The Virginia football team faced a tough challenge at No. 1 Clemson on Saturday night and the Hoos knew they needed to deliver on the details to have a chance at the upset. They came up short with too many of those little things to make that happen, however, and Clemson pulled away to the 41-23 win.
The final score showed progress from last season’s ACC Championship Game romp that saw the Tigers prevail 62-17, but that provided limited consolation for the Hoos in the immediate aftermath of the loss.
“You look to improve against any opponent you play in each exposure you get,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “We had higher expectations. We came to win the game. We didn’t come just for benchmarks and we didn’t come to be better than what we were. However, again statistically it was a balanced game, there was a handful of plays we didn’t make, and to take another jump or to win the ACC or to become an elite program, those plays have to be made.”
One deciding detail showed up early and then repeated itself throughout the night. With the teams in a close game that Clemson led 3-0 late in the first quarter, the hosts faced a 3rd-and-2 play at the Virginia 16-yard line. If the UVA defense could hold on inside the 30 for the second time in the first quarter, the damage potentially could have been minimized to 6 points. The Cavaliers called a timeout before the play to get organized.
The Tigers, unsurprisingly, turned to one of their stars on the play and handed the ball off to running back Travis Etienne. The Hoos got some penetration on their right side and forced Etienne further outside where corner Nick Grant made the first contact, but couldn’t hold on. Safety Brenton Nelson closed quickly and had another shot at the stop short of the first down marker, but Etienne got away and he scored the 16-yard touchdown.
That play captured a lot of what happened on third downs and with Etienne in the contest. Clemson ended up converting 8 of 15 third downs, including five of 9 yards or more. The Tigers came through four times when they needed double-digit yardage to convert. One of those 3rd-and-long plays turned into another touchdown in the second quarter. Facing 3rd-and-15 at the UVA 27, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence zipped a 27-yard pass to Amari Rodgers at the back of the end zone for a 17-3 lead and the visitors spent the rest of the night trying to reel the game back within two scores again.
Lawrence finished 6-11 passing for 144 yards on third downs as part of a big night overall. He ended up with 329 yards and 3 touchdowns on 25-of-38 passing. Rodgers caught 6 passes for 72 yards and 2 touchdowns. Etienne, meanwhile, rushed for 73 yards with a touchdown and added 114 receiving yards with another touchdown.
“I think [Etienne’s] one of the best players in college football,” Cavalier safety Joey Blount said. “He showed his toughness today and I have a lot of respect for him and what he does. There’s a lot of plays we left on the field that we had him in position we wanted to, but using his athleticism and his game, he made it for himself and got out of the situations that we had him in. We need to be better at tackling, pursuit to the ball, and really just wrapping up. There’s a lot of missed tackles as a team where it looked like we had him, but he made a play out of nothing.”
“Etienne was very difficult to tackle and was probably the difference in the game,” Mendenhall said. “Maybe a turnover by us and an interception in the end zone for them – a couple of things, we need to make those plays and it goes right to the end.”
Indeed, if Clemson’s third down success and taking advantage of missed tackles didn’t fully derail Virginia’s chances of an upset, the turnovers did. UVA starting quarterback Brennan Armstrong threw 2 interceptions in the game, one that led to a scoring drive for the Tigers and one that ended a potential scoring drive for the Hoos.
The first pick immediately followed Lawrence’s third-down touchdown strike to Rodgers. On 2nd-and-10 at the Virginia 25, Armstrong rolled out to his left with mirrored receivers crossing the field with him. He tried to connect with Keytaon Thompson on the deeper crossing route but Clemson’s Nolan Turner stepped in and made the interception. Three runs and a facemask penalty quickly had the hosts inside the 10 before Lawrence capped it off with another touchdown pass to Rodgers, this one a simple flat pass that turned into a hurdle and score..
Armstrong shook that play off and led a late-half drive to get his team back in the game. With 1:19 on the clock to start the drive, Armstrong followed a 7-yard sack with three straight long completions to quickly get a touchdown: 22 yards to Billy Kemp IV, 27 yards to Lavel Davis Jr., and the 23-yard touchdown pass to Terrell Jana. That score made it 24-10 at intermission and the Hoos felt like they had a little life.
Unfortunately, a promising drive to start the second half ended in an interception and the Cavaliers couldn’t rally. On that drive, Wayne Taulapapa kicked it off with a 9-yard gain and Armstrong chipped in a 13-yard run on 3rd-and-short to keep marching. After a short pass to Kemp, Armstrong found Davis again for a big gain of 31 yards. On the next play, however, Armstrong tried a jumpball pass for Davis in the end zone, but unlike the Duke game, it didn’t work. Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr. snared a one-handed interception instead and the ensuing drive led to a Tiger field goal.
“Just looking back, the main thing was we were marching down the field in the second half and that was gonna be a big score for us, you know, get some momentum starting the second half,” Armstrong said. “The pick in the end zone, that would have really swung it honestly. That’s the one thing I look back, the pick in the end zone, that kind of hurt us. I think we would have scored there, would have had good momentum and the outcome of the game, just the score of the game could have looked a lot different.”
“It didn’t take the air out of our sails, it just was, we kept trying to close within a two-score margin,” Mendenhall said. “Great teams have great players that make plays at the right time and the one-handed interception in the corner of the end zone was a great play by a Clemson player. Those are the kind of plays that help you get into the playoffs and help you win championships and help you become a really good program so really nice play by that corner.”
The Hoos actually responded immediately from that setback. Armstrong led a 9-play drive of 75 yards for a touchdown that cut the Clemson lead to 27-17. The scoring march ended when Armstrong connected with Thompson for a 3-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter, but the Cavaliers couldn’t get the deficit back to single digits. The Tigers made sure of that with a touchdown on their next drive when Lawrence hit Etienne out of the backfield for the scoring play.
Armstrong finished with 270 yards, 3 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions on 24-of-43 passing. Kemp led the way with 10 catches for 96 yards, while Jana added 5 catches for 55 yards and that first-half touchdown. The other two touchdown catches came from Thompson and Tony Poljan. Armstrong led the team with 89 rushing yards, while Wayne Taulapapa chipped in 47.
Still, between the third down struggles on defense and the turnovers on offense, Virginia just couldn’t quite put together an upset bid. The Hoos still see it as a learning experience, though.
“The game was closer. You could tell that we were still in the game, we were trying and making plays. It wasn’t where you’d turn the TV off or look for another game,” Blount said. “It was kind of an interesting game. I feel like we were really, really competing to the very end honestly. … Everyone was sad about the loss. Everyone was very, very confident coming in that we were going to win this game. Our preparation the last week was very good, everyone was concentrating and focused, but sometimes it just takes a little bit more than film work and practice. … I really do think we made big strides and really shortened the gap. Even though we’re not as good as them, they’re a superior team, I think we’re getting to that type of play.”