CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — The celebration coming from the Clemson locker room underneath Virginia’s Scott Stadium Saturday sounded like one from a team that just had won an ACC Championship, not one that had just evened its conference record with a 13-3 victory over Virginia.
But after failing to live up to preseason expectations, seeing their head coach be forced out at midseason then see their offensive coordinator fired, winning any game is an accomplishment right now for this Clemson football team.
“These wins are hard to come by and you have to enjoy every one of them,” interim head coach Dabo Swinney said. “I promise you, we enjoy every win anyway we can get it. This is a group of kids that have been through a lot.”
With Saturday’s win the Tigers (6-5, 4-4 ACC) now have a chance to qualify for a fourth straight bowl game if they can beat archrival South Carolina next Saturday in Death Valley.
“This is a very resilient team with a lot of character,” Swinney said. “I think that is what you are seeing. You are seeing the character of this football team reveal itself. These guys could have shut it down, but they have got motivated and are playing for what’s most important – each other.”
No more evidence of that than in the closing moments of the fourth quarter. After the defense forced its fourth turnover of the afternoon with a Crezdon Butler interception, which he returned 31 yards to the Virginia 36, the offense went on a 4 minute and 50 second drive which ended in a Mark Buchholz 23-yard field goal to seal the win with 2:37 to play.
“There have been several times this year when we have gotten the ball in the fourth quarter and we were unable to put the nail in the coffin,” left guard Thomas Austin said. “So to keep running at them, running at them and running at them, and wearing them down and keeping those first downs coming were great.
“Obviously, we wanted the touchdown there, but the field goal was just fine. A win is a win.”
It was a win that seemed to be in jeopardy late in the third quarter. After driving to the Cavaliers’ 23-yard line, Clemson center Bobby Hutchinson missed communicate the snap with quarterback Cullen Harper who standing in the shotgun formation and barking out signals, when the football flew past him and bounced all the way to about the Virginia 40.
While trying to jump on the ball Harper’s knee brace got caught in the turf and the quarterback subsequently could not coral the loose ball. The Cavaliers’ Vic Hall recovered the football to set them up in great field position at their own 47 with 2:24 to play in the third.
On the next play, Virginia quarterback Mark Verica then went deep down the left sideline to Chris Ogletree who hauled in the pass around the Clemson 20 and walked into the end zone for what appeared to be a game-tying touchdown. But Ogletree was called for offensive pass interference on Clemson’s Sadat Chambers, negating the touchdown and the last real chance the Cavaliers would have to tie the game.
Virginia (5-6, 3-4) got one more shot to tie things up early in the fourth quarter when it moved the football to the Tigers’ 27. On fourth-and-one with about 12 minutes to play, the Cavaliers elected to go with a Cedric Peerman run to the left, but Clemson cornerback Byron Maxwell chased Peerman down from behind for a 5-yard loss.
It was the second time Clemson had stopped the Cavaliers on fourth-and-one. In the third quarter, linebacker DeAndre McDaniel knocked down a Verica pass that end a drive at the Clemson 46.
“Both of the plays we called have been productive for us during the course of the year,” Virginia coach Al Groh said. “They’ve been good plays for us on a high basis, but we just didn’t get them executed today.”
Clemson took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to a little trickery. After taking a handoff at the Virginia 15, C.J. Spiller ran the ball to the right, where he pulled the ball up and threw a perfect pass to a wide open Tyler Grisham in the end zone.
It was Spiller’s first career touchdown pass and first career throw, and the first time a non-quarterback threw a touchdown pass since kicker Tony Lazzara threw one against Virginia Teach in 1999.
“We knew the safety would come down and try to support the run and as soon as he did that I just tried to make the catch easy for Tyler,” Spiller said.
That was really the only shining moment for Spiller and the offense. Virginia held Spiller in check by limiting him to 18 rushing yards and two catches for 16. The offense as a whole managed just 192.
But as good as Virginia was on defense the Tigers were even better. For the second straight week the Clemson defense held its opponent under 200 yards as Virginia managed just 190 yards and turned the football over 4 times, including 3 interceptions.
Spiller’s touchdown pass to Grisham was set up by one of those interceptions when safety Michael Hamlin picked off a pass at the Virginia 20.
“We know defensively that we just have to take whatever the offense gives us. They gave us 10 points so our thing was just not to give that up,” Hamlin said.
Buchholz’s first field goal with 10:47 to play in the second quarter gave the Tigers a 10-0 lead, and Virginia’s Robert Randolph followed it with a 34-yard field goal of his own on the Cavaliers’ ensuing drive.
After that neither team did much until Clemson, behind the running of James Davis and his offensive line took over. Now the Tigers can look forward to next week’s showdown with USC and perhaps securing a bowl bid.
“That’s kind of our goal right now,” said Davis, who led Clemson with 65 yards rushing. “We’ve got South Carolina next week. For a lot of guys, there is going to be a lot of emotion out there. It will be my last game in Tigertown and I just think it’s time to bring all the emotions out on the field and lay it out there on the line.”