Clemson’s candle was burning out, and the fan’s patience turned to doubt. The flickering flame of hope was alive, and O’Rourke McFadden winner Travis Etienne set Death Valley afire with hope and the definitive score.
In the words of Coach Swinney, football isn’t played for a half or three quarters, but for four full quarters. A team commandment is “Clemson football is sixty minutes or as long as it takes to win.”
Clemson did not perform well in the first half, reflected in Coach Swinney’s comment to the ESPN reporter at halftime: “They’re just kicking our butts”. It wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the intensity of the Tigers matched the intensity of the 88-degree afternoon.
Taylor Hearn caught a Kelly Bryant fumble and rumbled 12 yards for a first down. Hearn explained his Piesman moment of fame: “I saw the ball in the air and it just game right too me. I looked up field and saw a lot of green grass so I just took off to try and get as many yards as I could. It was just a blur because as an offensive lineman you don’t think about running with the ball. I actually thought about whether I should try to juke the defender, but I just decided to go straight ahead and get what I could. I didn’t want to fumble. It was not the first time I carried the ball in a football game.”
While Taylor Hearn was Kelly Bryant reminded us of Michael Vick as he evaded sacks, and Vince Young when he ran past the pylon for an eleven-yard score.
Boston College’s kicker Colton Lichtenberg bounced his 43-yard field goal attempt off the goalpost, missing an opportunity to score first.
Clemson’s offense was lackluster, but they were slowly and surely wearing out the Eagles defense.
Despite the struggles, the rushing game was making ground and the defense held on strong as the Tigers took a 7-0 lead at the half.
Instead of marching down the field to gain momentum like the Auburn game, the Tigers’ first drive ended in a tipped pass that was picked off.
Boston College took advantage of that opportunity and corrected a first half struggle when Anthony Brown launched a 33-yard dime on a go route to Jeff Smith.
To make matters worse, the scoreless Eagles drive ended with an excellent coffin punt by Mike Knoll to pin Clemson on the six-yard line.
The Clemson offense was stalled yet again, but this time the Eagles were ready. Michael Walker returned the punt 27 yards to the 37, Boston College converted a 4th and 2 for an eleven-yard pass, and freshman AJ Dillon made the one-yard plunge for the score.
In under four minutes, Boston College made Clemson pay for their continual mistakes and tied the game with 3:23 left in the third quarter.
Yet another disaster was averted when a third and seven pass popped up and appeared to be a fumble recovery by the Eagles. While it was ruled an incomplete pass and the ruling stood, it would have given Boston College the ball in the red zone with the momentum to pull ahead.
As the energy faded in Death Valley, Clemson looked as flat as they had since 2014. The student section was two thirds full and the sound was eerily quiet.
But one short positive play turned into another and Clemson started to gain steam. A CJ Fuller fumble was recovered by Milan Richard, Diondre Overton high pointed a 23 yard pass from Bryant, and Adam Choice ran for a six-yard score.
Cheers of relief resounded throughout the stadium, the knowledge that Boston College would have to score against a stout Clemson defense. Clemson’s defense had held all day, now the offense had responded with a ten play, 67-yard drive to give the team breathing room.
Boston College could not overcome the momentum, the now engaged fans, and the Clemson defense. This time, it was Boston College missing the opportunities and Clemson maximizing their chances.
Coach Swinney explained the patience of the Tigers’ game plan and said, “I knew it was going to be a tight first half. I felt like we could eventually wear them down, and we scored 27 unanswered points. And that’s what good teams do when they finish the right way in a hard-fought game. At the end of the day, you’ve got to play four quarters, and that’s what our guys did. We stayed patient.”
Clemson chipped away the first 40 yards of their drive on the ground, and then Travis Etienne exploded for a 50-yard rush that all but sealed the game. The last commitment of the 2017 class ran with the determination and energy that Clemson needed for the win.
Per David Hale, Travis Etienne had 19 career rushes at the time of the first touchdown run, and three of them are for 50 yards or more. Tim Bourret also noted that he is the first freshman winner of the O’Rourke McFadden trophy.
After a lifeless three and out possession by the Eagles, Ray Ray McCloud brought more gasoline to the flame as he returned a Mike Knoll punt 56 yards across the middle of the field. Clemson responded with a touchdown but missed the extra point to make the score 27-7.
Freshman AJ Terrell made an interception on his birthday to set up the last Clemson score that was an Etienne run with 52 second left to put the Tigers up 34-7. By the time the fans rushed the field, the fear was replaced with joy.
Make no mistake: the Tigers struggled on offense and special teams for three quarters, not looking like a Championship team. But when it mattered in the fourth quarter, the Tigers played complementary, championship level, inspired football.