Defense wrap-up: Ball State
CLEMSON — If you want an idea of how Saturday went for Clemson, consider the offensive line the Tigers sent out late in the second quarter.
At left tackle, freshman Isaiah Battle. At left guard, sophomore Kalon Davis. At center, redshirt freshman Ryan Norton. At right guard, redshirt freshman Spencer Region. At right tackle, redshirt freshman Joe Gore.
Battle, Norton, Region and Gore were making their collegiate debuts. Behind them, sophomore quarterback Cole Stoudt took snaps.
Yep, it was that kind of day.
No.12 Clemson did whatever it wanted to with Mid-American Conference foe Ball State, building a 35-point halftime lead and cruising to a 52-27 win in its home opener at Memorial Stadium.
The Tigers improved to 2-0 entering next week’s visit from FCS foe Furman; Ball State fell to 1-1.
“What we wanted to emphasize throughout the game was being consistent on what kind of team we were,” said junior quarterback Tajh Boyd. “There were a lot of skeptics, people critical about how we would perform today. Coaches challenged us all week how we’d respond from a win like Auburn, and I think we responded just as well as we could.”
Clemson used four quarterbacks. 12 players caught passes, and seven players gained positive yardage.
The Tigers scored on seven of their eight first-half drives, with six of the first seven drives ending in touchdowns.
Clemson used 80 players and ran 84 offensive plays. By the end, it felt like a spring game, which was exactly what Dabo Swinney preferred.
“The bottom line in this game was to try and improve as a team, and I thought we did that,” Swinney said. “I think if we’ll continue to prepare and play to the standard as a team we all agreed upon, we’ll have a chance to win a lot of games.
“Coming off an emotional win, we talked about is there going to be a letdown. We’re playing a team that’s excited to play here, coming off a big performance. Guys came to play. They talked about setting the tone early and I think they did that.”
Clemson rolled up 526 yards of total offense. Coupled with the 528 against Auburn, it is the first time the Tigers have opened the season with two games of 500-plus yards since 1980. A year ago, they had 500 against Boston College and 576 at Maryland.
In the first half, Clemson outgained Ball State 382-159 and converted seven of nine third downs, holding the ball for 17:52.
Boyd didn’t return after halftime, but had a stellar game in 30 minutes, completing 19 of 23 passes for 229 yards and three touchdowns.
Hopkins caught six passes for 105 yards and three scores in a half’s work; he became one of four players in school history with three touchdown catches in a game, tying Rod Gardner, Dreher Gaskin and Tony Horne.
“He’s one of those players that can adjust to any type of situation, catch any ball in any situation,” Boyd said. “And all you’ve got to do is put him around and he’ll catch it.”
Such comfort, Swinney said, comes from plenty of hard work.
“They’re veterans,” he said. “They spend all that time together. Nuk’s a senior, Tajh’s a fourth-year junior. We all remember that Nuk as a freshman did a lot of good things, but freshmen are freshmen. Juniors are a beautiful thing.”
When asked to evaluate his day, Boyd said he “could have gone 23 for 23.”
“Realistically, I felt like I could have,” he said. “I feel like I could go 100 percent. I’m going to go 100 percent one of these days. Again, it’s fun, being as precise as that.”
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Swinney praised Boyd’s command of the offense.
“He’s making great decisions,” Swinney said. “He’s making great decisions with our run game, our checks, our reads, and he’s making really good decisions on where to go with the football based on what he sees.”
When Spencer Benton’s field goal cleared the crossbars as the first-half clock expired, it sent the Memorial Stadium crowd into a frenzy.
Benton’s 61-yarder was the longest field goal in ACC history, finishing the Tigers’ best offensive half since their 1981 national championship season.
Clemson led Ball State 45-10, the most prolific half since a 49-point half in an 82-24 win over Wake Forest on Oct. 31, 1981.
The Tigers dug into Ball State immediately, with Boyd leading a 12-play, 72-yard drive with short and mid-range passes. Tailback Andre Ellington finished the drive with a four-yard touchdown run.
The next drive unfolded much the same way, with Ellington’s two-yard run extending the lead to 13-0 with 6:36 left in the first quarter.
Ball State exposed one of the few cracks in Clemson’s defense, with Horactio Banks sprinting past senior safety Xavier Brewer for a 54-yard score, cutting the lead to 13-7 with 1:54 left in the half.
Following a 33-yard Boyd screen pass to D.J. Howard which moved the ball to the Ball State 13, Boyd and Hopkins hooked up for the first time, with Hopkins out-leaping a Cardinals corner for a 13-yard touchdown.
The Cardinals drove for a field goal, but followed that success with an ill-advised onside kick, which rolled and was recovered by Lateek Townsend at the Ball State 33.
Two plays later, Boyd found Hopkins streaking over the middle for a 34-yard catch-and-run score, extending the lead to 28-10 with 8:41 left in the half.
He added a third score which saw Hopkins “post up like an NBA center” in the end zone, and Rod McDowell’s 27-yard run extended the lead to 42-10 with 3:27 left in the half.
“This is one of those games where the clock won’t run fast enough,” Swinney said. “You’re trying to get starters out but you don’t want them to score.”