“This game showed us exactly where this program has to go to be able to compete with one, two, three, four [in the College Football Playoff],” Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins said. “Every year, we’ve gotten better, U-Va. has gotten better, so I think this game is going to allow everyone else coming back in the years to come to know exactly how much to give . . . to be able to finally take over the ACC.”
The Cavaliers (9-4) had a four-game winning streak emphatically snapped, all but powerless defensively in the first half when Clemson (13-0) scored on its first five possessions, four of which resulted in touchdowns.
Clemson, meanwhile, racked up multiple ACC championship game offensive milestones, including most points, frequently at the expense of overmatched cornerback Nick Grant, with the junior laboring to cover wide receiver Tee Higgins in particular.
The dynamic 6-foot-4, 215-pound junior had 182 receiving yards and three touchdowns, both conference title game records, on nine catches in helping the Tigers reach a season high in points.
“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 . . . didn’t make enough stops to have a chance to be effective in the game,” Mendenhall said.
Four touchdown passes from Trevor Lawrence also were the most in an ACC championship game. Clemson’s sophomore quarterback completed 16 of 22 throws for 302 yards, sitting out the fourth quarter, as the Tigers amassed 619 yards of total offense, another ACC title game record.
“This has been so much fun, you know, to do something that’s never been done,” Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney said, referring to winning a fifth straight ACC championship game. “It’s hard to do. This team got it done, but those other four teams gave us the opportunity to have this chance tonight, so just proud of these guys.”
Virginia did manage 387 yards of total offense, becoming the first team this season to gain more than 300 against the Tigers, thanks mostly to Perkins and wide receiver Hasise Dubois (10 receptions, 130 yards, one touchdown).
Perkins, a senior, accounted for 324 yards of total offense and threw a pair of touchdown passes two weeks removed from a procedure at a Charlottesville hospital to drain his tonsils from an acute case of tonsillitis that left his voice barely audible.
Despite the lopsided score, the first-time Coastal Division champion Cavaliers remain in line for a berth in the Dec. 30 Orange Bowl, which claims the best team from the ACC that doesn’t advance to the College Football Playoff.
Things started getting out of hand for Virginia in the second quarter, which ended with the Tigers taking a 31-7 lead courtesy of Lawrence’s seven-yard touchdown throw to Higgins on third and goal, capping a 12-play drive that lasted 5:29.
The relatively lengthy possession — none of Clemson’s other first-half touchdown drives lasted more than 1:36 — included the Tigers overcoming two false start penalties and a dropped pass by Travis Etienne that likely would have yielded a touchdown.
Clemson had opened a double-digit advantage, 17-7, on place-kicker B.T. Potter’s 47-yard field goal, and on the Tigers’ next possession, Etienne burst through the line of scrimmage for a 26-yard touchdown run with 9:10 remaining until halftime.
The scoring play followed a highlight-reel catch by Higgins, keeping his right foot inbounds on his tiptoes while reaching beyond the boundary to secure a 24-yard reception.
The imposing assignment of dethroning the reigning national champions became even more onerous when, shortly before kickoff, Virginia officials announced wide receiver and kick return specialist Joe Reed would not play for just the second time in his career because of an undisclosed injury.
The senior is the only player in major college football with 500 receiving yards and 600 yards in kick returns and leads the country with an average kick return of 34.7 yards. He has been especially dangerous on returns beginning inside the 5-yard line, averaging 41.5 in those situations.
Apart from Reed’s considerable impact on special teams, the Cavaliers’ most lethal deep threat also entered the game as Virginia’s leading receiver in touchdowns (six) and receptions (70) and ranked third on the team in receiving yards (627).
During the first series of the game, however, the Cavaliers were able to connect on a deep throw when Perkins delivered a strike to Dubois over the middle for 46 yards. The senior beat safety Tanner Muse on a post pattern to reach the Clemson 13.
But three snaps later, Perkins had his throw intercepted in the back of the end zone, with safety Nolan Turner gaining possession before falling out of bounds.
The Tigers did not face a third down during their ensuing possession that resulted in Lawrence’s 19-yard touchdown pass to Higgins, who slipped out of a tackle attempt by Grant inside the 10 on his way to the end zone for a 7-0 lead.
The counter from Virginia on its next possession featured Perkins completing a 20-yard pass to Dubois for a touchdown to tie the score with 6:22 to play in the quarter, denting one of the country’s top pass defenses that had permitted just six touchdowns through the air and one over the previous six games.
Clemson reclaimed the lead, 14-7, at the close the first quarter thanks to Lawrence’s 59-yard scoring throw to Justyn Ross, a 6-foot-4 sophomore who got behind the secondary and outran safety Joey Blount’s diving tackle attempt steps from the end zone.