DURHAM, N.C. — In retrospect, Florida State did the rest of the ACC a grand disservice.
In late September, the Seminoles contained Clemson’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense – at least as much as it can be contained – “holding” the Tigers to 37 points in their only defeat of the season while using physical, press man coverage.
Nothing is secret with hyper-analysis of film, and other ACC teams pounced.
Trouble was, no other ACC teams possess Florida State’s defensive talent.
Saturday night, Duke was the latest to find that out the hard way.
Junior quarterback Tajh Boyd and No.10 Clemson torched the Blue Devils through the air early and often, gutting the secondary and rolling to an 56-20 win at Wallace Wade Stadium.
The Tigers improved to 8-1 overall, 5-1 in ACC play; Duke fell to 6-4, 3-3. It marked the eighth consecutive game that Clemson has scored at least 37 points, an ACC record.
The 719 yards of total offense was the second-highest offensive total in program history, behind the 756 in 1981’s 82-24 rout of Wake Forest.
“I feel like there was another question about us putting together a complete game,” Boyd said. “I felt like we did that to a certain extent. I feel like we’re starting to get to the point where we’re starting to become better and better as the season goes along, and at the right time. I feel we’re starting to peak. We haven’t hit it yet but it’s coming along.”\
In the first half alone, Boyd set program single-game records for touchdowns, broke the program’s all-time touchdown responsibility mark and accounted for all six of Clemson’s touchdowns.
He completed 14 of 19 passes for 314 yards and five touchdowns, adding a rushing score and 77 yards on the ground.
“That was stressed this week in practice,” Boyd said. “We knew we were going to get matchups of that nature. We’d get safeties blitzing. We had to win those matchups. It was a challenge for the receivers, the linemen, for me to be able to put the ball on them and I feel like we did that pretty fluently.”
The Tigers entered this week No.13 in the BCS standings: teams must finish in the top 14 of the final poll and have at least nine wins to be eligible for an at-large bid.
“With the type of situation we’re in, style points matter,” Boyd said. “This is a BCS (thing), that’s what our goal is. We want to keep accomplishing things, so we’ve got to win out these last three games. It’s fortunate we have them at home. It gives a slight advantage but we’ve got to improve. If you’re a certain type of team, you have to perform to that level, perform to that capability. We feel like we’re that type of team.”
The Tigers committed four turnovers, three on Boyd interceptions (one on a Hail Mary to end the first half, another ripped from tight end Sam Cooper), and forced no turnovers. But coach Dabo Swinney credited a strong offensive line effort for fueling the win.
“The credit goes to that offensive line,” he said. “They were outstanding. They came to play. They protected our quarterback and just really gave us an opportunity to be successful and have balance.”
With the win, Clemson finished 4-1 in road games for only the second time in 15 years.
“I’m real proud of our guys for that,” Swinney said. “You win games on the road and you have a chance to be a real good team. It’s not easy to win on the road, in this league or any league.”
Clemson started right where it left off last week at Wake Forest, with an offensive blitz that left the Blue Devils reeling.
Boyd finished an efficient eight-play, 76-yard first drive with a five-yard fade touchdown pass to DeAndre Hopkins in the left corner of the end zone, putting the Tigers in front for good 2:29 into the game.
Duke responded with a 46-yard field goal by Ross Martin, but against the Tigers’ offense, that’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight.
On first and 10 from his own 42, Boyd unloaded a strike to Hopkins, who grabbed it in stride over a Duke defender at the 10. He coasted in for a 58-yard touchdown and 14-3 Clemson lead.
“I wanted to shield the guy, he was on my back,” Hopkins said. “I knew Tajh put the ball out in front of me, I was going to catch it because I had the guy shielded off. Tajh made a good play, a perfectly thrown ball and it landed right there.”
The Blue Devils hit right back with Sean Renfree’s 77-yard touchdown pass to Jamison Crowder, beating Xavier Brewer on a post route. It was Duke’s longest offensive play of the season, and the longest allowed by Clemson this season, cutting the lead to 14-10 with 7:02 left in the quarter.
Clemson just kept humming along; Boyd extended the drive by drawing a pass interference on a third-and-nine toss to Hopkins, and thrust in the dagger with a 45-yard strike to Hopkins – his third score of the night – extending the lead back to 21-10 with 4:49 left in the quarter.
Hopkins tied his own Clemson single-game records for touchdowns in a game and a quarter, and became the program’s all-time receiving touchdowns leader (with 21) and single-season leader (with 13).
“Me and Tajh have great chemistry,” Hopkins said. “We’ve been together since my freshman year and we know where each other is going to be and when the ball’s going to be there. It’s timing. It comes with practice. Practice makes perfect. We practice it a lot. We came out and made it look easy.”
Following a Duke 3-and-out, Sammy Watkins joined the party – Boyd found him in the back of the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown, pushing the lead to 28-10 with 16 seconds left in the first quarter.
Duke cut the lead back to 11 points with Brandon Connette’s 17-yard touchdown toss to tight end David Reeves.
Clemson churned along; Boyd finished a five-play drive with a 41-yard toss down the left sideline to sophomore Martavis Bryant, moving the lead back to 35-17 with 9:29 left in the half.
Boyd got the half’s final score with his legs. After Watkins dragged a left foot for a 30-yard gain to the Duke 21 – a call originally ruled incomplete and reversed on replay – Boyd did the dirty work himself.
He took off scrambling up the middle, and kept his balance on a stumbling 21-yard run, diving into the end zone for a 42-17 lead with 1:52 left in the half.
Boyd left after three quarters, completing 16 of 23 passes for 344 yards and five touchdowns (tying his own single-game record held alongside Cullen Harper) with three interceptions. He also added 74 yards and the rushing score on eight carries.
He also set Clemson’s all-time record for touchdown responsibility (passing and rushing scores) with 69, passing dual-threat great Woody Dantzler.
Most of the damage was done without a pair of key senior contributors. Tailback Andre Ellington suffered a hamstring cramp following a 26-yard run to open the game, and didn’t return. Tight end Brandon Ford suffered an abdominal injury and left the sideline on a cart, but returned to the sideline late in the second quarter.
No matter; backups D.J. Howard and Rod McDowell combined for 146 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries.
The Tigers’ defense was also largely solid against Renfree and the Blue Devils’ no-huddle, spread attack, keeping the game well out of reach following three quarters.
With struggling Maryland (currently on its fifth quarterback of the season) and N.C. State up next, Clemson won’t impress any national pundits before a regular-season ending showdown with South Carolina.
Regardless, Swinney’s bunch is taking care of the business at hand, and in impressive fashion.
“I’m proud of our team,” Swinney said. “These guys continue to just respond and get better.”