CLEMSON — At 6:54 Saturday evening, they could stop pretending. They officially could confess. They could admit to the fact that had bounced along the college football landscape since the wee hours of Sept. 1.
They — the Clemson Tigers — could at last say truthfully that Florida State occupies their attention.
The Tigers, third-ranked nationally and undefeated after Saturday’s 24-14 triumph against Boston College, faces Florida State, sixth-ranked nationally and undefeated, on Saturday in the Atlantic Coast Conference’s answer to the SEC’s Alabama-LSU duels of today or the Big Ten’s Ohio State-Michigan battles in the days of Hayes and Schembechler.
Let’s face it: Some games are more important than others, and this year’s Clemson-Florida State is one of those. Juicy subplots abound, and the Tigers’ narrow escape Saturday will not diminish the hype that will turn Death Valley into a cauldron of excitement.
This will be Clemson’s Big Game No. 2 of 2013, and expectations have been percolating toward high boil since the Tigers eased past Georgia 38-35 in the season’s opener. Beating the Bulldogs validated the bowl victory against LSU; beating Florida State on Saturday night in Death Valley would keep the Tajh Boyd scoring machine on schedule for a Really Big Game No. 3 — a season-finale showdown against rival South Carolina.
“One at a time,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has repeated for the past six weeks in deflecting the idea that the Tigers would look past a series of lesser foes.
Well, now is “the time” to keep those lofty dreams alive.
Good thing for Clemson the “Big Game” is next week; the Tigers’ touted offensive unit looked on Saturday like a team that had its focus on a team other than Boston College. Say, Florida State. The attention to detail and precision execution that had produced a series of one-sided victories seldom appeared.
Oh, the Tigers amassed plenty of yards — 496 on 82 plays — and, Swinney said, “That’s the worst we’ve played all year.”
Indeed, the visitors from New England used a version of the rubber band defense. Bend — but do not break. Clemson obliged, mustering 17 offensive points after lighting up the scoreboard all season.
The Tigers cannot afford to repeat that performance against Florida State.
Mr. Automatic, Chandler Cantazaro, missed a chip-shot field goal, and holder Corbin Jenkins’ bobbled snap spoiled another opportunity for three points. Then, there were the fumbles. The Tigers dropped the ball four other times and could consider themselves fortunate to lose only two. That’s without mentioning Sammy Watkins overthrowing a wide-open Adam Humphries on a wide receiver pass or quarterback Boyd’s missing Watkins in the end zone.
“There’s no such thing as a bad win,” offensive coordinator Chad Morris said, but he quickly added, “We’ve got to execute better. We’ve got to block better, run harder, call better plays, and the thing is, we have the opportunity to get better. We haven’t (fumbled) all year. That’s very uncharacteristic.”
But better on Oct. 12 than Oct. 19.
Swinney called the battle “a street fight,” and he’s right. Boston College is the kind of team that makes opponents look bad, and the Eagles did that Saturday.
“We just did not finish,” Boston College coach Steve Addazio said.
The secret to success against Clemson is to frustrate the offense and control the ball. All coaches know that, and Boston College had the 77,506 fans squirming most of the afternoon. Consider the Eagles a throwback power team; they sometimes even used the huddle between offensive plays. They’re like your father’s Oldsmobile compared to Clemson’s look of a sleek sports car.
Good thing for the Tigers that the defense forged another strong, physical game. That’s five consecutive teams that have scored 14 or fewer since Clemson yielded five touchdowns in its 38-35 win against Georgia. And Saturday’s defensive touchdown provided by Tony Steward’s fumble-causing sack and Vic Beasley’s 13-yard scoring return allowed the Orange-clad partisans to breathe easy.
Looking ahead — at last — the Tigers can say, as defensive tackle Grady Jarrett did, “We know we’ll be facing a very talented team.” And Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables noted, “(Florida State quarterback) Jameis Winston is playing lights out. He’s a very special player and we’ll have our hands full.” Added Boyd: “(Winston) is going to be a ridiculous player. ... I’ve never met him, but I respect him.”
If the battle of heavyweights needed any more build up, ESPN’s GameDay will be back in town, and Addazio, whose Eagles have played both, anticipates plenty of fireworks.
He talks about two teams with great talent, explosive, fast, really good defenses and really good quarterbacks.
The waiting that began on the first day of September soon will be over, and if the teams can match the expectations, the game will be one to remember.