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November 2, 2013

Smashing success

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A few minutes before his players took the field, Mike London delivered an impassioned speech about turning it loose and having nothing to lose.

"All things are possible!" he screamed in a silent locker room.

Emotion and inspiration are nice and all, but most of the time they don't mean a whole lot when you're as overmatched as Virginia was Saturday against Clemson.

Talent means a lot more, and the Tigers showed theirs off in a 59-10 tail whipping in Charlottesville.

Dabo Swinney is as good as they come in the area of pregame motivation, but when you have a team like this you don't have to go all crazy before games against teams like that.

By halftime, his team down four touchdowns after a second-quarter assault by the Tigers, London's tune had changed. By that time, he was begging his players not to quit with the Cavaliers' sixth straight loss assured.

For Clemson, which goes into its open date with an 8-1 record, the important part of this one was bringing back the good vibes. Not that they weren't happy after leaving Maryland with a 13-point victory seven days before, but for a while now the Tigers have been used to thrashing inferior opponents at home and on the road.

"One of the things we talked about coming in was it's November, and our best football is in front of us," Swinney said afterward.

Swinney says the fun is in the winning, but you could make a strong case that the real fun has been in humiliating people on their home turf. Like last year at Wake Forest and Duke, or this year at Syracuse.

On this day, Clemson was nursing a 14-7 lead with less than seven minutes left in the first half. But the Tigers were all smiles by halftime after ripping off three touchdowns in the final 4:18, including an 86-yard touchdown drive after they took over at their own 14 with 55 seconds on the clock.

When Tajh Boyd hit Sammy Watkins for a 96-yard touchdown strike on third-and-15 to make it 42-7 early in the third, it was abundantly clear this was just too easy. Swinney went against the pursuit of more style points, yanking Boyd and Watkins and a number of other starters at the 8:48 mark of the third quarter.

Actually, the Tigers' backups were able to pile on some points. The final score was identical to Oregon's demolition of the Cavaliers on the same field Sept. 7. London will now try to avoid a dreaded 0-fer in the ACC; his last three games are at North Carolina, at Miami and the finale at home against Virginia Tech.

On the other side, Clemson assured it'll be in the Top 10 for an 11th consecutive week. That's the longest streak in school history, surpassing the 1981 team's run. The Tigers also recorded their eighth straight road win, their longest streak since the late 1970s.

The most pleasant storyline of the season has been a defense that brings it every week, and that theme continued Saturday. For a large stretch of the first half the offense was trying to find its way in the same fashion it was trying to find its way at Maryland. After taking a 14-7 lead on a short touchdown plunge by C.J. Davidson with three minutes left in the first quarter, Clemson went four straight drives without a first down. And three of those drives ended in Virginia territory.

In 2011 and 2012, four straight drives without a first down might've spelled disaster. Saturday, it didn't matter because Clemson's defense was giving up absolutely nothing during the same period. Over a five-possession stretch, the Cavaliers totaled one first down - and that was courtesy of a penalty on Travis Blanks.

The defense did its job on possessions that began at the Virginia 11-, 7-, 11- and 14-yard line, giving the offense good field position. Clemson put the defense in a bad spot with a turnover on downs at midfield, but Jayron Kearse came up with a third-down interception to give Boyd and Co. the ball at the Cavaliers' 33.

The Tigers capitalized this time, converting on a third down and then scoring when Rod McDowell took a swing pass in from 10 yards out.

On Virginia's next possession, the Cavaliers finally recorded a first down and appeared to have produced another at midfield with a chance of cutting into the 21-7 deficit. But Kearse came up big again, stripping Khalek Shepherd as he fell to the turf.

Clemson cashed in with a 25-yard score from McDowell after a nice spin move at the line against the Virginia blitz gave him nothing but green grass.

And after Virginia failed to run much clock on the next possession, Clemson took over deep in its own territory and methodically worked its way down the field with sideline routes against the Cavaliers' soft coverage. Boyd capped it with a 1-yard power run to make the score 35-7 with 14 seconds left.

Virginia's previous opponents had picked on freshman defensive back Tim Harris, and Clemson came in wanting to do the same. Watkins' two touchdown catches, including a 33-yarder on the Tigers' first possession, came at Harris' expense. Martavis Bryant also had some fun with the first-year player.

Boyd has been trying to make the closing stretch of his college career less like a job and more like something fun and carefree, and he had a therapeutic afternoon while tossing for 377 yards and three touchdowns on a 24 of 29 clip. The only blemish was a first-quarter interception into heavy coverage deep in Virginia territory.

"Tajh was awesome," Swinney said. "Just awesome. Sammy Watkins was awesome. We really settled in on the offensive line."

The Tigers offense totaled 610 yards on 88 plays, rushing for 175 on 43 carries. McDowell had 76 of those yards on 12 carries.

The defense held Virginia to 277 yards and got off the field 16 times on 22 third downs.

Clemson won't visit Charlottesville again until 2025, an the Tigers gave the natives something to remember until then.

"We'd been so close to just dominating an opponent," Swinney said. "We just hadn't been able to put it all together."

*** To chat with other Clemson fans about this article please visit The West Zone message board.

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