Virginia football is on the rise, striving to compete for championships on a consistent basis. Clemson, however, is already at the top of the major college football world. The disparity between the two programs was clear Saturday night in Charlotte, where the reigning national champion Tigers dispatched the Cavaliers, 62-17.
“First of all, congratulations to Clemson and Coach Swinney on an ACC Championship, and deservedly so. It’s a very good football team,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Really talented. They were well prepared, executed well, and so I was very impressed.”
“Regarding our performance, I thought there were strong glimpses, especially offensively throughout the game from what I saw from Bryce [Perkins], but also there were times where we were controlling clock, moving the football and holding on to momentum,” Mendenhall continued. “Ultimately, the number of big plays by Clemson down the field, we didn’t have consistent answers for their passing game, for their receivers, and certainly just couldn’t make enough stops and didn’t make enough stops to have a chance to be effective in the game.”
Clemson’s offense was in high gear from the start as the Tigers scored four touchdowns and a field goal on their first five drives. By halftime, star quarterback Trevor Lawrence had completed 12-of-15 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns. The 6’6” sophomore signal caller continued the outstanding play he exhibited in Clemson’s previous five games, in which he completed 76% of his passes, tossed 16 touchdowns and had zero interceptions. Lawrence finished with 302 yards passing, four scores and zero picks versus Virginia, which trailed 31-7 at halftime.
Lawrence, the 2019 All-ACC first-team quarterback, connected with All-ACC first-team wide receiver Tee Higgins for nine receptions for 182 yards and three scores. Higgins, whose speed and hands were on full display Saturday, opened Clemson’s scoring with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Lawrence. The 6’4” junior added a 7-yard touchdown catch just before halftime, and an 11-yard scoring reception in the third quarter put the Tigers up 38-14. Receiver Justyn Ross caught Lawrence’s other touchdown pass, a 59-yard strike that gave Clemson the lead for good at 14-7.
“They’re the best receivers we’ve ever seen,” Virginia junior cornerback Nick Grant said. “That’s just a fact. But that doesn’t change that we didn’t come out and play our best game. Any time we don’t play well other people are going to look better. We just work our technique and trust our technique, then things work out in our favor.”
Lawrence and Higgins are hard to handle on their own. When you add ACC Player of the Year Travis Etienne to the mix, Clemson’s offense features three sure-fire NFL first-round draft picks. Etienne, a junior with excellent speed and strength in his 5’10”, 210-pound frame, rushed 14 times for 114 yards and a touchdown against the Hoos. Fellow running back Lyn-J Dixon added 47 yards and another score – his 23-yard touchdown run put the Tigers up 45-14. By game’s end, Clemson’s high-octane attack had totaled 619 yards (408 passing and 211 rushing) while averaging 19.4 yards per completion and 9.2 yards per play.
“I think maybe for almost anyone in the nation to match their personnel and their execution would be difficult,” Mendenhall said. “They’re very, very skilled at quarterback at an elite level, very skilled at running back at an elite level, very skilled at at least three of the receiver positions with a very strong offensive front. So the personnel is national caliber, National Championship caliber, and ACC Championship caliber, not only across the board but then including some depth.”
Virginia’s defense sacked Lawrence twice and recorded seven tackles for loss, led by safety De’Vante Cross with two. However, the Cavaliers, who played without senior linebacker Jordan Mack in the second half due to an ongoing ankle injury, were too inconsistent according to their head coach.
“I was impressed with Clemson and thought they were a very good football team, but I certainly don’t think we played our best football defensively,” Mendenhall said. “I don’t think we tackled consistently or well and nor did we play the ball downfield consistently or well. So certainly acknowledging Clemson, their talent, their scheme and their execution has to be done, but to say I was satisfied with our performance, I’m not.”
Coming in, Clemson’s defense ranked no. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 10.1 points per game, and no. 2 in total defense, yielding 232.8 yards per game. The Tigers had not allowed over 300 yards of offense in any game this season … until today. Perkins amassed 324 yards of offense (266 yards passing, 58 yards rushing), leading a Cavalier offense that totaled 387 yards and 23 first downs (Clemson was surrendering an average of 11.5 first downs per game). The Hoos converted 10-of-18 on third down and three-of-four red-zone scoring opportunities. Overall the unit played well without the services of All-ACC first-team all-purpose player Joe Reed, but it was nowhere near enough as Clemson’s offense continued to pile up the points.
Virginia opened the game on offense and drove 63 yards on six plays down to the Clemson 12. On 3rd-and-9, though, Perkins threw an interception in the back of the end zone, costing the Hoos a chance to take at least a 3-point lead. It was UVA’s first missed red-zone opportunity since the Louisville game on October 26. Clemson turned the turnover into points, driving 80 yards in just 1:39 to score the game’s first touchdown.
The Cavaliers responded with a 12-play, 78-yard drive that ended with a Perkins 20-yard touchdown pass to Hasise Dubois. Dubois, a senior, performed at a high level all night, finishing with 10 receptions for 130 yards and the score. Junior Terrell Jana hauled in Virginia’s other touchdown – an 8-yard score from Perkins for the first touchdown of the second half – on his way to a 6-catch performance for 62 yards. Sophomore Billy Kemp IV had a career-best nine catches for 66 yards, building on his late season surge.
“I mean, it shows the possibility and the capability of this offense, and we had 387, but we feel like we could have had more,” Perkins said. “We feel like we left a few yards out there. But it shows the growth from just I think October to now and how far we’ve come as an offense and how far we have to keep going to improve to be elite and to be considered as one of the best offenses in the nation.”
In a game where they could ill-afford to be careless with the football, Virginia had three turnovers. Perkins tossed two picks while backup quarterback Brennan Armstrong was intercepted late in the game. UVA also had a turnover on downs when a fake punt fell short of a first down, giving the Tigers possession at the Cavalier 49. Clemson scored a touchdown here to take a 45-14 lead.
In addition to quality performances from Perkins and the Cavalier receivers, UVA also should be encouraged by the play of the offensive line, which allowed only two sacks, gave their quarterback time to throw, and created some room to run for Perkins (72 yards on 15 carries, not including two sacks) and sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa (43 yards on eight carries).
The Coastal Division champion Cavaliers (9-4) may be disappointed with the result on Saturday, but they have plenty to play for, including a 10-win season and second consecutive bowl win. UVA has only one 10-win season in school history, and the Hoos haven’t won back-to-back bowl games since winning consecutive Continental Tire Bowl games in 2002 and 2003. UVA will find out its latest bowl destination on Sunday, December 8.
“This game showed us exactly where this program has to go to be able to compete with one, two, three, four,” Perkins said. “Every year we’ve gotten better, UVA has gotten better, so I think this game is going to allow everybody else coming back and for the years to come to know exactly how much to give and how much more they have to give and execute and how much more we have to execute at a higher level to be able to finally take over the ACC and achieve all our goals which we set out for.”
“To qualify to get to the game is difficult and an accomplishment,” Mendenhall said. “The learnings from the game will propel us forward in a manner that wouldn’t happen if we weren’t in the game, and to play against the consistent winner of our league, the national champion, two of the last three years, now we know what that looks like. So without earning the chance to be here, measuring ourselves against that, seeing where the deficiencies are and how big they might be, hard to accelerate it even further without the reference points. I think it’s the next step, and the next logical step as well as the next bowl game that we play, knowing most likely it’ll be a bigger stage, a quality opponent, and those are all things necessary to advance the program. I think it’s logical, I think it’s sequential, and yeah, I think it’s been earned by this team.
– Sabre TV Analysis