Clemson, SC – In a one step at a time season, Clemson did just enough to punch their ticket to Charlotte against an undefeated Miami team (as of the end of this game).
Tre Lamar made the first big play of the game, when he strip-sacked Sam Blackman for twelve yards and a fumble recovery just inside the red zone. After a lone passing play, Etienne and Bryant ran five times combined for the remaining 15 yards to the end zone.
Kelly Bryant’s 2-yard touchdown run gave Clemson a 7-0 lead with 2:51 left in the first quarter for his tenth rushing touchdown of the year.
Soon afterwards, Clemson was on Florida State’s 3-yard line and it looked as if Clemson would go up 14-0 with ease. In the first of several frustrating incidents, Tavien Feaster fumbled the ball and Florida State recovered.
FSU’s offense was so inept the first half that it didn’t matter. They went three and out and punted from their end zone.
Ray Ray McCloud ran back the punt 35 yards, and Travis Etienne ran the remaining 28 yards untouched on the first play of the drive.
Clemson made the score 14-0, just not the way they envisioned it.
Clemson had second and goal on the 1-yard line, but Kelly Bryant fumbled the ball and killed the drive.
Clemson had to settle for a 26-yard Alex Spence field goal with 1:39 left in the half to go up 17-7.
The first half was a tale of Clemson dominance on defense and improvement on offense. Clemson held FSU to 46 yards, 2-8 on third down, sacked James Blackman four times, and took a 17-0 lead into the half in a game that featured eight fumbles (four lost).
The second half was much, much different.
FSU finally drove down the field with a sense of urgency they lacked in the first half, and upped the ante by going for it on 4th and 2 just outside the red zone. When Sam Blackman managed to do his job and hit Auden Tate on an open corner route, Tate managed to drop the ball and destroy FSU’s momentum.
The eight play, 50-yard drive was more yards than the 46 yards FSU gained in the entire first half. In a foreshadowing of the second half, the tide began to rise.
Clemson started out slow in the second half, with their opening drive ending when Kelly Bryant underthrew Deon Cain on a deep fly route on third down.
FSU’s co-starting weak side linebacker Emmet Rice was ejected for a targeting hit Ryan Carter on the punt return. To top the extremely dirty play, he taunted Carter and fans when exiting the field. Ryan Carter was knocked out of the game and did not return.
After exchanging punts, Clemson fans booed as Trayvon Mullen’s two pass interference calls set up Florida State’s first scoring drive. Blackman threw a 39-yard pass to Nyqwan Murray that was followed followed by a 3-yard touchdown run from Jacques Patrick.
The FSU drive was seven plays and 90 yards that cut the deficit to 17-7 with 1:13 left in the third quarter. It was also the first third quarter touchdown for the Seminoles in 2017.
In a role reversal from the first half, the Seminoles did just enough on offense to stay alive and the Clemson offense lost its steam. Clemson lost its fourth defensive starter of the day when Tre Lamar left the game.
When Clemson’s secondary made mental errors, FSU only capitalized on one (the Murray catch) out of three. Tate dropped a deep ball and Murray dropped what would have been a 50-yard pass to put FSU in scoring position.
On the next drive when Kelly Bryant managed to throw a deep ball in stride, Deon Cain continued his year long case of the drops and sent the offense back to square one.
Six plays later, Spiers punted from FSU’s 45 thirty yards to the 15 – repeating the same mistake they watched Dave Doeren make a week ago against them. Coach Swinney said that this was to flip the field since Florida State couldn’t run the ball.
FSU responded with a three play, 85-yard drive that was capped by a 60-yard reverse flea flicker from Blackman to a wide open TE Ryan Izzo whom ran the remaining distance into the end zone.
The score cut the deficit to 17-14 with nine minutes left, quieting Clemson’s fans while completely reenergizing FSU’s players.
The last thing Clemson could afford to do was turn the ball over. Kelly Bryant fumbled and defensive end Brian Burns recovered it at Clemson’s 40-yard line.
Van Smith had a statement to make, as he picked off a Blackman pass deep down the middle for his first interception of the year.
Just when Clemson called, Etienne answered, accelerating and trucking over defenders 25 yards to the five-yard line. His next two rushes gave Clemson room to breathe, and the score changed to 24-14 Clemson.
Clemson proceeded to pad the score on a 10-yard rush by power back Adam Choice to make the score 31-14 and give fans the Bojangles promotional offer for scoring 28 points.
Travis Etienne was Clemson’s leading rusher with 14 attempts for 97 yards and two touchdowns. He and Feaster combined for 23 attempts, compared to Bryant’s 19 attempts for 60 and the other running backs 9 attempts.
Backup linebacker JD Davis was Clemson’s leading tackler with 7 tackles (1.5 TFL). Van Smith had the crucial interception, while each of the starting defensive linemen (Huggins replaced Lawrence) plus Tre Lamar notched a sack apiece.
Swinney remarked that: “You saw A.J. Terrell in there. He almost had a pick. J.D. Davis got his first start and played a heck of a ballgame. Also, Chad Smith filled in for Tre Lamar after he got injured and did a great job for us. K’von Wallace was out there filling in for Tanner Muse and played well. I’m just really proud of our team. All kinds of guys stepped up. We’ve committed to playing these young guys all season and giving ourselves the best path moving forward both this year and into next year, and they’ve played well.”
Clemson had a lot of positive things to take from this game: they rushed for 247 yards, held Florida State to 21 yards on 24 rushes, and were 8 for 15 on third down while holding FSU to 3 for 13 on third down.
Despite the 31-14 score, Clemson struggled at times and has a lot to improve on. They had 7 penalties for 80 yards, 3 critical fumbles (two lost), a horrendous third quarter offensively, and Kelly Bryant struggled to hit the deep ball yet again.
There were several dropped interceptions by Clemson’s defensive backs, and the injuries to Clemson’s secondary are starting to expose the depleted depth at cornerback.
Regardless of the high points or struggles, next year is the biggest game of the year. Coach Swinney laid out the Tigers path: “Senior day is next week, which will be exciting. That’ll be the last game in the Valley for our seniors. Then, it’ll be on to the state championship, and then, a chance to play in the ACC title game. We’ll be ready to play. This is an exciting time. It’s playoff football. It really is. Every single week, we’re competing for something new, and that’s what makes it so much fun.”
The goals for Clemson are simple. Clemson just learned that they will play Miami in the ACC Championship game due to Louisville beating Virginia. The next goal is to get to ten wins on Senior Day against the Citadel. The future possibilities are exciting, but they must take the next step first. Three consecutive ACC Championship games and division championships are nothing to sneeze at. Clemson is in the hunt in November, and that’s right where they want to be.