CLEMSON — – After every home game, Clemson fans flood the floor of Memorial Stadium, a tradition they call “meeting at the Paw.”
They surround players and coaches, and following Saturday’s 38-24 takedown of defending national champion Auburn – ending AU’s 17-game win streak – it gave Dabo Swinney a memorable backdrop.
With fans and a few South Carolina state troopers surrounding him, Clemson’s head coach cut a promo suitable for the WWE’s Monday Night Raw.
“I told our team, you’ve got greatness in you, and they made a decision be great,” he said, virtually screaming into the ABC camera. “I couldn’t think of a better place to end this streak than Death Valley, South Carolina!”
Swinney, his players and the Tigers’ fan base are fired up about Clemson’s 3-0 start. CU entered both major polls Sunday, clocking in at No.21 in the Associated Press poll and No.22 in the USA Today/Coaches Poll. But what did we learn from Saturday’s win?
No.1: Sammy Watkins is special. We’d already seen Clemson’s freshman wideout do great things in wins over Troy and Wofford. Saturday, he had a breakout game on a national stage. Watkins caught 10 passes for 155 yards and two scores, adding 44 rushing yards. He set Clemson single-gam freshman records for yards and receptions, and his yardage was the eighth-most in CU history.
Watkins is so fast and so strong, he only needs a small hole to make a big play. On his 65-yard touchdown catch, he caught the ball in the flat, watched two Auburn defenders dive after him, and turned on the nitro boost. Next stop, end zone.
He has become Tajh Boyd’s favorite target and safety valve, catching numerous screens and short passes. But my favorite play might have been his four-yard gain on third and three late in the third quarter. He fought off three tackles and extended a drive that eventually resulted in his second score, a 19-yard touchdown.
Auburn’s defense is wretched, but Watkins is a major difference-maker who should shatter DeAndre Hopkins’ one-year-old freshman receiving records.
No.2: Chad Morris, you can expand the playbook. Last week, offensive coordinator Chad Morris lamented about using only about half of his offense, saying his team wasn’t playing fast enough or well enough to use the other half. Saturday, Clemson showed its readiness for the next step. The Tigers piled up 624 yards of total offense, third all-time in school history. It is just the eighth game of 600-plus yards of total offense, and the most ever by an SEC opponent. After two early three-and-outs, Clemson scored on five of six drives and converted 10 consecutive third downs.
They were crisp, they were efficient, and they showed toughness. A good omen for the weeks ahead.
No.3: Tajh Boyd can handle the pressure. Boyd looked little like a quarterback making his third career start Saturday, throwing for 386 yards and four touchdowns while completing 30 of 42 passes. He is the first Clemson player in history to throw for at least three scores in three consecutive starts. Never mind that those were his first three career starts. Following a shaky beginning against Troy, Boyd has consistently gotten better and better with each week, a fact Morris acknowledged postgame Saturday. He’ll have two very tough tests ahead with Florida State and Virginia Tech’s defenses – both far better than Auburn – but the signs are positive.
No.4: The offensive line responded. Morris called out the line for its lack of physical play, and center Dalton Freeman even said his teammates weren’t studying enough. They had an excellent game Saturday, protecting Boyd well and paving the way for 624 yards of total offense. And that was with third-string Brandon Thomas at left guard, put there after starter David Smith was sidelined with shoulder surgery and second-teamer Mason Cloy went down with a lower leg injury.
Said Freeman: “We felt much more confident this week and much better prepared. We really took it personally when people said we were soft.” Obviously.
No.5: The defense also responded to Kevin Steele’s challenge. Following 16 missed tackles against Wofford, defensive coordinator Steele said he’d take an old-school approach to fixing the problem, something middle linebacker Corico Hawkins confirmed afterward, saying he and his teammates “wrapped up and went to the ground” in tackling drills. It worked. Although the Tigers had a couple of key busts, allowing Michael Dyer’s 52-yard touchdown run and a 41-yard pass on an underthrown ball behind coverage, they were vastly improved, getting pressure and rattling Auburn quarterback Barrett Trotter. Could Clemson fans have done without going down 21-7? Sure, but they’ll take outscoring an opponent 31-3 over the final two-plus quarters to end a game any day, I think.