BLACKSBURG, Va. — It was ultimately another disaster for Virginia Tech, but the Hokies on Saturday night showed how inferior college football teams might have the best chance against powerhouse Clemson.
The plan fell apart in a 45-10 loss, the Hokies’ fourth straight defeat, and the handful of fans in attendance were shaking mad by the end. Either that or they were just trying to keep from becoming frozen turkeys in a wind-chill of about 25 degrees.
Virginia Tech wanted to shorten the game, limit possessions with a ball-control offense, and had the offense to do it with one of the best rushing attacks in the country. It was working for a while. Clemson had only four possessions in the first half and led only 17-10.
Keeping the quarterback upright and healthy was important, too. Using two quarterbacks wouldn’t have been a bad strategy, either, to literally throw another wrinkle at the Clemson defense. Well, the second happened because the first didn’t and that was a problem. Virginia Tech starter Hendon Hooker was hurt on the opening series.
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The third factor would be crowd support, which is usually not a problem for night games in Blacksburg. But in a season with a pandemic and a team that has been anemic, Lane Stadium was practically empty. Up to a thousand fans were allowed in. It was closer to a hundred. Low enough to attempt actually counting them by hand, anyway.
“There was nobody here,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “I thought our guys did a good job of creating their own energy and being excited to play.”
When it was 10-10 in the second quarter, it appeared there were fans on the far side doing the wave. But it was just cardboard cutouts blowing in the wind. One of them was Bernie from the movie “Weekend at Bernie’s.” In reality, the whole place was dead.
Virginia Tech backup quarterback Braxton Burmeister, on a night when he put the burr in Burmeister, provided some life. He completed 10 of 12 passes for 127 yards before he was injured as well. And when he had to leave, Hooker gave the cold shoulder.
Hooker was in and out of the game in a snap, actually two. He ran for a couple of yards and then fumbled on the next play. Clemson’s Derion Kendrick picked up the loose ball and went 66 yards for a touchdown. Hooker went that same direction and continued straight to the locker room. Virginia Tech, which had a backup quarterback earlier in the week call it quits (he was questionable with an injury, to be fair) and announced he was going to transfer, had to go with a freshman who had never appeared in a college game.
Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente was looking for Hooker, but he was still in the locker room.
He was cold.
“We were going to put him back in and the trainer came to me and told me that (Hooker) was cold,” Fuente said. “I don’t know if there’s something more significant or serious or what with that. I’ve never seen that before or heard of that before. I don’t know any more than that.
“… In the middle of the game, I said, ‘What’s the deal?’ and (the athletics trainer) said, ‘He’s cold. We’re dealing with him.’ So I don’t know. I can’t give you any more diagnosis than that. … I just don’t know.”
Virginia Tech fumbled the ball away twice in a span of three possessions in the third quarter and both turnovers were catastrophic, giving Clemson 14 points and basically sealing the Tigers’ victory at 31-10. The first, caused by Myles Murphy on Burmeister and recovered by Mario Goodrich, was at the Hokies’ 12-yard line as they couldn’t keep momentum of an interception thrown by Trevor Lawrence in the end zone. The second was the scoop-and-scoot by Kendrick.
In between, the Hokies, perhaps feeling rushed for the first time, had a three-and-out with an incomplete pass and a sack. Virginia Tech’s strategy was working for a while, though. Clemson had only 52 plays on offense in the entire game.
“Fifty-two. I couldn’t believe it,” Swinney said. “But that was their style of play coming into this game. They are going to shorten the game and try to keep the (opposing) offense on the sideline. In the second half, it got away from them because, defensively, we were able to get the ball back.
“… I knew it was going to be that type of game. It would probably take a little while to settle in unless some crazy things happened. Give them credit. They completely kept the ball away from us in the first half.”
“They’re like an option team that throws the ball a lot better than most option teams,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “I thought our guys adjusted to some things they were doing. They adjusted well and had an outstanding second half.”
In the end, Clemson (9-1, 8-1 ACC) took a lopsided victory and a sixth consecutive berth in the league championship game, having won the previous five titles. Virginia Tech was left wondering how to get back there for the first time since giving the Tigers a run, 45-37, in 2016.