CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Jayron Kearse heard the love from Tajh Boyd himself, and from the rest of his teammates.
Clemson’s dynamic freshman safety has a penchant for making big plays, and when the Tigers were slogging through the second quarter with a 14-7 lead, he forced turnovers on back-to-back Virginia possessions, directly converted into 14 more Clemson points — the catalyst to place the Tigers’ 59-10 victory out of reach.
“It feels good. Tajh is a great person, great character, a leader on our team,” Kearse said. “So when he comes to me and congratulates me on something I did, telling me I was good making plays, that’s real big for me.”
Kearse hovered back to make his third career interception — tying him with starting corners Darius Robinson and Bashaud Breeland for the team lead — when Cavaliers quarterback David Watford airmailed a deep pass. It was one thing for Kearse to make the pick; it was another for him to cruise for 37 yards on the return, setting up a short field for Roderick McDowell’s 10-yard touchdown reception.
On the next drive, Kearse’s hit caused Virginia tailback Khalek Shepherd to fumble, which was recovered at midfield by Clemson defensive tackle DeShawn Williams. McDowell ran it in from 25 yards out soon after.
“After that first one, we went down and scored, got another one, then they went down and did the same thing,” Kearse said. “Everyone was telling me, ‘Good job, good job, just get the ball back.’ Tajh came to me and told me that was a great play, and we’re going to take care of the rest.”
While Kearse hasn’t taken the starting job from Travis Blanks, he’s used his 6-4 frame to cause havoc with opposing offenses.
“I think I’m a real good playmaker. When I’m back deep, quarterbacks have to make the right decision, be aware that I’m going to make a play on the ball,” Kearse said. “And then the fumble was just me doing my job, taking care of my responsibility and not trying to do too much.”
Three freshmen have logged significant snaps this year for Clemson’s defense: Kearse, defensive end Shaq Lawson and nickel back Korrin Wiggins, who made his second career interception in the fourth quarter Saturday night.
“It’s big, because we had three turnovers (Saturday night), and it was all about freshmen,” Kearse said. “We’re trying to make our class known.”
Sophomore running back C.J. Davidson departed the game in the third quarter with a knee injury, but after consulting with trainers, head coach Dabo Swinney was confident it was not severe.
“I think C.J.’s did not seem bad,” Swinney said. “They think it might be his MCL; they felt like his ACL looked pretty good. Of course, you never know until you get him (further evaluated).”
Clemson’s No. 2 rusher, Zac Brooks, wore a compression sleeve over his ailing right shoulder and suited up, but did not appear Saturday.
“Brooks was ready to play. He practiced, but he’s just beat up,” Swinney said. “We wanted to see if we could hold him, and we were able to accomplish that. He might have been the only guy who didn’t play, to be honest with you.”
Special-teamer Ronald Geohaghan will have his knee examined when the team returns to Clemson.
Picking on the kids
After Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston bolstered his Heisman campaign Oct. 19 against the Tigers, Clemson’s pass defense tightened up during the two-game road trip.
Maryland quarterback Caleb Rowe went 20 for 46 for 287 yards, and Virginia passers David Watford and Greyson Lambert combined for 19 of 46 passing and 163 yards. Combined, that’s a 42.3 completion percentage and 4.9 yards per attempt, compared to Winston’s 64.7 and 13.1 figures.
“I just think it’s discipline,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “Our guys are trusting each other, putting their eyes where they belong and playing with good technique. You don’t have to play at a superhuman level to play sound and consistent.”
Rod stays hot
For an encore after his career-best 161-yard, two-TD day at Maryland, McDowell started slowly, but churned out 113 total yards and two more scores (one rushing, one receiving).
He started with a career-long 27-yard catch to help move the chains on a third-and-4 play. Then he scored his third and fourth touchdowns of the season, after missing the end zone in 14 consecutive games dating back to October 2012.
Stoudt, Kelly in there
Junior Cole Stoudt relieved Boyd midway through the third quarter, completing 5 of 9 passes for 31 yards to sink his season-long completion percentage (he was 37 of 44 entering Saturday.)
Freshman Chad Kelly was 5 of 7 for 27 yards, and raced for a 38-yard TD as part of his seven-carry, 56-yard night. Walk-on Nick Schuessler also appeared.
Offensive line shuffle
Left guard David Beasley and right tackle Gifford Timothy got the starts, but Kalon Davis and Shaq Anthony got their chances.
So did Isaiah Battle, the highly touted but still-maturing left tackle who started the second half in place of Brandon Thomas.