CLEMSON —College football can be an ugly, brutal game.
It can also be beautiful.
Running back Travis Etienne, wide receiver Amari Rodgers and cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. displayed a spectrum of athletic brilliance Saturday night in helping No. 1 Clemson roll to a 41-23 victory over Virginia.
Etienne was a human bulldozer, seemingly gaining strength with each broken tackle, shaking off contact and bursting through defenders. He finished with 14 carries for 73 yards and one rushing touchdown, and caught five passes for 114 yards and another score.
Rodgers was a human trampoline, leaping over a Cavaliers defender into the end zone for a touchdown in the first half. He finished with six catches for 72 yards and two touchdowns.
And Booth was a human vacuum, sucking up an end zone heave for a one-handed, Odell Beckham Jr.-style interception in the third quarter. He finished with three tackles (all solo), two pass breakups and the pick.
Together the trio provided the highlight-reel plays in what proved to be the Tigers' first true test of the season. Virginia (1-1, 1-1 ACC) trailed by as little as 10 late in the third quarter, but Clemson (3-0, 2-0) made key plays when it mattered and continued its hot start to the season.
"I thought we were inconsistent offensively and defensively at times," Swinney said. "All in all something that I think is going to make us better."
Coach Dabo Swinney's team had defeated its first two 2020 opponents, Wake Forest and The Citadel, by a combined score of 86-13.
Virginia, which lost to Clemson in last season's ACC Championship game, made things a little more interesting, but in front of the socially distanced crowd the Tigers celebrated their 24th consecutive home win.
Clemson also became the first ACC team to reach 300 regular-season conference victories.
What went right
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence played well, though not as dominant as he was in the Tigers' first two games, completing 25 of 38 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns.
"Took what they gave me," Lawrence said. "Their defensive philosophy is kind of bend don't break."
Etienne proved especially helpful on third and long, bursting through would-be tacklers for first downs on a pair of third-and-long dump offs. But he and Rodgers weren't Lawrence's only weapons.
Frank Ladson caught five passes for 71 receptions and Brannon Spector had four catches for 32 yards. Swinney said wide receiver Joseph Ngata (abdominal injury) is not yet at full strength and has not been practicing.
The Tigers' defense at times struggled to contain Virginia's slippery quarterback Brennan Armstrong — who finished 24-for-43 passing for 270 yards and three touchdowns, 89 yards rushing, and two interceptions — but it made up for it in momentum-shifting plays.
Clemson had two interceptions (Booth and free safety Nolan Turner), eight pass breakups, four tackles for loss and three sacks.
The Tigers outgained the Cavaliers, 466-417.
What went wrong
The Tigers committed eight penalties for 65 yards. The score might have more closely resembled that of Clemson's first two games had it not been for the unforced errors.
Lawrence also did have more overthrows than he would have liked, and the Tigers allowed the Cavaliers to gain 270 yards through the air. These are all fixable mistakes, though.
The energy in the stadium shifted with Booth's interception. The pick came one play after Armstrong extended the Cavaliers' drive on third-and-seven with a 31-yard completion.
Booth gave Clemson the ball back and eight plays later kicker B.T. Potter converted a 42-yard field goal that gave Clemson a 27-10 lead. Instead of starting the second half with a score, Virginia was again on its heels.
Swinney, for what it's worth, wasn't shocked by Booth's feat of athleticism: "I've seen it before."
Clemson is back under the Death Valley lights Saturday when it hosts No. 8 Miami. The Hurricanes are off to a surprising 3-0 start and had this weekend off. ESPN's College GameDay will be in attendance.