Hokies’ returns take down No. 22 Clemson, 41-23
CLEMSON, S.C. (AP)—An interception return, a punt return and a kickoff return, all for touchdowns—and all typical for college football’s masters of specal teams.
“That’s Beamer-ball,” grinned Virginia Tech linebacker Vince Hall. “That’s what we needed.”
And that’s what sent coach Frank Beamer’s 15th-ranked Hokies to a 41-23 victory over No. 22 Clemson on Saturday night.
Victor “Macho” Harris had a record-tying 100-yard kickoff return TD and Eddie Royal took a punt back 82 yards for a score. Safety D.J. Parker got the return-fest started when he returned an interception 32 yards to the end zone.
It was a demonstration of what Beamer’s built over 21 years with the Hokies and latest example of why they’re the college football’s gold standard of special teams’ play. Virginia Tech had never had both a kickoff and punt returned for scores in the same game before this one.
“It really is a our third of our preparation,” Beamer said. “The only thing we stop practices for is special teams. That says, ‘Hey, this is pretty important.”’
It was a stunning start for a Virginia Tech team still trying to find itself after a 48-7 loss at No. 1 LSU last month.
Already ahead 10-0 after Parker’s return and a Jud Dunlevy’s field goal, Royal got loose with a twisting return TD. His 82-yarder tied for the third longest in Hokies history.
Royal made it two in a row, taking another punt return score after Clemson’s next series, but that one was called back because of an illegal block.
“I had a bad feeling when I got into the end zone and I saw nobody cheering,” Royal said.
When the Tigers finally got on the scoreboard with Mark Buchholz’s 33-yard field goal, Virginia Tech struck again, this time with Harris’ kickoff return.
He started about 3 yards deep in the end zone, cut to the sideline and was barely touched on the way, putting Virginia Tech ahead 24-3 and leaving much of the 82,000 at Memorial Stadium wondering what happened.
“It was kind of a situation where you’re feeling the moment,” Harris said.
Harris’ return tied Larry Fallen’s school-best effort in 1978, also against Clemson.
Virginia Tech’s defense was strong, too. Besides Parker’s interception, the Hokies held Clemson (4-2, 2-2) without a first down for nearly 21 minutes.
It barely mattered that the Hokies’ attack sputtered almost as much with just 98 yards in the first two quarters—they still led 31-8 at the half.
The Tigers made things interesting in the fourth quarter on Tyler Grisham’s 3-yard touchdown catch and Aaron Kelly’s 18-yard scoring grab. But that was as close as they could come.
Cullen Harper threw for 372 yards, setting school records with 38 completions and 66 attempts. Kelly had 11 catches for 174 yards and Grisham 11 for 100.
The loudest cheers at the end were “Let’s Go Hokies” as much of the orange-clad fans filed out.
It’s the second straight week Clemson’s special teams play has cost it a victory. Buchholz missed four field goals and the Tigers got a punt blocked in Georgia Tech’s 13-3 victory.
“We can’t work any longer or harder on special teams,” Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said. “We’re just going to have to figure out the right combination of players and continue to work hard.”
The three return TDs Saturday gave Virginia Tech 63 non-offensive touchdowns since 1999—the most in college football in that span.
Royal, a senior, has two punt return TDs this year and three on his career. Harris, a junior cornerback, also had an interception.
Freshman quarterback Tyrod Taylor finished with 118 yards rushing.
Clemson began the season 4-0 for the first time in seven years and appeared ready to chase an ACC title.
But the Tigers lost last week at Georgia Tech in an awful offensive performance. Back at home, they hoped to regain their footing—and get some payback for last season’s humbling 24-7 loss on national TV at Virginia Tech.
Instead, Clemson heads into its off week likely minus its national ranking and with questions about its star rushers—“Thunder and Lightning” backs James Davis and C.J. Spiller ended with a combined 12 yards on 12 carries.
Harper says the Tigers won’t give up on the season simply because of what’s happened the last two games. “How do we put it behind us?” he said. “We just put it behind us.”
Also just about forgotten is Virginia Tech’s dreadful loss at LSU.
Beamer says Taylor is progressing, the defense is looking stronger every game and, well, you know about those special teams.
“I see hope,” Beamer said. “I see light at the end of the tunnel.”