By FRED GOODALL
AP Sports Writer
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Deshaun Watson bolstered his Heisman Trophy candidacy by passing for three touchdowns and running for two more to lead third-ranked Clemson to 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 the Tigers (12-1, No. 3 CFP) 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 his team lost to Alabama in the national championship game.
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.
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.
Clemson: It’s been a year-long 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. Coach Justin 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.