Tigers to face Mountaineers in Orange Bowl
By Brandon Rink
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They believed, when no one – not even the most ardent of Tiger fans did.
From 6-7 with a loss at Charlotte’s Meineke Bowl to 10-3 in 2011 – walking off that very same Bank of America Stadium field with the program’s first ACC title in 20 years and 14th overall.
For his first-full three seasons as a head coach, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney said he had to break down “walls.”
“One of the things I told them (players) is there's been a lot of walls built around this program over the last 20 years,” Swinney said. “Whether it be people that don't believe, doubters, whatever it is, and slowly but surely we've been kind of knocking those walls down over the last couple years. Some people try to build them back up as soon as we knock one down, but today they knocked them down.”
Belief – it was the buzzword of the night of Clemson’s dominating 38-10 win to capture the ACC crown over perennial conference power Virginia Tech. And with the win, the Tigers are now headed to the BCS and Orange Bowl to face the high flying Mountaineers of West Virginia and their sensational quarterback Geno Smith.
Some teams play the underdog card – heck, even Virginia Tech was trying to play it earlier this week, but really, nobody called this upset, and certainly not in this fashion – Swinney noted it as well.
His quarterback Tajh Boyd recalled postgame, “This is one of those games where nobody gives us a chance. Coach Swinney walked in before the game, and he's like, ‘I really don't like talking about it but I couldn't help myself but to watch ESPN today,’ and he's like, ‘nobody picked us to win, again.’”
If that sounds familiar, it was a very similar vibe for the Tigers’ trip into Blacksburg, through 4-0, Clemson walked out of Lane Stadium dealing the Hokies a 23-3 defeat on Oct. 1.
Senior Tigers defensive end Andre Branch had a short, but simple explanation for Clemson’s success over the Hokies this season – “We played as a team, point blank. We played as a team and we played relentless.”
Relentless was the Clemson defense Saturday night – swarming the Virginia Tech running game (56 rushing yards), pressuring Hokies quarterback Logan Thomas (two sacks) and knocking down nine – count them, nine passes on the night with two interceptions to boot.
The key stretch came in the third quarter where Clemson scored three touchdowns in just over four minutes to seize a 31-10 lead.
A sputtering Hokies offense made way for the Tigers to drop an 87-yard second-half-opening drive capped by Boyd finding tight end Dwayne Allen in the endzone for the second time on the day.
Then, after offensive pass interference stalled another Virginia Tech effort – Clemson went right after them, star receiver Sammy Watkins absolutely burning the Hokies secondary for a 53-yard touchdown reception on play one to take a 24-10 lead.
Another Virginia Tech three-and-out led to another Tigers’ quick score – running back Andre Ellington dashed up the middle and then down the sidelines 29 yards for clincher.
Hokies coach Frank Beamer on the scenario: “They just kind of got rolling. They had the field position. We thought we had a first down, we got an offensive pass interference, I thought they had a horse collar tackle on Logan. That was a good call ‑‑ not blaming the officials, don't get me wrong on that. All of us have been through it. The momentum got over there. They had field position, and they got us.”
After struggling down the stretch, Boyd found his groove at the right time – thanks to solid protection against an aggressive Virginia Tech defense. He hit 20-of-29 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns, but almost as important, no turnovers.
The sophomore first-year starter capped a brilliant sophomore campaign – establishing the Clemson record for passing touchdowns (31), total touchdowns (36), and passing yards (3,578), while capturing the ACC Championship Game MVP.
It was a long offseason for the Tigers, but Swinney getting his young QB to buy-in during all the coaching changes was the key.
“Coach also promised us that things would change,” Boyd said. “He's like, ‘I promise you, I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure we win games.’
“He went out there and went out on a limb and hired Coach Morris who came from way removed in high school. Coach is like, ‘this is going to work.’ We believed in everything he told us, and definitely came out there and just put the plan to use.”
But when his players point back to him, Swinney can’t help but point out it’s a players’ game.
“It all starts with the player,” Swinney said. “It doesn't matter if I can stand on my head. It doesn't matter. They have to play. They have to believe in each other. They have to take ownership. As I told them, we don't have an ability problem. So all the credit goes to the players.”