofford, and for 435 yards on seven yards per snap by Auburn, and for 336 yards passing by a first-time starter for Florida State. Tonight, it did the ripping. Virginia Tech's first two possessions both ended in turnovers; eight of the next nine ended in a punt or turnover on downs. The Tigers sacked Hokie quarterback Logan Thomas four times and didn't allow a single play longer than 19 yards. When Tech did get on the board, on a second quarter field goal, it was only by virtue of a short field following Clemson's only turnover — for which the Tigers immediately atoned by driving for a touchdown.
The result was anticlimactic, and the game itself was almost anti-Clemson: A tough, defensive-oriented win as a road underdog over a team it hadn't beaten since 1989, on the heels of another pair of big, momentum-building wins. For too many Tiger teams over the last decade — a span that saw four different editions of Clemson crack the top 15 in the polls, only to eventually finish unranked — this would have been the moment that it all fell apart. This one rose to the occasion in wholly unexpected fashion in the toughest date on the schedule. It still hasn't played a complete game, offensively and defensively, but holding the preseason conference favorite out of the end zone entirely does make it look a little more like a complete team. If that's not enough to assume Virginia Tech's crown before the calendar turns to midseason, it has to put at the front of the line of succession until further notice.