Sunday, September 23, 2018
Colleges

No. 3 Clemson holds off No. 19 Virginia Tech to win ACC championship

ORLANDO — Twice this autumn, once near the state capitol and once near Space Mountain, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson has sparkled before a national audience on Florida turf.

A third gig — on arguably the state's grandest collegiate stage ever — could be forthcoming.

On a night when the third-ranked Tigers (12-1) essentially punched their ticket into the College Football Playoff, Watson also fortified his Heisman candidacy in a 42-35 triumph against No. 19 Virginia Tech in a mesmerizing ACC Championship Game.

"(Watson) is the best player in the country," Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said, "and it ain't close.

One playoff victory and Watson — who also led the Tigers to a three-point win at FSU in October — will make a final Florida curtain call, this time at the CFP national title game at Raymond James Stadium.

His effort Saturday, earning him game MVP honors for the second season in a row, certainly warranted an encore. The lanky junior totaled 373 yards and five touchdowns and offered a microcosm of his career midway through the fourth quarter, when the Hokies had cut Clemson's lead to 35-28.

On second and 19 from his 16, Watson's pass over the middle was hauled in by outstretched sophomore Hunter Renfrow for a 31-yard gain. Then on third and 14 from the Tech 45, Watson found Tampa Bay Tech alumnus Deon Cain, who made a snag in single coverage for 30 yards.

"I always tell my receivers, 'Whenever we have man (coverage) or any situation, I'm gonna give you guys a shot. Y'all go be special and make the play,'" Watson said. "That's just what type of player (Cain) is. He always says give him a shot, he's gonna go up and get it."

The next play, Watson hit Renfrow for a 15-yard touchdown. He finished the drive 4-of-5 for 82 yards.

"I mean, he made big throws all night long," Swinney said. "Just critical plays."

Before an announced Camping World Stadium crowd of 50,628, Watson led Clemson to touchdowns on its first three possessions, all spanning at least 75 yards. He completed his first 10 passes and was 14-of-19 for 117 yards at halftime.

Those first 10 throws, combined with the nine in a row he completed before exiting the Tigers' 56-7 rout of South Carolina last weekend, gave Watson a school-record 19 straight completions. His favorite early target Saturday: East Lake High's Artavis Scott, who had five catches on the Tigers' first two drives.

Scott finished with a team-best seven receptions for 48 yards.

Standing in contrast to Watson's crispness was the Hokies' shakiness.

Late in the first half, Virginia Tech had twice as many pass interference penalties (four) as rushing yards (2). It needed a double shot of gadgetry — a fake punt and halfback pass that drew an interference whistle — for its first touchdown and trailed 21-7 less than four minutes into the second quarter.

The deficit eventually grew to three touchdowns, 35-14, after Watson accounted for 78 of Clemson's 89 yards on a nine-play drive midway through the third.

But the Hokies still didn't wilt. After mustering minus-7 yards in a stretch of five possessions, Virginia Tech (9-4) scored three consecutive second-half touchdowns in 23 plays, totaling 216 yards.

"We just could not put 'em away," Swinney said.

Engineering the rally was Evans, who finished with 310 total yards and three touchdowns.

"He kind of settled down a little bit," Tech coach Justin Fuente said.

"It's just hard to walk out there when that defense is fresh and just march the ball down the field. It's not going to happen very often."

Evans' glaring downfall: two passes to cornerback Cordrea Tankersley. The Clemson senior's final one, at the Tigers 14 with 1:11 to play, sealed the outcome.

"He played a tough, great game," Hokies receiver Isaiah Ford said. "He's hard on himself so I know he'll think about this in pro ball, but just to keep his head up."

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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