No. 23 Clemson rides Spiller to berth in ACC championship game
CLEMSON, S.C. -- This was why C.J. Spiller came back to Clemson.
The Tigers' star senior awaited a Virginia punt in the fourth quarter with Clemson's 34-21 victory all but secure when the 77,000 at Death Valley broke into chants of his name over and over.
"One of the referees came over and told me he got chills," a smiling Spiller said Saturday.
There may be more special moments ahead for Spiller and the Tigers (No. 23 BCS, No. 18 AP), who advanced to their first Atlantic Coast Conference title game.
The drama was over before kickoff when Boston College lost 31-13 to North Carolina. Coach Dabo Swinney reversed course and congratulated his team for winning the Atlantic Division before taking the field.
"But there's no celebrating," he ordered. "You're division champs, but champions take care of business and you've got business out on that field."
The Tigers (8-3, 6-2 ACC) won their sixth straight since starting the season 2-3. Now, after facing state rival South Carolina next Saturday, they'll head to Tampa, Fla., to take on Coastal division winner Georgia Tech in two weeks.
Spiller had a 4-yard touchdown run and set the ACC's single-season all-purpose yardage mark, surpassing the 2,059 of Virginia's Thomas Jones in 1999.
Virginia (3-8, 2-5) kept things close in the first half, its 21 points more than it had put up in any of its previous five games. But the Cavaliers were shut out the final 30 minutes and lost their fifth straight.
"Unfortunately, we had some mistakes against a team that can now be called championship-caliber, having won their division," Cavaliers coach Al Groh said.
It's Clemson first visit to the title game after years of near misses. In 2006, Clemson lost four of its last five after starting 7-1 to fall from contention. A year after that, the Tigers were beaten by Boston College 20-17 in a division showdown.
This time, Spiller got to hold his hand up in triumph as he jogged off the field to the adoring calls of the Death Valley crowd.
Earlier, fans sang "Happy Birthday" to Swinney, who turned 40 on Friday. When the game ended, spectators filled the field to join in a celebration not seen around here since Clemson's last ACC title in 1991.
"This is just an extremely special day," Swinney said.
And a profitable one for Clemson's coach. Reaching the ACC title game kicked in a contractual bonus that will raise Swinney's salary from the league bottom at $800,000 to the median of all ACC coaches -- around $1.8 million annually.
"We're happy, very happy," said Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips, given a game ball by Swinney.
Spiller had been on a Heisman-type tear in Clemson's win streak, posting record-setting performances of 310 and 312 all-purpose yards in victories over Miami and Florida State.
But Virginia had Spiller's number -- again. After holding him to just 18 yards rushing a season ago, the Cavaliers never let Spiller break free for one of his highlight reel romps. He finished with 58 yards rushing and 114 all-purpose.
Still, it was a day of memories for a player who one day will likely have his name enshrined in Death Valley's Ring of Honor.
Spiller shocked many, including his mother, when he returned to Clemson last January instead of entering the NFL draft. From his first play -- a 96-yard kickoff return in the opener against Middle Tennessee -- Spiller put together a season that'll be hard for Clemson fans to forget.
Spiller was the last Tigers senior to take the solo run down Death Valley's famed hill in his last home game. Spiller kissed Howard's Rock and skipped down holding a U.S. flag in honor of Military Appreciation Day as the large, orange-clad crowd roared in celebration.
"Clemson's been so good to me," he said. "To step into Death Valley one last time ... I'll definitely miss it."
The game that followed was supposed to be just as raucous for the Tigers, whose second-ranked ACC defense was facing the league's worst offense.
Perhaps it was clinching on Boston College's loss, Virginia's poor record or Tigers fans pointing to bigger games down the road, but Clemson played early with little of the fire.
Quarterback Kyle Parker was stopped short on fourth-and-goal at the Virginia 5 after Clemson recovered a fumble on the Cavaliers' first play.
Each time the Tigers moved in front, Virginia was there with an answer.
The embattled Groh even used a couple of offensive tricks to keep the Cavs in it.
Receiver Vic Hall threw a 30-yard pass to quarterback Jameel Sewell after taking a lateral. Hall then took a reverse flip from Sewell and passed to a wide open Joe Torchia to tie things at 14-all.
But in the second half, Clemson's defense forcing four straight three-and-outs, and the Cavaliers were done.
"We just wanted to win this thing the real way and not depend on somebody else losing," Clemson receiver Jacoby Ford said.
2022 Atlantic Coast Conference Standings