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ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — Deshaun Watson’s mission is not over.
The Heisman Trophy hopeful and third-ranked Clemson Tigers are ready to return to the College Football Playoff and try to resolve some unfinished business from last season.
Watson bolstered his candidacy for the sport’s biggest individual award by passing for three touchdowns and running for two more to lead the Tigers (12-1, No. 3 CFP) a 42-35 victory over No. 19 Virginia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game Saturday night.
Winning consecutive league titles for the first time in 28 years likely will send coach Dabo Swinney and his players back to the four-team College Football Playoff for the second straight year, providing Watson with an opportunity to resolve unfinished business from last January , when the Tigers lost to Alabama in the national championship game.
“What a blessing to be a part of this journey,” Swinney said, flanked by Watson. “This guy is the best player in the country, and it isn’t close.”
The Clemson star completed 23 of 34 passes for 288 yards, including TDs of 21 and 10 yards to Jordan Leggett and 15 yards to Hunter Renfrow for a 42-28 lead midway through the fourth quarter. He also rushed for 85 yards on 17 attempts for the Tigers. They’ve won back-to-back ACC titles for the first time since winning three straight from 1986-88.
Watson’s Virginia Tech counterpart, Jerod Evans, was just as impressive. The 6-foot-3, 238-pound ran for two touchdowns and rallied the Hokies from a 21-point deficit to make it close at the end.
The Hokies (9-4, No. 23 CFP) scored on three straight possessions, trimming what was once a 35-14 deficit to seven points on Evans’ 5-yard run early in the fourth quarter and Cam Phillips’ 26-yard TD reception with just under 6 minutes remaining.
“We’ve been there before. We were down 17 in the Notre Dame game and we were able to rally together to fight back,” Hokies receiver Isaiah Ford said. “So we were confident we could come back.”
Virginia Tech got the ball back with a chance to force overtime. Evans drove his team to the Clemson 23, where the drive stalled when Tigers cornerback Cordrea Tankersley intercepted a pass on fourth-and-6.
“They got here for a reason,” Swinney said of Virginia Tech. “We just couldn’t put them away.”
Virginia Tech didn’t take solace in playing Clemson close.
“They showed up here to win the ballgame. It’s a pretty somber locker room because of that,” coach Justin Fuente said.
“Obviously, we came up ‘a little short, but it wasn’t because we weren’t out there competing,” Fuente added. “I think our kids poured their heart and soul into this and are going to learn some life lessons from this endeavor.”
The game, originally scheduled to be played in Charlotte, N.C., drew a crowd of 50,628 — about 20,000 shy of Camping World Stadium’s listed capacity. The ACC moved the event to Orlando because of North Carolina House Bill 2, a controversial law that limits legal protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
EVANS’ BIG NIGHT
Virginia Tech QB Jerod Evans finished 21 of 35 for 264 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. He rushed for 46 yards on 21 carries, and joined Travon McMillian in scoring two TDs on the ground. Meanwhile, Cam Phillips had 12 receptions for 92 yards, and Isaiah Ford had four catches for 89 yards while becoming the Hokies’ career leader in receiving yards.
Clemson: It’s been a yearlong quest to get back to the CFP, and the Tigers survived every test with the exception of a 43-42 loss to Pittsburgh in early November — a game in which the Tigers turned the ball over three times but still came within a fourth-and-1 conversion of winning. Watson was overshadowed early in the season, when ACC player of the year Lamar Jackson was posting gaudy statistics for Louisville, however the Clemson quarterback’s performance Saturday night added to the sterling resume he’s put together for Heisman Trophy consideration.
Virginia Tech: The Coastal Division winners weren’t just happy to be in the title game. Fuente and his players were determined to make the most of the Hokies’ first appearance in the title game in five years. And for a half, they kept it close, weathering Clemson scoring on its first three possessions to build a 21-7 lead. Even after being outgained 148 yards to minus-14 while falling behind by three TDs in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter, Evans rallied his team to make a game of it in the fourth quarter.
Clemson LB Dorian O’Daniel was ejected in the opening quarter after being penalized for targeting on a high hit on Virginia Tech RB Sam Rogers, who was dropped for no gain on a pass reception. The call, along with Terrell Edmunds’ 20-yard reception on a fake punt play and a 15-yard pass interference penalty against Tankersley, fueled the Hokies’ first scoring drive, a 12-play, 77-yard march that McMillian finished his TD run.
Clemson: Awaits official word on a berth and seeding in the CFP, which begins with the national semifinals on Dec. 31.
Virginia Tech: Will travel to a bowl game hoping to finish its season under Fuente with 10 wins for the first time since 2011. Fuente also would become the first coach in school history to win 10 games in his first season leading the Hokies.
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