ORLANDO, Fla. — Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson wasn’t about to let an ACC championship and a possible berth in the College Football Playoff slip through the Tigers’ fingers.
Watson accounted for five touchdowns as No. 3 Clemson (12-1, 8-1 ACC) captured its first back-to-back conference titles in 28 years by defeating No. 23 Virginia Tech (9-4, 6-3) 42-35 at Camping World Stadium Saturday evening.
Clemson needed a Cordrea Tankersley interception — his second of the evening — to hold off Virginia Tech, which drove to the Tigers’ 23-yard line with 1:11 left in the fourth quarter looking to tie the game.
The ACC title game was moved from Charlotte, N.C., to Orlando after North Carolina passed a controversial HB2 law many argued discriminated against the lesbian, gay, transgender and bisexual community. While the game wasn’t a sellout, it drew an announced crowd of 50,628 fans.
Clemson took the opening drive of the game and drove down the field with surgical precision.
Watson was 4-for-4 for 50 yards through the air, but it was his nimble feet that led the Tigers to their first score — a 3-yard touchdown run that put them up 7-0. It was Watson’s fifth rushing touchdown of the season.
Clemson’s defense asserted itself on Virginia Tech’s first drive of the game.
Defensive end Clelin Ferrell got to quarterback Jerod Evans on the first play from the line of scrimmage for the Hokies. It was the redshirt freshman’s fifth sack of the season. Virginia Tech went three-and-out before punting the football back to the Tigers.
Watson picked up right where he left off on the next possession by methodically driving Clemson down the field, capping things off with a 21-yard touchdown strike to a wide open Jordan Leggett — it was the sixth touchdown catch for the Tigers tight end. Watson was 9-for-9 for 89 yards with two total touchdowns.
Virginia Tech got on the board in a bizarre 12-play, 77-yard drive that included a targeting ejection, a fake punt and a failed halfback pass that resulted in a pass interference call on Clemson.
On the third play of the possession, Dorian O’Daniel was flagged for targeting and subsequently ejected after review. Three plays later, the Hokies set up to punt away the football but Mitchell Ludwig executed a perfect fake for a 21-yard pass. It was the punters’ first pass completion of his career.
On the following play, Sam Rogers took the pitch from Evans and heaved the ball downfield incomplete. But a pass interference penalty on Clemson gave Virginia Tech new life and five plays later Travon McMillian carried the football into the end zone to cut the score in half, 14-7. It was McMillian’s fifth touchdown of the season.
Watson continued to dominate the Virginia Tech defense, driving Clemson 75 yards on 10 plays capped with a laser-like throw to a streaking Leggett into the end zone to put the Tigers up 21-7.
But Evans started heating up in the middle of the second quarter. The junior college transfer connected with Isaiah Ford for 53 yards to start off the team’s fourth possession of the half. The completion moved Ford pas Jarrett Boykin (2,884 yards) for the most receiving yards in school history. Three plays later, Evans worked his way through the Clemson defense for an 11-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 21-14.
After a Virginia Tech punt to start the second half, Clemson took over at its own 33-yard line. On the second play of the possession, Watson’s pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka at the 36-yard line. It was the first turnover of the evening and the 15th interception of the season for the Tigers’ signal caller.
Brent Venables’ defense was in rare form Saturday night.
It was the seventh time the Tigers registered at least four sacks in a game.
Watson took over on Clemson’s second possession of the second half. He was three-for-three passing for 45 yards while rushing the ball four times for 33 yards. The drive was capped off with an eight-yard touchdown run by Wayne Gallman that extended the Tigers’ lead to 28-14.
Clemson capitalized on an Evans’ interception — the Hokies first turnover — and drove 49 yards before Watson scrambled in for a two-yard touchdown run. It was the second rushing score of the night for him and extended the lead to 35-14.
Evans bounced back to lead Virginia Tech on back-to- back touchdown drives — that cut the lead to 35-28 with 11:35 left in the game.
Watson responded by leading the Tigers on an eight-play, 75 yard drive that ended with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow to push the lead to 42-28.
Back came the Hokies with Evans connecting with streaking Cam Phillips for a 26-yard touchdown that cut the lead to 42-35 with 5:43 left in the game.
Ultimately, Watson would not be denied. The ACC title game’s most valuable player likely cemented his team’s return to the College Football Playoff semifinals and made the case he should be among the Heisman Trophy finalists.