CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After pushing around foes for the last month, the Hokies finally found one that pushed back.
Clemson shut down Virginia Tech's ground game, and used a nimble passing attack from Tajh Boyd to pick apart the Hokies secondary in a 38-10 ACC championship game victory.
There were glimpses of the dominance that brought the Hokies to Charlotte, but only the Tigers came prepared for a 60-minute physical battle, setting the tone with hard hits and bruising blocks.
"We didn't do a good job of stopping them," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. "We just weren't doing what we're good at doing."
In a tunnel underneath Bank of America stadium, players echoed their coach's thoughts: Clemson found a way to keep them from playing their game.
It's a loss that will likely send Tech (11-2) to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl to face Auburn. An official announcement will be made Sunday night — as there remains a slim chance of a Sugar Bowl berth.
Saturday night's game swung on a number of small things, each of which went against the Hokies.
It started on the first offensive play, which turned into a Logan Thomas fumble on video review. In continued into halftime, as Thomas didn't realize the clock would start after a holding call, costing his team a shot at a touchdown.
In the third quarter, after Clemson opened with a methodical touchdown drive, the Hokies were three-and-out, including a horse-collar tackle on Thomas that went unnoticed and an offensive pass interference call against Jarrett Boykin.
"That was a frustrating call," D.J. Coles said of the Boykin call. "But as an offense, we've got to come back."
Virginia Tech did little to help itself, and struggled to adapt to the smash-mouth game. Clemson's defense seemed to relish each big hit it dished out.
On offense, Boyd took advantage of speedy receivers and an offensive line that gave him the time he needed to make key throws.
A 10-10 halftime margin didn't last long, as the Tigers opened up the second half with a 10-play, 87-yard scoring drive that showcased their quick, efficient approach.
"I think their offense did a good job of mixing it up," Beamer said. "Up the middles, around the sides, down the fields. They get you on your heels, then get you."
After setting it up all game, Boyd went for the big strike in the third, finding speedy freshman Sammy Watkins for a 53-yard touchdown.
"That was definitely a momentum shift," cornerback Cris Hill (Highland Springs) said. "They're a dangerous offense, and they caught us."
The play also underscored how important an injury to cornerback Jayron Hosley in the first half was. Hosley missed the second half, and backup Detrick Bonner, a freshman, was unable to run with Clemson's speedy receivers.
"Jayron could have made a difference in the game," Hill said. "He's one of those guys that you can just feel his presence on the field."
Even senior Danny Coale, who could do no wrong this year for the Hokies, ran out of magic. His first-half duties included punts of 61 and 60 yards, among the best in ACC title game history. In the second half, he struggled to get the ball to midfield on his first two boots.
Clemson's third drive of the second half was its third consecutive touchdown, a 29-yard run by Andre Ellington.
His dominance mirrored the scene in Blacksburg on Oct. 1, when the Tigers gave the Hokies their only other loss of the season.
The weeks after that game marked a turning point for Thomas, a sophomore who emerged as one of the ACC's top signal callers.
Saturday night, Clemson took him back down a notch. The Tigers mostly stuck with air-tight coverage, but mixed in the occasional blitz.
"They did it in the first game, so we were ready for it," Thomas said of the physical play. "I think we did a lot better up front this time, honestly."
At times, the Hokies showed why they entered as the favorites. By the end, though, they had come unraveled.
Boykin made a catch towards the end of the third quarter that might have put the Hokies back in the game. But frustrated with the pass interference that was committed against him, he spiked the ball and drew a personal foul.
One step forward, two steps back.
It was a dance that marched Virginia Tech right out of the Orange Bowl.