Taking care of business

Entering the 2011 season, one of the marquee games on Clemson's regular-season schedule was a trip to Blacksburg, Va., to face off with Virginia Tech.

After all, Virginia Tech has become one of the top ACC programs since joining the conference, winning three ACC title games and losing the initial championship game in 2005. Frank Beamer's Hokies are who the other conference teams measure themselves against, and most times, those teams don't match up.

That included Clemson, which had lost five straight games in its series with Virginia Tech dating back to 1989.

But that changed last year as the Tigers got the best of the Hokies twice, and it continued with Saturday's 38-17 Clemson win.

It wasn't always pretty – it's silly to expect any win over Virginia Tech will come easy – but Clemson got the job done when it needed to. Leading 17-10 at halftime, the Tigers controlled the second half and outscored the Hokies 21-7 after the break.

The Tigers did just enough on offense, and the defense made a ton of plays to pull away. It was an impressive performance all the way around and was similar to Clemson's two wins over Virginia Tech last year.

In a 23-3 decision in the regular season, Clemson outscored Virginia Tech 13-0 in the second half. In the ACC championship game, which Clemson won 38-10, the Tigers dominated the second half to the tune of 28-0.

The Hokies certainly aren't the same Hokies who have been on top of the conference since coming over from the Big East, but beating Virginia Tech is still a big win for any team in the ACC. The Hokies are usually physical and fundamentally sound, and Clemson has controlled them in both aspects the past two seasons. That says a lot about the direction the Tigers program is going.

And it says something, too, that Clemson didn't play close to its best on offense and won by 21 points. The Tigers have won the past three meetings with Virginia Tech by 69 combined points, and that kind of dominance isn't expected against Beamer's team in ACC play.

Strong in second half: Clemson's play Saturday went the way most of the season has gone with a strong second half.

Outside of the loss to Florida State, in which the Tigers were outscored 35-16 in the final two quarters, Clemson has controlled the second half of games. Even including the game in Tallahassee, the Tigers have outscored their seven opponents 119-88 after halftime. So that means in the six wins, Clemson has a 103-53 advantage.

In the fourth quarter, the Tigers have a 61-37 advantage, and the only time they have allowed double digits in the scoring in the fourth quarter was against Florida State.

That shows a team that is making adjustments at halftime and getting better as the games are going on, and that's a terrific sign for this team moving forward.

GETTING BETTER: While the Clemson offense sputtered for a lot of the day Saturday, the defense was the story of the game.

The offense ran only 66 plays and gained 295 yards, and in many ways this game resembled the teams' regular-season meeting last year as the offense just couldn't seem to find a rhythm. But, really, that's to be expected against Bud Foster's defense.

The Clemson defense, however, was in a good rhythm for most of the day, especially after a big fourth-down stop deep in Clemson territory midway through the first quarter. That play sparked the defense and gave that unit some life, and the defensive players certainly played much better after that.

Through the first two drives, Virginia Tech had 22 plays for 128 yards, but after that stop, the Hokies ran 56 plays for 278 yards.

Yes, the Hokies had 23 first downs and more than 400 yards of offense, but they had to work hard for those numbers. And Clemson's defense, which is getting better each week, made key play after key play.

Jonathan Meeks' 74-yard interception return for a touchdown definitely was a huge play, but it wasn't the only one. Meeks added a second interception, while Xavier Brewer had one, as well. And the Tigers made the Hokies pay for their mistakes, scoring 24 points off the Hokies' four turnovers.

The Tigers pressured Logan Thomas, who had some success on the ground with 99 yards on 21 carries. But he completed only 15-of-28 passes for 207 yards and two of the team's three interceptions.

Clemson had two sacks and seven tackles for loss, and there haven't had many of those this season. Rashard Hall led the way with 12 tackles, and Tig Willard kept his strong season going with 10 more tackles, while Spencer Shuey continues to impress, recording nine tackles, including 2.5 for loss.

This isn't the same Clemson defense that had no answers in the second half against Florida State as it grows into Brent Venables' system. The players have more and more confidence each game, and that's showing up in their play on the field.

UNDER-THE-RADAR: Andre Ellington doesn't get a lot of attention and isn't the focus of the spotlight of the Clemson offense. But he showed again Saturday how important he is to this team.

Ellington had one touchdown and rushed 19 times for 96 yards, an average of 5.1 yards per carry. This season, he has 693 yards, and on Saturday, he surpassed the 3,000-yard mark for his career (he ended the day with 3,048).

Ellington is a security blanket for this offense. While the passing game was off a bit, Ellington came through and gave the offense the spark it needed.

TURNOVER MARGIN: Beamer's program has a reputation, rightfully so, for being strong in fundamentals and being solid on special teams. But for the third straight time, the Tigers beat the Hokies at those two parts of the game.

Clemson won the turnover margin 4-1, including a fumble by the Hokies' punt return team. Virginia Tech struggled in special teams and with turnovers in the two meetings last year, as well. Dabo Swinney has focused on fundamentals in building his program, and that starts with turnovers. In its seven games, Clemson has lost the turnover margin once and been equal in one other game, while winning that stat five times. Most of the time turnover margin is a real indicator of which team will win a game.

Clemson found that out the hard way last year when it dominated turnover margin in its 8-0 start but fell apart in the second half of the season, mostly because of turnovers.

This year, the Tigers are at plus-seven (15-8). That's solid, and if Clemson can keep that up, it can keep putting wins up on the board.

QUICK TURNAROUND: Saturday was a physical game, and that's to be expected against Virginia Tech. The Tigers have to shake that off and get back and ready quickly for Thursday's trip to Wake Forest.

The Demon Deacons improved to 4-2 overall and 3-3 in the ACC with their 16-10 road win over Virginia on Saturday to end a two-game losing streak.

The home Clemson crowd won't see the Tigers for a bit as they stay on the road the following week against Duke before finishing with home games against Maryland, N.C. State and South Carolina.

We have talked about focus a lot with this team, and the players have done a terrific job with that. They will need to keep that up the next two weeks – away from home against programs many people think they should easily defeat – if they're going to have a special season.

Daniel Shirley is the sports editor of the Macon (Ga.) Telegraph and co-host of The Morning Show on FoxSports 1670 AM. Follow him on Twitter @DM_Shirley

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