Just as Clemson appeared to hit stride entering the clubhouse turn, Deshaun Watson pulled up lame and suddenly the nation’s No. 2 team faced the ambiguities that come with bruised shoulders.
After his freshman year, when he sustained three injuries including a torn knee ligament at Georgia Tech, Watson managed to remain injury free and emerge as one of the best quarterbacks in college football.
The stars seemed aligned, the muses in harmony in the 54-0 win over Syracuse. Clemson slowed Syracuse’s two-plays-a-minute offense to a snail crawl. Leading 10-0 in the second quarter, Clemson mounted its three longest scoring drives of the season – 95, 89 and 86 yards – with a textbook 65-yard Watson-to-Deon Cain scoring pass.
At this point, the late Skip Caray might intone that if fans promised to patronize the Clemson sponsors, it would be okay to leave the game and walk the dog. Instead, many in the Military Appreciation Day crowd hung around to see if Watson would return for the second half.
During that third drive, he kept the ball for the seventh time and ran left for 13 yards and a first down at the Syracuse 35. Watson remained on the field for two more plays then ran to the bench and did not return – at all.
Nick Schuessler replaced him and finished the 14-play drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Artavis Scott and Greg Huegel kicked a field goal to make it 30-0 at the half. For all intents and purposes the game was over, but what of Watson?
Dabo Swinney said Watson could have played the second half, but his backup was in a groove and there was no reason to expose him to further risk. Anyway, the depth of the injury mightn’t be known for a couple of days.
Swinney said he didn’t anticipate anything more. Watson’s nature was to shrug (one shoulder), pronounce it another nuisance and insist he’ll be ready for Pitt next week.
Swinney won’t mess with the franchise unless he’s reassured that Watson can’t make the injury worse. Should Swinney feel an urgency to accelerate Watson’s return, he might be tempered by Schuessler’s performance.
Clemson was at peak efficiency and protected its win streaks during the regular season (23), at home (21) and against ACC opponents (15).
“This is the fourth quarter of the season. We’ve played our best in the fourth quarter,” Swinney said, adding that without Watson (who ran his record as a starter to 27-2), “We just kept on clicking.”
Pitt, which fell Saturday to Miami, 54-28, and Wake Forest the following week shouldn’t pose much threat to Clemson’s perfect record. It should allow for their quarterback’s full recovery during the stretch, which the Tigers are hitting in stride.