Two goals down, three to go.
“That’s what it’s all about right there,” said coach Dabo Swinney. “That’s what we started August 3--110 days ago, we started working towards this.
“Our first goal was to win the opener. We had to show a lot of endurance, overcome a lot of things and have some patience in order to achieve our second goal, which is to win the Atlantic.”
He gave the nation’s 18th ranked team word before the game that Boston College’s loss clinched Clemson’s first-ever trip to the ACC Championship, setting up a rematch versus Georgia Tech. Michael Palmer said earlier in the week that he didn’t care what happened in Chestnut Hill on Saturday.
“No one flinched (when he told us),” Palmer said. “Frankly, I don’t think anybody cared. We knew we had to go out and win this game, despite what Boston College did.”
Jacoby Ford had a career-best 211 all-purpose yards on Senior Day. After a 2-3 start, Clemson won for the sixth-straight time, improving to 8-3 (6-2 in ACC). Virginia drops to 3-8 (2-5 in ACC).
“Whenever you do start playing well, winning becomes a habit,” Ford said.
C.J. Spiller has played a big part in making winning a habit at Clemson this season. His third-quarter 17 yard punt return broke the ACC single-season record for all-purpose yards that Virginia’s Thomas Jones set 10 years ago.
On the Tigers' opening drive, chants of ‘C.J. Spiller’ echoed throughout the stadium.
“I had a referee come up and tell me that he got goose bumps,” Spiller said. “It gave me goose bumps. It just goes to show we have a great fan-base. That’s why I came back. I love them and I love everything about Clemson.”
Swinney, who turned 40 on Friday, heard it from the crowd too. He was serenaded with a fourth quarter rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.
“I can’t think of a better way to turn 40--having 85,000 of your best friends come up for your party,” he said. “It was a great, great birthday present. I appreciate the fans singing ‘Happy Birthday’. That was pretty cool. I guess my mom was down there leading the way.”
Kyle Parker led Clemson’s offense, throwing for 234 yards. He threw his first of two touchdown passes on the Tiger’s second drive, hitting Dwayne Allen for 16 yard score. Allen was flagged after the play for an unsportsman-like conduct penalty. He drew the 15-yard penalty on Military Appreciation Day for saluting military members standing in front of him.
Down 7-0 and the ball at the Clemson 45, Virginia’s offense showed signs of life after looking close to dead through the first 10 games of the season. Out of the wildcat, Mikell Simpson carried the Cavaliers down the field with Jameel Sewell finishing the drive on a six-yard run to pay dirt.
Spiller scored on four-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, making him the only player in college football to score in every game he’s played this season.
Virginia responded with a pair of trick plays in Clemson territory. Vic Hall caught Sewell’s backwards lateral before hitting Sewell in front of the Tiger’s sideline for 30 yards. On the following play, Hall passed again, taking Sewell’s pitch before throwing to Joe Torchia for a five-yard score.
Richard Jackson then booted a 21-yard field from the right hash mark into the West End Zone stands to give Clemson a 17-14 advantage.
Back in the wildcat on the fourth play of the following drive, Simpson was stripped by Brandon Maye with Chris Chancellor recovering the fumble, handing the ball back to the Clemson offense at the Virginia 24. In the face of pressure, Parker stepped up into the pocket and threw his second score of the game--a 24-yard bullet to Ford.
Down 10 with 1:52 left on the clock, the Cavaliers drove 80 yards and scored on the final play of the half when Sewell hit Simpson for a 23-yard touchdown.
Maye admitted of the plays out of Virginia’s bag of tricks “kind of shocked” him.
“We just had to settle in and just do what the coaches ask of us. That’s what happened,” he said. “Guys settled in, played, had fun and enjoyed winning the division title.”
At halftime, Virginia had 119 yards rushing and 114 yards passing. The Cavaliers finished with 78 on the ground and 195 through the air.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said his unit doesn’t panic when faced with adversity.
“They’re very adaptable. They’ve grown to be in that. I think that’s what was the big thing,” he said.
Kevin Alexander, Ricky Sapp, Jamie Cumbie, Jeremy Campbell and Andre Branch each recorded sacks. Rennie Moore was credited with two. Sapp also recovered a fumble that Maye caused on the first play of the game.
After the teams traded possessions to start the second half, Andre Ellington capped a six play, 66-yard touchdown drive to give the Tigers a 31-21 lead.
The score was pushed to 34-21 after Jackson was good on his second field goal attempt (24).
Three games and three goals remain.
“We’re not done yet. This season isn’t over yet. We have other goals. We have our state championship coming up this week,” Swinney said.