CLEMSON — When Chandler Catanzaro’s 43-yard field goal sailed through the uprights, one of Clemson’s most dramatic comebacks in recent years was complete. For the third time this season, the Tigers rallied from a double-digit deficit, erasing a 28-14 hole with 5:32 left in the third quarter to score a 31-28 win over Wake Forest, winning the ACC Atlantic Division title.
It was an impressive day for a team few, if any, picked to win the division behind a new offense and a revamped coaching staff. Clemson had its flaws Saturday, but it also flashed impressive offensive depth and heart. Here are five things we learned from the division clincher:
1. Clemson can win without Sammy Watkins: Watkins has been a revelation as a true freshman; he already owns ACC freshman records in receiving yards, receptions and touchdowns, and Saturday he became the fourth Clemson receiver ever to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in a season. But when he suffered a sprained shoulder following a hard hit on a third-quarter kickoff return, his day was over, and the Tigers faced a two-score deficit.
Quarterback Tajh Boyd utilized a number of other weapons: on the drive after Watkins left, he threw an 18-yard strike to Jaron Brown, an eight-yard completion to backup Adam Humphries and finished the drive with a seven-yard touchdown to second-string tight end Brandon Ford.
On the game-tying drive, he utilized Brown, Ford and DeAndre Hopkins, tying the game with a 10-yard touchdown to Brown. And on the game-winning drive, he was 3-for-3 with two passes to tight end Dwayne Allen and a final pass to Humphries.
Watkins is special, but Clemson isn’t lost without him.
2. Turnovers are a concern: Through eight games, the Tigers had eight turnovers. In the last two games, they have seven. That’s a major issue. Wake Forest dropped eight defenders into coverage, and Boyd got impatient, throwing a pair of interceptions (although one was batted into the air and snagged by a Wake defensive lineman). He had three interceptions through eight games, and now has four in his last two. Boyd settled down in the second half and completed 17 of his last 20 passes, but this offense can’t function with multiple turnovers, especially when they come deep in Clemson territory, like Andre Ellington’s fumble at his own 25.
3. Run defense remains an issue: Clemson entered with the nation’s No.93 rush defense, and those numbers didn’t improve Saturday. Wake Forest – 11th in the ACC in rushing, averaging 104 yards per game, rushed for 145 yards as a team, with little-known Brandon Pendergrass shredding the defense for 134 yards on 20 carries. Steele started a pair of new defensive tackles in D.W. Daniel product DeShawn Williams and Tyler Shatley, and Xavier Brewer got his second consecutive start at safety, but too often, safeties and linebackers were out of position.
4. Chandler Catanzaro can be clutch: Sophomore kicker Chandler Catanzaro has been much –improved from his inconsistent freshman season, which saw him make 14-of-22 field goals with big misses at Auburn, Boston College and Florida State. But he had yet to make a truly pressurized kick, and when he pushed a 30-yarder wide left with 1:18 left and the game tied, it likely sent Clemson fans’ hearts into their throats. But the defense got the ball back, and Boyd and Co. put him in position for another try.
This time, a 43-yarder was straight and true, and it probably would’ve been good from 53. It was a huge moment and confidence-builder for a young kicker who really needed it.
5. Brandon Ford is a playmaker: This might have been Dwayne Allen’s final home game in a Clemson uniform; the junior is projected as the top tight end in the 2012 NFL draft and would likely be a first-round pick if he declares. But Ford, a converted wide receiver, could be a worthy replacement. He had three catches for 51 yards and a touchdown, with the highlight an athletic 24-yard grab on the left sideline that set up the Tigers’ second score. He isn’t at Allen’s level yet, but Ford is rapidly improving.