Tampa Bay Sports Day

ACC: Watson Guides Clemson to High-Scoring Title Win

ORLANDO, Fla. –– Clemson coach Dabo Swinney believes that Deshaun Watson, his quarterback, is the best player in the country.

“And it ain’t even close,” Swinney said.

Watson certainly made his bid to re-enter the Heisman Trophy race Saturday night, accounting for five touchdowns as No. 3 Clemson held off No. 23 Virginia Tech 42-35 on Saturday night in the ACC Championship Game at Camping World Stadium.

The victory boosted Clemson to 12-1 and likely secured a second consecutive College Football Playoff berth for the Tigers, who lost to Alabama in the 2015 National Championship Game.

Clemson prevailed in its first meeting against Virginia Tech since the Tigers posted a 38-10 victory in the 2011 ACC Championship Game in Charlotte. Clemson has won three straight in the series.

It was Clemson’s second consecutive ACC title and third in eight seasons under Swinney. Virginia Tech was making its sixth appearance in the game, but first since 2011. The Hokies finished 9-4 under first-year coach Justin Fuente.

Watson, in his final opportunity to make a statement in the Heisman Trophy race, completed 23 of 34 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed 17 times for a team-high 85 yards and two more scores and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.

“This guy right here is the best player in the country,” Swinney said of Watson, who improved to 30-3 as a starting quarterback in his career. “The proof is in the pudding. It was on display tonight.”

But it was the defense that ultimately saved the game for the Tigers as senior cornerback Cordrea Tankersley intercepted a pass by Virginia Tech quarterback Jerod Evans at Clemson’s 14-yard line with 1:16 remaining to seal the victory.

It was Tankersley’s second interception of the game and helped thwart a late Virginia Tech uprising.

“I’m awfully proud of our kids,” Fuente said. “They showed up here to win the ballgame. It’s a pretty somber locker room because of that.”

Clemson appeared to have the game well in hand in the third quarter when running back Wayne Gallman and Watson scored on runs of 8 and 2 yards, respectively, extending the Tigers’ lead to 35-14 with 4:45 left in the third quarter.

But Virginia Tech, which had minus-14 yards on its first four possessions of the second half, appeared to wake up when tight end Bucky Hodges hauled in a 42-yard pass from Evans on a third-down play from the Tech 26.

The Hokies scored two plays later on Travon McMillian’s 27-yard run, then forced a three-and-out and proceeded to march 65 yards in 12 plays to pull within 35-28 with 11:35 left.

Clemson, however, responded again, with Watkins capping a 75-yard drive with his third touchdown pass of night, a 15-yard toss to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow with 7:33 remaining.

Virginia Tech scored again on a 26-yard pass from Evans to Cam Phillips with 5:43 left, but Tankersley’s interception on the Hokies’ ensuing possession secured Clemson’s win.

“We could just not put them away,” Swinney said. “I mean we were up three touchdowns, two touchdowns and it never seemed like enough.”

Clemson led 21-14 at half, largely due to the efforts of Watson, who completed 14 of 19 passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns and ran for a third score.

Clemson wasted little time in getting on the board first, driving 75 yards in nine plays on its opening possession. Watson completed all five of his passing attempts on the drive before keeping it himself for a three-yard scoring run.

The Tigers extended their lead to 14-0 on their ensuing possession, driving 83 yards in nine plays, capped by Watson’s 21-yard scoring toss to tight end Jordan Leggett.

Virginia Tech responded with a 12-play, 77-yard drive aided by two key penalties, including a targeting call against

Clemson linebacker Dorian O’Daniel. The Hokies converted a fake punt on fourth-and-10 to keep the drive alive when punter Mitchell Ludwig tossed a lob pass to Terrell Edmunds, who gained 20 yards on the play.

Virginia Tech scored five plays later on a one-yard run by McMillian, cutting its deficit to 14-7.

Clemson scored on its third consecutive possession with Leggett capping a 75-yard drive by snagging a 16-yard touchdown pass from Watson.

Virginia Tech pulled within 21-14 with 4:09 left in the first half when Evans rumbled in from 11 yards out.
Evans was 21 of 35 passing for 264 yards with two scores and an interception. Phillips had 12 catches for 92 yards and a touchdown.

“I’m proud of the way we handled the ups and downs of the game, the emotions,” Fuente said. “We have come a million miles since we started. And we still have one more opportunity to play.”

ACC NOTES: Clemson TE Jordan Leggett has 18 career touchdown receptions, a school record for tight ends. …WR Artavis Scott finished with seven receptions and is one catch shy of breaking Sammy Watkins’ school record for career receptions (240). …Virginia Tech WR Isaiah Ford recorded 89 receiving yards and has 2,911 for his career, breaking Jarrett Boykin’s school career receiving yardage record of 2,884.