BLACKSBURG, Va. — Last week, Virginia Tech running backs coach Shane Beamer acknowledged what everybody had been thinking since the spring about the Hokies' upcoming game against Clemson.
"There's a lot of questions — how good is Virginia Tech? — that people want answered," Beamer said, calling the game "a good measuring stick."
On Saturday night, the 11th-ranked Hokies stepped into serious October football on a fittingly October evening at Lane Stadium — 43 degrees at kickoff, with swirling winds chilling the air to 36, and the gray sky spitting rain. It felt like the beginning of the real college football season, and for the Hokies, it essentially was.
After going undefeated in four ho-hum non-conference games, this would be the night they learned just how good they really are right now, and how ready they might be to defend their ACC championship.
At least for this night, in front of a buzzing home crowd and a national television audience, they didn't measure up to conference championship standards. They lost 23-3 to the No. 13 Tigers (5-0, 2-0 ACC), who jumped to the forefront of the ACC by becoming the conference's first team to win three straight games over ranked opponents.
The convincing victory not only snapped Tech's 11-game ACC winning streak, but marked the first time since 1995 that it failed to score a touchdown at home. Underscoring the Hokies' ongoing offensive issues, they reached the Clemson 2 and settled for a field goal in the first half, then got to the 12 in the second half and turned the ball over on downs.
"We're beating ourselves right now," said senior receiver Danny Coale.
Tech's defense did its part by holding Clemson to 231 yards before the Tigers began an 88-yard touchdown drive with 9:48 left in the game. That put them up 23-3.
But it was a composed play by their first-year starting quarterback, Tajh Boyd, that helped them pull away. With 10:42 left in the third quarter, Boyd stepped back to evade blitzing end J.R. Collins, then lobbed a 32-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dwayne Allen that put Clemson ahead 17-3.
The game was one of Tech's most anticipated in recent years — and its eighth home game ever between two top-15 teams. Four of those previous seven games were at night — which adds to the buzz — and the Hokies had lost the past two, to No. 2 Boston College in 2007 and to No. 5 Miami in 2005.
They lost again Saturday night because, just like in their previous three games this season, they couldn't put the ball in the end zone often enough. The Hokies had drives end at the Clemson 41, 48, 32, 7 (after getting to the 2), 45, 42 and 12. The results of those drives: interception, lost fumble, punt, field goal, punt, punt and turnover on downs.
Settling for a field goal after having second and goal at the 2 was the most glaring of the missed opportunities. Tech coach Frank Beamer said a false start penalty on third and goal at the 2 was due in part to Tech's band playing during the snap count.
The Hokies gained 258 yards against a Clemson defense that was allowing an average of 405.5. Tech free safety Eddie Whitley said several offensive players approached him in the locker room and said, "I'm sorry."
There are still seven games left, all in the ACC, for the Hokies' offense to redeem itself, and for the team to prove it is worthy of playing for the conference title — perhaps against Clemson.
"We hope to see them again," said Tech quarterback Logan Thomas, who threw for just 125 yards. "At least I do."
The Hokies have been in this position before. They started 0-2 last season, then won 11 straight games. In that 14-10 loss to Boston College in 2007, quarterback Matt Ryan devastated them with a last-minute touchdown drive. Then the Hokies won five straight games and beat Boston College for the ACC title.
Beamer brought that up Saturday, saying he "felt awful" after the Boston College game, but his players still managed to respond. Now, he must hope they can do it again, starting next Saturday at home against Miami.
"This thing is far from over," he said.
• Read Darryl Slater's Virginia Tech blog at vteffect.com