TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Under Chad Morris’ watch, Clemson’s offense prides itself on a physical, bruising pace, designed to whip opponents into submission by the time JumboTrons roll to the 4th quarter.
Saturday night, Morris and the Tigers got a taste of their own medicine, thanks to a tour de force from Florida State’s offense.
Unfazed by a two-touchdown third-quarter deficit, No.4 Florida State used a 35-3 run to grab control and take a 49-37 win over the No.10 Tigers before 83,231 in an electric Doak Campbell Stadium environment.
“I don’t want to make any excuses,” coach Dabo Swinney said. “We got our butts handed to us, period, in the second half and fourth quarter. They went and got it. The momentum was huge, as was the energy of the crowd late in the game. Our team didn’t respond well down the stretch when we had opportunities.”
Clemson dropped its first top-10 clash since 2000, and fell to 3-1, 0-1 in ACC play. The Seminoles improved to 4-0, 2-0 in league play, and gained a major foothold in the Atlantic Division race. The Tigers now must win out and hope FSU loses twice to make their second consecutive ACC title game.
“It’s a tough loss, a division loss as well,” Swinney said. “We don’t control our destiny any more. That’s the difficult part of it. But it’s far from over. We’ve got a lot of football left. It’s college football. A lot of things can happen. We’re still in the car, we just don’t have our hands on the steering wheel. All we can take care of is what we control.”
Brent Venables’ defense failed its first major test. The Seminoles rolled up 667 yards of total offense, the second-worst total in CU history.
senior quarterback E.J. Manuel completed 27 of 35 passes for 380 yards and two touchdowns, adding 102 yards rushing. Senior tailback Chris Thompson had 14 carries for 104 yards and two scores.
By comparison, West Virginia piled up 589 in the 70-33 Orange Bowl rout, Kevin Steele’s final game as defensive coordinator.
Venables said he’ll evaluate “scheme, personnel, everything” and was most disappointed by allowing 287 yards on the ground.
“I’m terribly disappointed we didn’t do more as coaches to get the guys to play better,” he said. “We coaches them poorly and at times we didn’t play particularly well. That said, we had a chance in the second half to win the game. That’s when they started running the ball when they chose to.”
The offense also failed to carry its weight in the second half: after taking a 31-21 lead with 7:07 left in the third quarter, Clemson had four three-and-outs and an interception in a 15-minute span bridging the third and fourth quarters.
“I just think we got away from what we were doing,” said junior quarterback Tajh Boyd, who completed 20 of 36 passes for 237 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. “We started to press a bit. There are things we can’t do, we can’t put ourselves in situations where we press. That’s what we have to learn from.
“…I just don’t think we executed like we should have. All you can do is keep working.”
As the second half unfolded, Clemson seized momentum with a defensive stop and more offensive trickery.
In the second quarter, Sammy Watkins had missed a wide open Adam Humphries, just overthrowing a wide receiver pass. This time, he had perfect touch to an open Andre Ellington, who did the rest for a juking 52-yard run that gave the Tigers a 28-14 lead.
Florida State continued the track meet with a 61-yard gain to Kelvin Benjamin that set up Chris Thompson’s nine-yard scoring run, pulling the score back to 28-21.
Chandler Catanzaro’s 50-yard field goal – a career long and his 15th consecutive make, a program record, pushed the margin back to 10 points.
But the Seminoles responded in kind; Lamarcus Joyner returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards to the Tigers’ 10. Two plays later, Manuel found Rashad Greene wide open in the left corner of the end zone, cutting the lead to 31-28.
Swinney chose freshman Bradley Pinion over senior Spencer Benton after Benton hit a kick short, a move that ultimately backfired.
“(Benton) just didn’t hit it good tonight,” Swinney said. “We put Pinion in and he about kicked it in the stands and then doggone if he don’t mis-hit it. That hasn’t been a problem. But we don’t make the tackle and they got huge momentum off the score.”
Following a Clemson three-and-out, the Seminoles just kept pushing, with another quick-strike drive.
A hold on tight end Nick O’Leary wiped out a 22-yard Thompson penalty; no matter. Rodney Smith beat corner Darius Robinson for a 29-yard touchdown, giving FSU its first lead of the night at 35-31.
Clemson quieted an electric Doak Campbell crowd almost immediately Saturday. Facing a third and 7 from his own 40, Boyd unleashed a perfect deep strike that went over the outstretched arms of safety Terrence Brooks and found DeAndre Hopkins in stride at the FSU 20. He coasted the rest of the way for a 60-yard touchdown – the longest of his career – and Clemson had a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the game.
Florida State hit right back with a quick six-play, 85-yard drive, capped by Lonnie Pryor’s 13-yard touchdown run, tying the game with 4:06 elapsed from the clock.
The Tigers responded with an impressive long drive of their own that covered 10 plays and 79 yards, capped by Ellington’s six-yard burst off several tacklers.
Morris reached deep into his bag of tricks, calling a freeze screen that saw Clemson linemen stay in their stance as Boyd tossed a throwback to Ellington, who raced down the left seam for a 39-yard gain.
Facing a fourth and 1 at the FSU 15, Clemson tried a fake field goal, with Benton scooping to tight end Darrell Smith for a one-yard gain. The Seminoles challenged the spot, which was upheld, and Ellington found paydirt two plays later.
Florida State stopped the Tigers on their next drive, and Manuel found more success with short passing; tailback Chris Thompson juked safety Xavier Brewer for a 41-yard gain. Manuel then hit O’Leary for a 28-yard gain, and tailback James Wilder Jr. barreled in from five yards out to tie the game.
Another drive stalled before Clemson got its first big break of the night.
Benton’s high 32-yard punt clanged off Greene’s hands, with linebacker Spencer Shuey pressuring. Phillip Fajgenbaum recovered, putting CU in business at the FSU 31.
Boyd capitalized, finding senior tight end Brandon Ford on the left sideline; he juked Xavier Rhodes for a 17-yard score that gave Clemson a 21-14 lead.
FSU had an opportunity to tie at the half, with a first and 10 at the CU 22 with 1:14 to play. But poor clock management and a false start penalty led to another Hopkins miss to end the half.
The game was far from over, however.
“We knew the way Clemson runs their offense that they were going to score a lot,” Thompson said. “We knew as an offense we had to pair up with them as far as touchdowns go. We knew every possession we ran we had to take advantage of it and get some points on the board in order to be successful.”
They were, and as a result, Clemson is on the outside looking into the ACC title race.