I’ve spoken a great deal this season about how incredible Clemson’s defense has been, and with good reason. After losing eight starters before the first game, this group of backups and untested freshmen have become absolute monsters, ranked second in the nation on prevented third-down conversions, 12th in passing yards allowed, fourth in tackles for loss, and 10th in total defense. They have become a drive-killing, quarterback-thwarting machine, and without their mettle, it’s doubtful that the Tigers could have beaten Louisville or Notre Dame.
But after Saturday’s game against the Boston College Eagles, who currently boast the No. 1 defense in the country, I realized that I had seen a promising-but-flawed Clemson offense grow up a great deal in one hour of football.
In retrospect, DeShaun Watson and company started out the game on uncertain footing. BC’s defense clearly had Watson rattled, and he spent much of the first quarter either overthrowing his receivers or making critical errors. In fact, BC’s first 10 points all came off of interceptions.
But somewhere during the second quarter, when it became clear that running back Wayne Gallman wasn’t going to be as effective on the ground as he’s been for the last five games, Watson steadied himself, summoned the level of calm he’s shown flashes of all season, bore down, and took care of business against a defense that was in full take-no-prisoners mode.
Before we get to that, let me just concede that Boston College did their best to help us with one incredibly stupid penalty (a 15-yard “roughing the kicker” call that gave Clemson a first down and breathed new life into a scoring drive) and a pass-interference call in the third quarter that, well, I’ll just say thanks to the refs on that one.
Quite simply, though, Watson and the Tigers offense were stunning. They racked up 520 yards against a defense that allowed an average of 140 per game for the year. They got 420 of those yards in the air, as Watson hurled perfect TD passes to a never-better Artavis Scott (51 yards), a fully-recovered Zac Brooks (a sideline-skirting 21-yards), and the increasingly clutch Jordan Leggett (6 yds). But it was more than the scoring plays that made this the O-line’s best ACC performance yet.
BC’s defense, in effect, shut down the running game, which has proved a valuable asset for the Tigers all season. Gallman, borderline-unstoppable against Georgia Tech, was the leading rusher with 48 yards in 17 attempts, and an often-scrambling Watson was second with 32. What this meant for Clemson was that their occasionally shaky young QB had to take control, and that whether he had enough time in the pocket or not, the game was in his hands.
So he delivered. Along with the usual suspects (Scott had 162 receiving yards) and some reliable playmakers (walk-on WR Hunter Renfrow is rapidly becoming a go-to short-yardage passing target) some new faces popped up on Watson’s radar, including Brooks, freshman WR Deon Cain (90 yards), and senior WR Charone Peake (33 yards). In all, nine different receivers caught passes from Watson, and the O-line became harder and harder for BC to penetrate as the game progressed, even after center Jay Guillermo was injured late in the game.
Clemson has some potentially rough road games coming up at Miami and NC State, so it was nice to see the offense claw their way to a decisive win after a rough start.