There were a lot of big plays in this game. Some critical penalties and missed penalties (the pass interference call on Jarrett Boykin was EXACTLY the same type of play that the refs flagged as pass interference on a Clemson defensive back later in the game and in both cases there was no pass interference by either player on the play), a blocked punt that was called roughing the punter, missed horse collar, missed late hit, etc. The Tigers also executed some fantastic plays on offense that were big-time well-run plays. But after watching the game an excruciating second time, I honestly feel deep in my heart this game was won and lost on one play. I'll explain afterwards, since many of you will disagree.
1) 12:03 left in the 1st quarter and the Hokies took over for their first series. First play from scrimmage after all the hype and hubbub and what happens? For the 2nd time this season, a Logan Thomas fumble on the first Hokie offensive play. And the Tigers recovered and went on to score.
There are several reasons I boil the game down to this play. The Tigers came into the ACC Championship game with very low confidence. The Hokies were riding high on a 7 game win streak looking to avenge their only loss. The Tigers got the ball first....and proceeded to get stopped short of midfield. They punted and the Hokies took over. A good first drive for even a FG would have planted the only seeds of doubt the Hokies needed. Hell, even a few first downs and a punt wouldn't have given Clemson the spark it needed to get out of the 4 game funk they had been in.
And what play was it that the fumble occurred on? A read-option. Playcaller Mike O'Cain proceeded to avoid that read-option play like the plague, only using it twice more the entire first half. The read-option was a critical cog in the Hokie offensive machine in the latter part of the season and a bad result on that first play kept them away from it.
As the first half ended 10-10 I really felt like the game was lost when I was watching it the first time. Because Clemson had all they needed to know - they were in the game. As I said in the preview, that confidence was the only thing lacking because they certainly had all the weapons. If you've ever played competitive sports you understand the critical importance of psychology. It affects one's ability to focus and to execute. Good plays feed on themselves and so do bad plays. In fact a sign of great coaching is the ability to convince a team to forget the last play and move on to the next one.
Against Clemson during the regular season, early game mistakes convinced Clemson they belonged in the game, in that type of hostile environment in Lane Stadium. They played with confidence and they had (and have) a ton of great weapons. The result was 23-3. In the ACC title game, this early mistake by the Hokies jolted the Tigers out of their slump and while I'll concede that if the game had been refereed fairly and Jayron Hosley hadn't gotten injured, who knows what would have happened, I will still conclude that if the Hokies had NOT turned that ball over but instead had gone on a good drive, the Hokies would have been ACC champs.