CLEMSON — The blinders and muzzles are off.
Clemson has permission to look ahead and discuss Florida State.
For much of Saturday’s game, the Clemson offense played as if preoccupied or distracted because its focus did not seem to be on Boston College, a 24-point underdog.
Instead of sizzle and pop, third-ranked Clemson fizzled and flopped and trailed in the fourth quarter for the first time all season.
Defense, not Clemson’s prolific offense, provided the impetus as the Tigers scrambled to preserve their undefeated season with a 24-14 victory against the Eagles and set the stage for — arguably — the biggest game in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“We’re trying to make the world notice us,” said defensive end Vic Beasley, who picked up a fumble in the fourth quarter and raced for a touchdown to seal the deal for Clemson (6-0).
“You never know when you’re going to have games like that. You have to respond,” said tackle defensive Grady Jarrett. “I just felt the game was on us. We had to set the tempo, and we did that.”
Clemson limited Boston College (3-3) to 286 yards, the third opponent this season with fewer than 300 yards. Andre Williams, the nation’s leading scorer entering the weekend, was limited to 70 yards on 24 carries. Boston College had 12 first downs, and was 3 of 15 on third down. Chase Rettig was sacked five times, once by Beasley who was named winner of the O’Rourke-McFadden leather helmet as player of the game.
And BC was the fifth consecutive opponent Clemson has held to 14 points or fewer.
“It was a really strong performance,” said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. “I just loved how we continued to respond over and over when they made some plays.”
After sprinting to starts the previous two weeks, Clemson failed to score in its first five possessions and escaped a halftime shutout when Chandler Catanzaro kicked a 35-yard field goal as time expired to make it 7-3.
After two fumbles the first five games, Clemson fumbled four times in the first half and lost two. Catanzaro, four-of-four on field goals this season, missed from 25 yards at the end of Clemson’s first possession and couldn’t get one off when the snap was muffed at the 45 in the second quarter.
Clemson came into the game resolved to run on an Eagles defense allowing 188 yards per game, and it was evident to the point of becoming adamant, yet at halftime the Tigers were a net 75 yards on 19 carries.
“To get where we want to be, we’ve got to be tough and physical and able to run the football,” said offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Clemson gained 162. “I’m not going to give up on running the ball early in the game, late in the game.”
Asked if he was frustrated, Morris hesitated.
“It’s a point of emphasis. It’s not a point of frustration. We’re going to run the football. That’s what we do, that’s who we are, and that’s got to be our mentality.”
Part of the frustration might have been the absence again of an offensive rhythm because of a pair of fumbles. In the second quarter, Clemson gave back the ball four times in Boston College territory. Quarterback Tajh Boyd completed 30 of 44 passes for 334 yards and a touchdown to Sammy Watkins.
“We had some uncharacteristic things happen,” Boyd said. “We expect to play at a high level and not turn the ball over. That’s what we did today, self-destructed and put ourselves into some bad situations.”
Boyd said coach Dabo Swinney told them at halftime “to go out there and make a play.”
“Every game is not going to be perfect. We’re not going to score 70 points every game,” he said. “That’s what we want to do. That’s our objective.”
After Boyd-to-Watkins made it 10-7 midway through the third quarter, Boston College countered on the next snap with a 69-yard pass to Alex Amidon to retake the lead, 14-7 with 6:40 to play in the third.
The game began to turn for Clemson when Beasley brought down Williams five yards behind the line. Consecutive delay of game penalties forced the Eagles to punt, and Clemson needed eight plays to cover the 48 yards with Boyd running for the last six yards to make it 17-14 with 13:44 to play.
Boyd was eager to get back on the field, but in BC’s subsequent possession, linebacker Tony Steward and Beasley teamed for the play of the game. Steward hit scrambling quarterback Chase Rettig 12 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Beasley snatched the ball at the 13 and scored.
“Any time you can score on defense it is huge,” Venables said. “It came at a critical point of the game for us.”
Now it’s Florida State at 8 p.m. Saturday in Death Valley. ESPN GameDay will make a return visit to Death Valley.
The Seminoles are sixth in the polls and likely to climb after Stanford’s loss to Utah. Obviously, the winner would be at the helm in the ACC Atlantic Division and the conference favorite with even more in reach.
“This is not an unknown for us. It’s not an unknown for Florida State,” Boyd said. “We play them every year, and every year it’s a big game.”
Beasley seemed to have a sense of the game’s magnitude.
“There are going to be a lot of eyes on this game,” he said.