It was easy to spot the happiest guy in No. 14 Clemson's locker room — defensive coordinator Brent Venables.
Venables had spent most of his first season watching his Tigers struggle against opponents big and small. But with one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's best players in Logan Thomas in to lead Virginia Tech, Clemson's defenders put together their best effort of the season.
The Tigers got three interceptions — two off of Thomas — and made a pair of fourth-down stops in a 38-17 victory over the Hokies on Saturday.
Clemson (6-1, 4-1 ACC) came in 10th in the 12-team conference in yards given up at more than 445 yards a game. Virginia Tech (4-4, 2-2) got 406 in this one, all but 100 of those by Thomas, but it was the Tigers' defense that turned things around against the fired-up Hokies.
"We don't have to play like Alabama yet," Venables said with a grin. "Although we'd like to. But we can definitely play better than we have up to this point and hopefully, today was a sign of moving in the right direction."
Jonathan Meeks had two interceptions, including one he took back for a 74-yard touchdown off Thomas.
"I knew right away," Thomas said of his sailing throw.
Tajh Boyd ran for two touchdowns and passed for another for the Tigers, who were held to their lowest offensive output of the season at 295 yards. Boyd thought the team didn't come out as strong as he hoped for their first game in two weeks. Still, Boyd said, in other seasons, such a showing would lead to defeat. "I think it shows how far we've come," he said.
Andre Ellington had a 12-yard touchdown run and 96 yards for the Tigers. All-American receiver Sammy Watkins has his most productive game this season with eight catches for 84 yards.
Tigers coach Dabo Swinney knew it was the defense that led the way in Clemson's third straight victory over Virginia Tech. "They had a great performance," Swinney said. "From the sidelines, I believe it was their best effort."
Boyd was 12 of 21 for 160 yards, 131 fewer than he averaged coming in.
Clemson tied a school record with its 11th straight home victory, something it had done twice before from 1937-42 and 1989-91. To match the mark this time, the Tigers had to count on their usually unreliable defense as their high-flying offense was largely grounded.
Thomas had 207 yards passing and a 29-yard TD throw to Corey Fuller. He also rushed for 99 yards, including a 19-yard scoring run in the final quarter that gave the Hokies hope of a rally down 31-17.
But Virginia Tech tried some trickery on its next series. Marcus Davis' weak throw across the field after taking a pitch was easily picked off by Xavier Brewer. Boyd put the game away a short time later with his second 1-yard scoring run.
The Hokies looked to gain a hammerlock early when, up 7-0, they tried to pick up a first down inside Clemson's 20 by twice rushing Michael Holmes on short yardage. Holmes was stopped twice and Clemson took away the momentum.
"We had the chance there to really get up by a couple of touchdowns, and that makes it a different game," Hokies coach Frank Beamer said. "But give them credit. They did a nice job."
Instead of trailing 14-0, Clemson began its comeback with Chandler Catanzaro's 27-yard field goal — his 20th straight made kick since last season.
Meeks got the first of his two interceptions on Virginia Tech's next series, grabbing Thomas' sailing pass right before going out of bounds. The Hokies gave Clemson even more help on the drive, a short punt bouncing off a Virginia Tech player that Tony Steward recovered as the Tigers kept the ball. Boyd put them ahead for good moments later with a leaping, 1-yard TD.
Two series later, Meeks was at it again, this time, swiping Thomas' pass in the open field and running 74 yards for the score.
Clemson's attack finally got going after halftime. Ellington's touchdown run ended a 52-yard drive before Boyd hit DeAndre Hopkins with a 37-yard scoring pass the next time Clemson had the ball to go up 31-10.
Boyd was sacked five times after Clemson had allowed 10 its first six games.
Virginia Tech had entered this one stung by last year's failures against the Tigers. After dominating Clemson for more than decade, the Hokies were overrun in two games last year, including a 38-10 loss in the ACC title game.
Clemson celebrated Military Appreciation Day and had walk-on receiver Daniel Rodriguez, U.S. Army veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star, lead the team's charge down the hill into the stadium carrying the American flag to loud cheers. Rodriguez was also an honorary captain against Virginia Tech, the team he grew up following.
"Everything just aligned for me in the game," Rodriguez said.