Jameel Sewell and the Cavalier offense totaled 233 yards of offense and 21 points in the first half, but just 40 yards and no points in the second.
For one half of Virginia’s contest against Clemson, the Cavalier offense did everything that Al Groh is not necessarily known for: trick plays, unconventional formations, and overall outside-the-box thinking. Jameel Sewell , Mikell Simpson , and Vic Hall all took snaps under center. A very un-Groh-like, nothing-to-lose risk gave Virginia an improbable touchdown going into halftime and the team ranked 106th nationally in scoring offense and 118th in total offense had 21 points and 233 total yards.
But, for the better part of three quarters, Groh’s defense had no answers for Clemson’s Heisman Trophy candidate C.J. Spiller and his supplementary weapons, and the Hoos still trailed at the half by a field goal. Then, as the Virginia offense reverted to conventional sets, it also regressed back to an even more futile unit than the norm. With that, the pain endured for the Cavaliers at Clemson as a 34-21 loss guaranteed Virginia’s worst single-season record in Groh’s tenure.
The first half and second half numbers for the Virginia offense could scarcely be more different. In the first half: 233 total yards of offense, 8-9 passing for 114 yards, 119 rushing yards, and no sacks. In the second half, 40 total yards, 5-10 passing for 81 yards, and -41 rushing yards, partly accounted for by a whopping seven sacks of Sewell.
“This is a real good team we played – one of the best teams we’ve seen in a long time,” Groh said. “They’ve got a lot of good players on that team, and they play hard too. They made some adjustments, and we had a little bit more difficult time [in the second half].”
As the Virginia offense found ways to be productive in the first half, the defense could not hold Spiller and Co. to short yardage on a given play, never mind prevent scoring drives. As the Tigers exploded to 24 first-half points, they did not punt a single time. The only drive in which Virginia held Clemson scoreless was the Tigers’ first possession, when, after a turnover, the Hoos forced a four-and-out from their own 24-yard line. Clemson picked up 224 yards of total offense in the half, including 152 yards passing for quarterback Kyle Parker, 70 total yards for Spiller, and four catches for 72 yards for explosive wide receiver Jacoby Ford.
“They come at you from all directions,” Groh said. “We stood up to it well throughout, but there is just a lot of talent out there and some of those playmakers made plays that made the difference in the game.”
Mikell Simpson rushed for 84 yards on 14 carries in the first half against Clemson before an injury sidelined him at halftime.
With every Clemson touchdown in the first half, though, it seemed that Virginia had an answer, and an unlikely one at that. Trailing 7-0, the Cavaliers put Simpson in the shotgun in the Wildcat formation, while splitting Sewell out wide; Simpson excelled, gaining 43 yards on five consecutive direct snaps to begin the drive. When Sewell returned to QB near the goal line and faked a handoff to Simpson, the entire Tiger defense bit for a Simpson carry, and Sewell jogged into the end zone.
“There were things that we wanted to do, that we thought we could, from a scheme standpoint, shake our guys free,” Groh said.
After another quick, Spiller-led touchdown drive gave Clemson a 14-7 lead, Virginia responded with more trickery. Sewell first completed a huge third-down to Simpson for a 20-yard gain to midfield, and a late hit gave the Cavs 15 more yards. Sewell and Hall then successfully executed back-to-back trick plays; a double-pass from Sewell to Hall and back to Sewell picked up 30 yards, and a pitch to Hall and subsequent toss to Joe Torchia put Virginia in the end zone.
A field goal on the Tigers’ next possession almost appeared to be a win for the Cavaliers in such a high-scoring affair. Virginia went three-and-out on its next possession, though, and Clemson would not be denied on its next drive, as quarterback Kyle Parker fired a marvelous pass on the run to explosive wideout Jacoby Ford on a post route, giving the Tigers a 10-point lead.
And with Virginia driving from its own 20-yard line with 1:52 remaining on its next possession, Groh appeared content to go into halftime trailing by 10. After the Cavs converted a 3rd-and-3, however, Simpson carried for 22 yards to the Clemson 47-yard line out of bounds, stopping the clock with 28 seconds remaining. All of a sudden, Virginia was in high gear; UVa picked up 24 more yards on four plays, going out of bounds on each occasion. On the last play, Burd hauled in a quick-hit pass out of bounds at the Clemson 23-yard line with eight seconds on the clock. A run to the middle of the field, a timeout, and a field goal appeared to be a best-case scenario.
Sewell, though, faked a handoff to Simpson, stood tall in the pocket, and lofted a perfect pass down the sideline to Simpson in the corner of the end zone. The play took all eight seconds off the clock, left Clemson coach Dabo Swinney visibly infuriated with his defense and gave Virginia life heading into halftime.
“Especially our attitude at that point, there was a lot to feel good and positive about,” Groh said. “Certainly there were some plays that we would have liked to have done better on, but I am sure the other side felt the same way.”
But, there was also some bad luck on the play. As Simpson hauled in the reception in the end zone, he was tripped up by his defender, and stumbled over his own feet in the end zone. He came up limping on the play, and was put out of action for the rest of the contest. Simpson exited with 14 carries for 84 yards.
“That removed the facet of our operation that had been successful for us,” Groh said.
As a result, with the exception of two Wildcat plays for Hall, Groh did not utilize the formation in the second half, nor any other trick plays. The Cavaliers instead played out of their usual pro-style sets, and got even worse-than-usual productivity. Virginia only picked up two offensive first downs; the Hoos were bailed out on one of their three first downs of the half, as Clemson was called for a helmet-to-helmet hit of Sewell on a Virginia 3rd-and-28.
Ironically enough, as the Cavalier offense struggled, the previously helpless defense came to life. The Tigers finally punted on their opening drive of the quarter, and punted twice more in the fourth, as Clemson picked up a modest 142 yards in the second half. Two consecutive scoring drives in the third quarter, though – both of which trampled the Virginia defense, like nearly every first-half drive – gave Clemson 10 points, more than enough to put the Cavaliers away.
The win meant nothing for either side with regard to postseason play; Virginia was mathematically eliminated from bowl eligibility by its lost last week, and a Boston College loss in the minutes leading up to the Virginia-Clemson game clinched the Atlantic Division for the Tigers.
If there is any game that carries meaning in and of itself for the Cavaliers and their fans, though, it is this week’s contest against Virginia Tech. The Hoos have one last chance to put a damper on someone’s season, and they would surely like no other team to take a hit than the in-state rival Hokies.