CLEMSON, S.C. – Clemson was down right offensive on Saturday.
It’s about time.
Tajh Boyd and the Tigers played host to a coming-out party for Chad Morris’ offense in front of 82,000 fans in Death Valley, dispensing with the reigning national champions and Auburn’s 17-game winning streak with some obscene numbers.
There were 92 offensive snaps.
There were 624 total yards.
There were 14 of 18 third-down conversions, including 10 in a row.
There was the 9:34 game-ending drive that polished off a 38-24 victory.
All that after going three-and-out on Clemson’s first two possessions, punting on the first three and falling behind 14-0.
“This is what we’re supposed to do,” said Morris, the imported offensive coordinator whose system compiled 505 yards and 41 points per game last year for Tulsa. “This is no fluke. This is what you’re supposed to do. Show up Monday ready to work. Don’t show up Monday with a bunch of Sharpies in your hand ready to sign autographs.”
A year after the Tigers fell into a funk with a dispiriting overtime loss at Auburn, there was a keen sense that we saw the birth of a whole new kind of Clemson mentality on Saturday afternoon. Falling behind fast to a ranked team from the Southeastern Conference has been a recipe for surrender in the past for the Tigers, but not this time.
And listening to the confidence they exhibited after the game, perhaps those old days are over. Asked what kind of statement this game made, junior tight end Dwayne Allen paused a full six seconds before emphatically delivering his answer.
“This isn’t last year’s team,” Allen said. “If we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose with some points on the board – not with six field goals like years past.”
This was bold bravado from a team that struggled the previous two games to put away the likes of Troy and Wofford. But every ounce of it was earned with a performance Saturday against the 21st-ranked team in the country with a penchant for finding ways to win.
This time it was Clemson that showed the poise to hang in when things got down. Morris had challenged his offensive line and his young quarterback to “take ownership” in an intense week of practice, and with their backs to the wall they did just that.
It started with third downs. The Tigers converted 10 consecutive in a stretch that covered six possessions – five of them driving for touchdowns and the other might have if a Mike Bellamy fumble at the Auburn 18 hadn’t stopped it.
“After last week’s game, we knew the importance of third downs,” Allen said. “We knew we had to stay on the field to give our defense a chance. Whenever we’re working as a team like that, I really feel teams are going to have a hard time beating us.”
Clemson converted 14 of 15 third downs after its first three possessions.
“Is that what we were, 14 of 18?” Morris said. “Holy cow! That’s huge.”
Boyd looked like a seasoned veteran over that decisive stretch in the second and third quarters, converting eight of those 10 consecutive third downs with passes – three of them for touchdowns. He spread things around to a wealth of weapons including astonishing true freshman receiver Sammy Watkins, who accounted for 199 total yards receiving and rushing.
“Tajh just keeps getting better and better, doesn’t he?” said Morris. “He just keeps maturing right in front of us. ... We’re not ready to deem him any Heisman Trophy yet. He’s got to learn that this is what it takes.”
Boyd believes he’s moving the right direction.
“Definitely a confidence booster for me,” he said of his 386-yard passing day that ranks second best in Clemson history. “I feel like I’m growing up just the way those (young) guys are.”
“Week by week,” Allen said. “I told you guys. We’re not going to just jump right out there and be a complete team, but week by week we’re going to get better.”
Of course, Clemson doesn’t have room for any more growing pains. This is an offense that can certainly compete with anybody on Clemson’s schedule, and we won’t have to wait long to find out just how good it can be and how far it can go with reigning Atlantic Coast Conference divisional champs Florida State and Virginia Tech looming the next two weeks.
“Is this a sign of an offense that’s maturing and coming on and believing? Absolutely,” Morris said. “This is just a spark that these guys needed.”
On a day with so many offensive highlights, the lasting impression might have been the last possession. Auburn has proven to be a tough team to bury, building an identity the past two seasons for late drama by winning nine games decided by a touchdown or less. Already this season, both Tigers wins came down to the wire.
So after Clemson intercepted in the red zone with 9:34 remaining, the last thing anyone in Death Valley wanted to see was Auburn’s offense getting another chance.
All Clemson did was run off 18 consecutive plays, converting three more third downs before finally taking a knee to end Auburn’s streak at 17 games and beat the Tigers for the first time since 1951 – a span that included 14 losses to the SEC foe.
“That’s what impressed me and that’s what should impress our fans,” Morris said. “We took the ball over and we ended the game.”
Keep this up and they could end a lot of perceptions that Clemson has earned over the past decade. Heck, the past two reigning champions to come to Death Valley (Georgia in 1981 and Georgia Tech in 1991) also left defeated, and those two Tigers teams went on to championship seasons.
“Maybe you guys will start believing me,” Allen said.
Results make believers. For the Tigers’ offense, this was an encouraging one.