Watkins' Big Plays Help Tigers Roll at Virginia
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA - Not that it was any secret, but it's become very clear lately that when Sammy Watkins touches the football, good things are bound to follow for Clemson.
Watkins had 129 receiving yards against Virginia on Saturday. And that was just his two touchdowns.
The junior playmaker hauled in scoring passes of 33 and 96 yards on Clemson's first possessions of both the first and second halves, respectively, as the Tigers rolled to a 59-10 win in their last trip to Scott Stadium until at least 2025.
For the day, Watkins finished with eight catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns.
"We always want to get the ball to No. 2," head coach Dabo Swinney said of Watkins. "There's no question it's a major emphasis every week for him to touch the football."
Senior quarterback Tajh Boyd, returning to his home state of Virginia, completed 24 of 29 passes for 377 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in the victory.
"It was a tremendous performance by that young man," Swinney said. "He played disciplined within the system tonight, and hopefully that's something he can continue to do down the stretch as we finish this thing up."
The Tigers led 14-7 late in the second quarter, when freshman safety Jayron Kearse created two turnovers - an interception and a forced fumble - on back-to-back Cavaliers possessions to help Clemson score three touchdowns in the final 4:18 of the first half and pull away.
"Jayron, I thought, was the real spark for us in the first half," Swinney said.
Coming off a school-record 14 receptions at Maryland a week ago, the Tigers wasted no time getting Watkins involved by going to him on the first play from scrimmage. He finished the opening drive with three catches for 46 yards and capped it off with a 33-yard touchdown from Boyd that made it 7-0 just 87 seconds into the game.
After the teams traded punts, Virginia put together a long march and found the end zone on a six-yard run by quarterback David Watford to make it 7-7.
Clemson responded in short order, however, going down the field courtesy of long catches by Roderick McDowell and Martavis Bryant, and pounding it into the end zone on a two-yard run by former walk-on C.J. Davidson. The touchdown made it 14-7 with 2:59 left in the first quarter.
At that point, Boyd was 9-for-9 passing for 135 yards and a touchdown. The passes to McDowell and Bryant went for 27 and 37 yards, respectively, on consecutive plays to set the Tigers up on the Virginia five-yard line.
The Clemson offense sputtered for much of the second quarter, but the defense - and namely Kearse - came up with big plays to help the Tigers add to their lead.
After Clemson turned the ball over on downs near midfield, Kearse nabbed his third interception of the season - tying him for the team lead - three plays later and returned it 37 yards to the Virginia 33.
"I saw the quarterback looking at the receiver - because our nickel back was kind of off him a little bit - and I think he saw him open, he just put it too far over his head and I was there to make the play," Kearse said.
The Tigers cashed the turnover in seven plays later, as Boyd hit McDowell for a 10-yard touchdown to make it 21-7 with 4:18 to go until halftime.
Kearse forced another Cavalier turnover on the ensuing possession, as he stripped Khalek Shepherd after a two-yard gain. DeShawn Williams recovered to set the Tigers up at midfield.
"I was just doing my job - just being in the A gap," Kearse said. "He bounced into my gap, and I was there to make a play."
On a third-and-one play moments later, McDowell took a handoff, juked a defender at the line of scrimmage and raced right up the gut for a 25-yard touchdown to make it 28-7 with 1:29 left in the first half.
The Tiger defense forced a quick three-and-out after that, and Boyd guided an eight-play, 86-yard march and finished it off himself with a one-yard plunge to make it 35-7 going into halftime.
The Tigers blew the game open on their first drive after halftime. After the defense forced a punt, Clemson faced a third-and-15 from the shadow of its own goal posts.
But Boyd dropped back and lofted a high, deep ball down the sideline to Watkins, who hauled in the pass and outran the Cavalier defense for a 96-yard touchdown.
"We all know how explosive he is," offensive coordinator Chad Morris said. "And Tajh has a great feel to put the ball out there and let him go make a play. I can promise you that they were probably supposed to stay back, and Sammy did a good job of setting it up."
The play was the longest pass of Boyd's career and the longest reception of Watkins' career. It was the second-longest play from scrimmage in school history, behind only a 97-yard play against Virginia in 1974.
"I don't know what the cornerback was doing, but he was a very young guy, and that was our game plan - to go at him," Watkins said.
Watkins now has six 100-yard receiving games this year and 13 in his career, which is a Clemson record. He needs just 111 receiving yards to break DeAndre Hopkins' career record.
"I still think I've got a lot more in me," Watkins said. "The coaches push me every week, and I'm getting better every week with just blocking and being physical and making the catches they expect me to make."
The Cavaliers made it 42-10 with a 40-yard field goal by Alec Vozenilek on the next possession.
Redshirt freshman reserve quarterback Chad Kelly extended the Tigers lead to 49-10 with a 38-yard touchdown run, stiff-arming the last Cavalier defender near the 20-yard line and cruising into the end zone.
"We really had some good, clean execution tonight in all three phases," Swinney said. "It was probably our most complete game in a while, as far as just putting it all together. We'd been really close, but just hadn't been able to put it all together. And tonight we did."