WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — This weekend, Clemson will enjoy a rare respite from the regular season’s grind with its collective head held high.
The No.14 Tigers rolled into the weekend Thursday night with one of their most complete performances of the season, a 42-13 whipping of Wake Forest. It was Clemson’s first Thursday night win over an ACC opponent since 2005, improving the Tigers’ Thursday night ACC record to 2-9 all-time. It also marked the seventh straight game Clemson had scored at least 37 points, tying an ACC record set in 1995 by Florida State.
At 7-1, 4-1 in ACC play with four regular-season games left, Clemson still needs the Seminoles to trip up again for a shot at its second straight ACC Atlantic Division and ACC overall titles. However, Dabo Swinney’s bunch remains on track for another 10-win season, at the very least.
Here are five things we learned from Clemson 42, Wake Forest 13:
1. Sammy Watkins is still pretty darn talented: A two-game suspension and illness combined to wreck the first half of Watkins’ sophomore season; entering Thursday, he had 24 receptions for 202 yards, no receiving touchdowns and no 100-yard games. His night didn’t start perfectly –
Watkins missed the first three offensive plays as punishment for being three minutes late to a team meeting – but it ended with a bang. Watkins set a new program single-game record with 202 yards and a touchdown on eight receptions, doubling his 2012 yardage total. He displayed the deep-threat ability which had been missing in action, making catches of 50 and 57 yards, adding a 61-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Two weeks ago, offensive coordinator Chad Morris said Watkins wasn’t fully in game shape, but would come up big when his team needed him. That time begins now.
2. A young defense is improving: As the second half unfolds, Brent Venables’ defense is consistently conquering its learning curve. Over the first three games of ACC play, Clemson allowed an average of 523 yards and 37 points. Over the last two weeks, those numbers have dropped to 348 and 15 points. Thursday, the Tigers limited Wake to 290 total yards and 13 points, both season bests. Before Thursday, the season’s best yardage total was 374 in the opener against Auburn. Wake’s offensive line is awful, but Clemson showed signs of life with a season-high five sacks; the Tigers entered with nine in seven games. And a patchwork secondary was efficient, with Tanner Price’s longest pass covering 27 yards. Freshman Cortez Davis was solid in his first extended action, and wideout Adam Humphries even impressed late, with two tackles in 10 sacks. Duke and Sean Renfree will be a bigger test, but this was a big step.
3. The offensive line still isn’t perfect: This week, Morris lamented the line’s inconsistency and lack of overall depth. While Tajh Boyd threw for a Clemson single-game record 428 yards, he was sacked three times, and the Tigers gained just 101 net yards on 45 rush attempts. Senior tailback Andre Ellington didn’t have much room to run, gaining 61 yards on 15 carries. To accomplish bigger goals, the line must be more physical and powerful in the run game.
4. Chandler Catanzaro is human: When Catanzaro missed a 48-yard field goal, it ended the longest current made field goal streak in the FBS ranks – and the longest streak in Clemson history – at 20. Missing a 48-yarder is nothing to be ashamed of; it happens. It’s purely coincidental that the miss happened against the Demon Deacons; Catanzaro’s streak began with the 43-yarder that struck down the Deacs and clinched the Atlantic Division title last fall. Over the last year-plus, he has become one of the most reliable kickers in college football and in Clemson history. Once a cause for panic, his kicking is almost taken for granted. In college football’s gag-happy kicking climate, that’s a mighty valuable commodity.
5. Tajh Boyd still has plenty of targets: A week ago, Boyd connected with only three receivers – Watkins, Ellington and DeAndre Hopkins – in his worst passing effort of the season. Thursday, he distributed the ball across the field with impunity. His five first-half touchdowns went to five different receivers (Hopkins, Watkins, Brandon Ford, Sam Cooper and Charone Peake) and nine different receivers caught passes from him. Clemson is best when opposing defenses have lots to think about, and that was certainly the case Thursday night. Hopkins, Watkins and Ellington are the headliners, but the Tigers’ offense has plenty of depth waiting behind them.