CLEMSON, S.C. - This was a Clemson team nobody had seen in a very long time.
This was a Clemson team brash enough to draw a taunting penalty before kickoff despite suffering its first casualty in 60 years of running down the hill.
This was a Clemson team that backed up its taunts by winning nearly every trench battle on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
This was a Clemson team that grinded the ball on the ground when it needed to.
This was a Clemson team that got up off the mat after getting knocked down in the second half - twice.
This was a Clemson team that didn't buckle in a tight game.
This was a Clemson team that imposed its will in the end zone to make the game-winning catch in overtime.
This, in essence, was a Clemson team on the verge of burial that needed to redefine everything about itself - AND DID.
"We kind of silenced the critics with this one," Tigers quarterback Charlie Whitehurst said after throwing the game-winning pass to Kevin Youngblood in overtime for a 30-27 victory.
Make no mistake that the critics (and some Clemson fans) were poised to throw the dirt on Tommy Bowden's coaching grave. This was a game that could have sealed his fate and the future of the program.
Think about it. This was Virginia, the program former Tiger coach Frank Howard so famously referred to as "white meat" as Clemson built a 29-0 record against it. This was a Virginia team that was invited to so many Homecomings before as a sacrificial lamb.
Virginia, however, was 7-5-1 in the series since ending the streak in 1990 and, with two stinging defeats of Clemson the last two years, was favored to win three in a row for the first time in series history.
Face it, if you lose three in a row to Virginia, Frank Howard's ghost might come back and personally fire Bowden.
This, however, was not remotely the same Virginia team that was run over a month ago at South Carolina. This Virginia team had earned back its national ranking and brought its star quarterback to go with the ACC's top rushing offense.
But Clemson beat up Virginia like it hasn't beat up any team recently. Despite missing three defensive starters, Clemson stuffed Virginia's runners four of five times on third-and-short. Despite having no discernible running game of its own all year, Clemson pounded Yusef Kelly and Chad Jasmin to win every short-yardage battle of its own.
Despite dominating the first half, all Clemson had to show for it was a 10-0 lead. So when Virginia's Matt Schaub came out flinging shorts passes in the third quarter and pushed ahead 17-10, surely Clemson would cave.
But the Tigers didn't. They stopped Virginia on consecutive drives and reclaimed the lead 24-17.
Then momentum shifted again. But Clemson's Tye Hill picked off Schaub's final pass and forced overtime.
Surely overtime would foil Clemson. It was the one with the holder (Gene Pate) who broke his leg running down the hill before the game and a kicker so out of favor that Bowden wouldn't attempt a field goal under any circumstances. Virginia had the kicker who hadn't missed a try in 12 attempts.
Clemson won the toss, made another short-yardage stop and forced the Cavs to kick.
Now Clemson had to get a touchdown. It converted third-and-4 and faced second-and-goal at the 4. Whitehurst lobbed to the corner toward the 6-foot-5 Youngblood, who might have pushed off the defender - ala Virginia's Billy McMullen in the same end zone two years ago.
No flag. Great catch. Game over.
"That's something that I've dreamed about forever," Youngblood said. "I finally did it."
Clemson finally did it. They overran Georgia Tech three weeks ago, but this was much bigger. This was a gritty victory that redefines teams, redefines seasons and possibly even redefines a coach's job security.
"I feel a lot better about our team," Whitehurst said. "It was just a huge win. It's just nice to go out and make those plays this week and to prove to yourselves that you can do it. ... It feels pretty good."
Looked pretty good, too. A lot like Clemson used to look.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or email@example.com.
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