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Hot Read: Clemson Clinches With Big Second Half

By Dave Singleton
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Clemson pulls away from Virginia Tech 45-10.

The expectations for Clemson have become so high that it’s surprising to see unranked opponents stay within one score for longer than a half against the Tigers. But while Virginia Tech managed to do that and remain within a touchdown late in the third quarter, its battle with the Tigers on Saturday night still didn’t end very close.

Behind three takeaways, including one returned for a touchdown, Clemson scored the final 35 points Saturday. The surge propelled Clemson to a 45-10 victory and its sixth straight berth in the ACC Championship Game.

Here’s what we observed in the Tigers’ victory:

Clemson Defense Ignites Tigers Late

The Tigers offense was inconsistent in the first half, as it recorded three long scoring drives and two three-and-outs. To begin the third quarter, the Tigers stormed down the field again, but quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw an interception in the end zone.

At the time, the pick kept Virginia Tech within a score, and it looked as though it could at least keep the Hokies within striking distance in the fourth quarter. But that thought was short lived, as Clemson recovered a fumble two snaps later and then reached the end zone in another two plays.

After that Virginia Tech fumble, the Tigers held the Hokies to 117 yards in the final 20 minutes. In the second half, Virginia Tech had seven first downs and three giveaways.

The Tigers rode their defense late despite middle linebacker James Skalski exiting early. He injured his groin in October and lasted only one series on Saturday night. Senior Nolan Turner led the way in his absence with 12 total tackles, including 2.0 tackles for loss.

Trevor Lawrence Breaks Clemson Win Record Despite Off Night

After throwing for 400 yards in the last two games, Clemson experienced a bit of an “off night” through the air Saturday. Lawrence was efficient throwing for 8.9 yards per attempt, but he had several misreads, including one that led to an interception in the end zone. Lawrence finished with 195 yards, 65 of which came on a touchdown pass to Cornell Powell in the fourth quarter.

On the ground, though, the Clemson quarterback rushed for 41 yards and two touchdowns. With the three scores, Lawrence became the fifth player in ACC history with 100 total touchdowns. Saturday also marked the 33rd win in Lawrence’s career, which moved him into first on Clemson’s all-time quarterback wins list.

Virginia Tech Loses its Magic in the Second Half

Despite the 35-point loss, the Hokies game plan was pretty spectacular. Everyone predicted they would run the ball to control the clock, and while Virginia Tech stuck with the ground game, the Hokies also mixed in short passes to the flat and on screens to keep the Clemson defense off balance. It worked to perfection on Virginia Tech’s second possession, which was a 75-yard touchdown drive.

With this game plan, the Hokies kept the Tigers offense off the field. Virginia Tech posted a 19:53 time of possession, as Clemson only ran 27 plays, in the first half.

But the magic ended when the Hokies completed a Hail Mary to the 1-yard line as time expired to end the half. The second half was filled with Hokies miscues, and Virginia Tech never moved that close to tying the score again.

Prior to the game, I projected the Hokies needed at least 250 (and maybe even 300) rushing yards to upset Clemson. Virginia Tech finished with 131 yards on the ground and averaged 2.9 yards per carry.

Tigers Still Searching for more from Travis Etienne

It’s hard not to love the Clemson ground game. The Tigers finished with 238 rushing yards, 7.9 yards per carry and four rushing touchdowns.

Lawrence made some mistakes in the passing game, but he made some great decisions in the read-option. Lyn-J Dixon added a spark early with a couple 10-plus yard carries in the first quarter, one of which was a touchdown. With the game decided late, senior Darien Rencher rushed for a 50-yard score.

But Clemson can’t seem to get Etienne in space. He’s averaged under 4.5 yards per carry in three of the last four games. On Saturday, Etienne had 66 yards on 16 carries and added a yard on one catch.

To win another national championship, the Tigers must find a way for Etienne to get rolling again.

Clemson’s ACC Dominance Continues

With the victory, Clemson improved to 9-1, including 8-1 in the ACC, and clinched a spot in the conference championship game for the sixth straight year. Donald Trump hadn’t even begun his bid for president the last time the Tigers missed an ACC Championship.

Interestingly, this will be the first time during the six-year stretch where the Tigers will enter the conference title game as the lower seed. Of course, it took Notre Dame entering the ACC for that to happen. Excluding the Fighting Irish, Clemson hasn’t lost to an ACC team in almost three years and two months.

Regardless of how the 2020 ACC Championship Game unfolds, that’s an amazing accomplishment. Pending the future of Notre Dame in the conference, Clemson’s ACC dominance doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon.

Dave Singleton - A graduate of the University of Missouri, Singleton has followed national college football intensely since 2000. He has written for E-sports and Bleacher Report before starting his own site, Pigskin Punditry, in 2009. He writes a national column for Southern Pigskin.