BLACKSBURG, Va. -- There was a play midway through the third quarter -- a key moment for Virginia Tech, to be sure, but in retrospect irrelevant to a 31-17 Clemson win that was never particularly in doubt.
It was a fourth-and-3, a must-have for the Hokies. Josh Jackson swung a pass out to the far side of the field, connecting with receiver Sean Savoy on a screen. In an instant, Clemson's Austin Bryant converged, blowing up the play for a 5-yard loss.
All of that might sound like nothing special, until you realize that Bryant is a 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end the Tigers moved out to the boundary to cover a wide receiver. And that receiver never stood a chance.
"Everything aligned perfectly," Bryant said. "It was a perfect call, and I made a play."
This is where things stand for Clemson, which dismissed a third top-15 opponent in September -- the first team to ever do so -- and toppled another ACC challenger in utterly demoralizing fashion and, in the process, showcased that perhaps this year's version of the Tigers is even better, even more dynamic, even scarier than the Deshaun Watson-led group that played for the past two national championships.
After all, it isn't as if the Hokies were awful. Their defense was solid, save a few broken plays that went for big gains. Jackson, their freshman QB, never looked rattled; he just didn't have anywhere to throw the football. The Virginia Tech coaching staff had a solid game plan. Heck, the Hokies threw the kitchen sink at Clemson -- halfback passes, fake field goal attempts, you name it. Tech even got a brilliant punt return from Greg Stroman that set up an easy score.
And it wasn't close.
"We were relentless," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
After Virginia Tech seemed to grab a shred of momentum after the Stroman return and a big stop, the sheer lunacy of Clemson's defensive effort took over again. Jackson flipped a pass out to receiver Henri Murphy, who bobbled it just long enough for Clemson's Dorian O'Daniel to intercede, literally picking the ball off of Murphy's helmet and waltzing into the end zone.
It wasn't as if Clemson played a perfect game, either. Kelly Bryant missed a few throws that might've gone for big gains, but it didn't matter. He still turned in his second straight 100-yard rushing day, dancing out of tackles -- including one ridiculous scramble Swinney suggested was 50 yards in a box -- frustrating a Hokies defense that always seemed to find a big play just inches out of reach.
"They'll watch that play and think, dadgum it, we had him," Swinney said of Bryant's scramble, but it was a statement that also might be applied to a dozen plays Saturday.
It's worth noting, too, that Austin Bryant's night wasn't really about blowing up a screen pass, either. His real standout moment -- the play everyone will talk about for weeks, months or maybe as long as they're still playing football at Clemson -- was his interception midway through the fourth.
Jackson lobbed a throw with plenty of height, but Bryant leapt into the air, stretching his right arm toward the heavens -- a massive human being somehow extending beyond anything the laws of physics should allow -- and grabbed the ball out of midair with his fingertips.
The play was such a miraculous feat of athleticism, Clemson's wide receivers coach Jeff Scott joked he'd give one of Clemson's "WRU" T-shirts -- meant to commemorate the program's lineage of great receivers -- to Bryant.
"I'll definitely take the shirt," Bryant said.
In fact, Scott said the only comparison he could recall for Bryant's catch came from DeAndre Hopkins, currently a star wide receiver for the Houston Texans. The 265-pound lineman and the superstar receiver seem equal in their athleticism.
Then remember this: When the season began, Bryant was the other guy on Clemson's D-line, the one who had yet to prove himself, the Ringo Starr among All-American candidates Dexter Lawrence, Christian Wilkins and Clelin Ferrell.
And so the question Virginia Tech must be asking in the aftermath, the question that should haunt every other team in the ACC, is, "Just how is anyone supposed to beat Clemson?"
"I just don't see a weakness," Hokies coach Justin Fuente said afterward.
After the Tigers demolished Louisville in another top-15 matchup two weeks ago, Swinney said the team's goal was to leave no doubt. He meant in the final score, and the Tigers delivered.
Saturday's game in Blacksburg left no doubt -- not just for this one game but for this season. Watson, Mike Williams and Ben Boulware are gone, and believe it or not, this Clemson team is better.