By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Midway through the third quarter, it was a three-point game, and the chance to spoil the party at Death Valley was still there for UVa.
In the end, though, superior talent prevailed, as it so often does in football. No. 23 Clemson scored 10 second-half points — to zero for Virginia — and won 34-21 before 77,000 fans Saturday.
That added an exclamation point to a day in which Boston College’s loss to North Carolina wrapped up the ACC’s Atlantic Division title for the Tigers.
“That is one of the better looking teams we have seen in quite some time,” UVa coach Al Groh told reporters. “They come at you from all directions. The pressure is on every play.
“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.”
And now the Wahoos have only one more chance to end a losing streak that began Oct. 24 and has reached five games. UVa (2-5, 3-8) hosts No. 16 Virginia Tech (5-2, 8-3) next Saturday in Charlottesville. ESPN will televise the 3:30 p.m. game.
The Hokies have won five straight in the series since losing in 2003 at Scott Stadium. As UVa’s coach, Groh is 1-7 against Virginia Tech.
“This is Saturday,” Groh told Chris Slade, the sideline reporter for UVa’s radio broadcasts, when asked about the Tech game.
“That’s next Saturday, so we’ve got a lot of days to get through till we get to that.”
For seniors such as linebacker Denzel Burrell, next weekend’s game will be their last as Cavaliers. Burrell, who had two tackles for loss against Clemson, including a sack, didn’t mind looking ahead to the finale.
“It’s a key thing for the team, and I definitely think we’re going to be able to bounce back and get together as a team and work hard to get this last game,” Burrell said by phone Saturday night.
“This is the biggest rivalry we have as a team, and no one on this current team has beaten Virginia Tech, so that just adds a little extra incentive to it. We’re going to go out and give everything we can for our home fans, and hopefully they’re out there for our last game. It’ll be a nice way to end the season, so we’ll see what happens.”
The ‘Hoos never led against Clemson (6-2, 8-3), but twice they pulled even: at 7-7 in the first quarter and 14-14 in the second. The Tigers answered with 10 straight points and seemed in control as halftime approached, only to see UVa deliver a stunning blow.
On the final play of the half, senior tailback Mikell Simpson ran a wheel route and caught a perfectly thrown pass from senior quarterback Jameel Sewell for a 23-yard touchdown.
That capped a half in which Simpson, operating often out of the Wildcat formation, rushed 14 times for 84 yards. He also had two catches for 43 yards.
Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, a season marked by bad fortune stayed true to form. Simpson was injured on the TD reception and didn’t play in the second half.
“That removed the facet of our operation that had been successful for us,” Groh said.
Senior wideout Vic Hall, who has started two games at quarterback for UVa, was 2 for 2 passing Saturday. Both completions came on trick plays.
On the first, Hall caught a lateral pass from Sewell, then threw back across the field to the quarterback for a 30-yard gain to the Clemson 5. A play later, Hall took a pitch from Sewell on a reverse and then pulled up and passed to junior tight end Joe Torchia, uncovered in the end zone.
That was Virginia’s second TD. The first came on Sewell’s 6-yard bootleg run with 2:16 left in the opening quarter.
Sewell finished 11 for 17 passing for 160 yards, with no interceptions, but he won’t remember the second half fondly. The Tigers sacked him seven times and held UVa to 40 yards in the final two quarters.
“We didn’t play smart in the first half,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters. “We weren’t disciplined with our eyes. And they had a lot of trick plays in the first half.
“Our staff made great adjustments at halftime, and we challenged [the players] in the second half.”
Virginia’s defense held Heisman Trophy candidate C.J. Spiller to 58 yards rushing (on 19 carries) and 39 receiving (on five catches). Overall, the Tigers averaged a modest 3.5 yards per carry.
“On defense against the run, you just gotta beat blocks,” Groh said. “I give a lot of credit to our defensive players. We can run some schemes, but they gotta beat blocks, and they did a very, very good job against a very good running game.”
The Tigers hurt UVa through the air. Jacoby Ford, a former Virginia recruiting target, had six receptions for 106 yards and one TD. Kyle Parker, only a redshirt freshman, completed 19 of 26 passes for 234 yards and two touchdowns, and he wasn’t intercepted.
Groh said he thought before the game that Parker “might be the guy who would make the difference, and he was. He’s a very good young player and perhaps the best young quarterback in the league.”
The second half was scoreless until the 7:17 mark of the third quarter, when Andre Ellington ran 5 yards for a touchdown. Richard Jackson added a 24-yard field goal with eight seconds left in the quarter.
The 21 points were the most Virginia had scored since a 47-7 rout of Indiana on Oct. 10. A fourth-quarter touchdown by the Cavaliers would have made it a one-score game, but against an inspired Clemson defense, they never got close to the end zone.
Still, Burrell said, “I don’t think anyone gave up, and I think that’s what the coaches noticed, and that’s what [Groh] told us after the game. We fought till the end. We had our chances to really bring the score back to even and even possibly take the lead. But unfortunately we just couldn’t.
“It’s obviously about the wins and losses, and unfortunately we didn’t come out on top, but I definitely think there’s a lot to gain from a team standpoint in fighting to the end on our part.”
The coach expects nothing less from his team, no matter its record.
“We’re a motivated bunch,” Groh told Slade. “We like to win, we like to do well, we like to fight. We’ve always been that way, and we’ll always be that way.”