WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Under Dabo Swinney’s watch, Clemson has made a habit of changing perceptions and breaking long-held beliefs.
The Tigers can’t win a division title? Two in Swinney’s first three seasons.
They can’t win an ACC title? Last year, they took home the program’s first title in 20 seasons.
They can’t win in Atlanta? The 26-19 season-opening win over Auburn was the first since 2003.
Add “can’t win on Thursday night” to the list.
No.14 Clemson ended that skid emphatically here Thursday night, scoring the game’s first 35 points and coasting to a 42-13 win over Wake Forest at BB&T Field.
Clemson improved to 7-1, 4-1 in ACC play; Wake fell to 4-4, 2-3. It was the Tigers’ first Thursday night win over an ACC foe since 2005’s 31-10 win at N.C. State; entering Thursday, Clemson was 1-9 against league foes on Thursdays dating back to 1998.
“The whole Thursday night thing was the same as playing in Atlanta,” said senior center Dalton Freeman. “I’m glad we got those two out of the way and busted that myth. If we go out and play our style of football, it shouldn’t matter.”
It also marked the seventh straight game Clemson has scored at least 37 points, tying an ACC record set in 1995 by Florida State.
“On a short week we wanted to keep it simple,” Freeman said. “Come out and strike early and often, and we were able to do that.”
Star sophomore wide receiver Sammy Watkins had a breakout game, catching eight passes for a Clemson program-record 202 yards. He broke the record of 197 yards, set by DeAndre Hopkins last month at Boston College.
Entering the night, Watkins had 24 receptions for 202 yards and no touchdowns through four games.
“I played within the system, got open and got great balls from Tajh,” Watkins said. “I got back in the groove. The next game, it should carry over, too.”
Junior quarterback Tajh Boyd finished with a Clemson single-game record 428 passing yards, completing 27 of 38 passes with five touchdowns. His 37-yard pass to Martavis Bryant with just over six minutes left set the record.
“We expect to execute in a manner where we score every time we get the ball,” Boyd said. “When you don’t do it, it can be frustrating, but all you can do is keep working, keep pushing. Those guys proved they can do good in adverse situations.”
The outcome was never in much doubt following Clemson’s most complete half of the season; the Tigers trotted into the locker room with a 35-7 lead.
The Tigers got started late in the first quarter with a big boost from Watkins, who was benched for the first three offensive plays after arriving three minutes late to a team meeting.
On the fifth play of the third series, Boyd found Watkins streaking down the left sideline for a 57-yard gain, his longest reception of the season. He capped the drive with a nine-yard touchdown toss to Brandon Ford, giving Clemson a 7-0 lead with 4:03 left in the first quarter.
“It was just being hungry,” Watkins said. “I wanted to be out there, and the next play they threw the deep ball. I was 100 percent ready for the deep ball. We’ve been practicing all week for that, they called it and we hit it.”
He struck again on the first play of the second quarter. Boyd threw a simple sideline slant to Watkins, who made two tacklers miss, turning it into a 61-yard dash for his first receiving score of the year and a 14-0 Clemson lead.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said his offense simply took advantage of man coverage and one-on-one matchups.
“Early in the game we threw a ball to Sammy and Tajh missed it and threw the ball a little outside,” he said. “That play set up the first touchdown. We came back and ran the comeback off it and (Watkins) just broke the tackle. That’s what happens when you have one guy playing one guy and you don’t make the tackle. It’s a big play.”
Boyd built the lead further with another impressive scoring drive, taking the Tigers 80 yards in seven plays in only 1:51.
He finished the drive with a 12-yard toss to tight end Sam Cooper, who beat coverage for a touchdown and 21-0 lead with 8:36 left in the half.
More Watkins fun extended the lead on the next drive. A 50-yard strike down the right seam set up Clemson inside the Wake red zone, and Boyd hit Hopkins for a 12-yard touchdown with 3:56 left in the half, extending the lead to 28-0.
On the ensuing drive, cornerback Cortez Davis forced a Josh Harris fumble, and defensive tackle Josh Watson recovered at the Wake 19.
Boyd extended the drive with an 11-yard scramble up the middle on third down from the Wake 13, and capped the drive with his fifth touchdown pass of the night to his fifth different receiver – a two-yard fade to Charone Peake.
Clemson led 35-0 with 1:18 left in the half, and the rout was officially on.
The Tigers outgained Wake Forest 343-105 for the half, with Boyd completing 17 of 21 passes for 286 yards and five touchdowns.
The second half was nowhere near as sharp; Clemson failed to score on five third-quarter possessions, marking only the second scoreless quarter in seven-plus games.
Wake closed within 35-13, but the Tigers iced the game with a seven-play, 71-yard touchdown drive capped by D.J. Howard’s one-yard touchdown run with 8:44 remaining.
Clemson also built on an impressive defensive effort against Virginia Tech, holding the Demon Deacons to a season-best 13 points and 290 yards of offense. The Tigers’ line piled up five sacks, the most in a single game since the 2010 season opener against North Texas.
“We just came out and hit them in the mouth and set a point,” said senior defensive end Malliciah Goodman, who had his second sack in as many games. “And we just went from there.”
In the process, Clemson burst yet another curse under Swinney’s watch.
“The only game we had where we had everyone’s attention was the Florida State game,” Boyd said. “We wanted to come out and send a message, make a statement. We felt like we did that.”