After the giddy anticipation of a game pitting national top-five teams, fifth-ranked Florida State turned what had been billed as one of the biggest games in Atlantic Coast Conference history into an epic embarrassment for No. 3 Clemson.
Florida State’s 51-14 victory was thorough and unequivocal, arguably surpassing Clemson’s 37-point Orange Bowl loss to West Virginia on a neutral field after the 2011 season.
“We missed a great opportunity,” coach Dabo Swinney said.
The 51 points were the most by a Clemson opponent in Death Valley, surpassing the 48 N.C. State scored in a loss last year.
The betting favorite despite the fact it had not won in its previous five visits to the Upstate, Florida State looked every bit the ACC Atlantic Division frontrunner before a crowd of 83,428 that packed Death Valley, a national TV audience and an encore appearance by ESPN GameDay.
And during a weekend in which seven top 15 teams were beaten, FSU asserted its candidacy as a national title contender.
“Give them credit,” Swinney said. “They took advantage of the mistakes. They might be the best team in the country.”
Not only did the game fail to generate competitive drama, FSU quarterback Jameis Winston made a mockery of the head-to-head battle with Tajh Boyd.
The reigning ACC player of the year and a considered candidate for the Heisman Trophy, Boyd had arguably his worst game in three seasons. He completed 17 of 37 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown. A redshirt freshman playing his sixth college game, Winston completed 22 of 34 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a fourth.
The final indignation came midway through the fourth quarter when Boyd failed to score on fourth down at the FSU 1. Backup Cole Stoudt scored on a two-yard run, capping a 16-play, 71-yard drive with 13 seconds to play.
After committing six turnovers the first six games, Clemson had three in the first half, four overall including a pair of interceptions and a Boyd fumble that was returned for a touchdown. Clemson had not allowed points off a turnover this season.
“You don’t have that margin for error when you play a top-five football team,” Swinney said. “Right now, we’re not giving ourselves a chance.”
Florida State finished with 565 yards to Clemson’s 326, one of the two worst performances since offensive coordinator Chad Morris joined the Clemson staff.
“It’s nobody’s fault but mine,” Swinney said. “Moving forward here, we’ll find what we’re made of.
“We’ll hurt from this one, but we’ve got to flush it out,” he said. “We’ve got to go get back on track and be who we are.”
FSU’s receivers shredded the Clemson secondary. Rashad Greene caught eight passes for 146 yards and touchdowns of 72 and 17 yards. Tight end Nick O’Leary caught five for 161 yards including a 94-yard play late in the game.
Bad stuff happened on Clemson’s first snap, setting the tone of a game that FSU led 27-7 at the half and 31-7 after its first possession of the third quarter. Clemson limited its previous five opponents to 14 points or fewer.
Boyd’s pass to tight end Stanton Seckinger on the game’s opening offensive play went for nine yards, but linebacker Telvin Smith pried the ball from Seckinger’s hands and safety Terrence Brooks recovered at the Clemson 34.
FSU needed three plays. Winston hit Kelvin Benjamin from the 22-yard line for a leaping touchdown at the goal line nearest the Clemson students. Roberto Aguayo kicked the extra point and 82 seconds into the game it was 7-0.
The first of Aguayo’s three field goals was a 28-yarder to make it 10-0 with 4:18 to play in the quarter, capping a 16-play, 77-yard drive that stalled at the Clemson 11.
Things went from bad to worse during Clemson’s next possession.
After hitting Watkins for 18 yards to the FSU 45, Boyd dropped back again, too deep for comfort, in an attempt to elude the rush from Lamarcus Joyner. Caught by Joyner deep behind the line of scrimmage, Boyd fumbled. Mario Edwards scooped the ball near the Clemson sideline and race 38 yards for the touchdown, and with Aguayo’s kick it was 17-0 with 3:07 to play in the quarter.
The 17 points were the most scored against Clemson in the first quarter since last year’s free-for-all with N.C. State.
Finally seeming to respond to the opportunities the game afforded, Clemson drove 65 yards with Boyd either throwing or running on eight of the 11 plays. His 3-yard pass to Sammy Watkins made it 17-7 with 51 seconds remaining.
Clemson frittered away field position that might have been beneficial in a climb from the hole.
An interception by Bashaud Breeland that might have extended Clemson’s momentum died quickly.
Breeland returned the pick 29 yards and a horse-collar tackled gave Clemson a first down at the FSU 42, but the possession turned to dust at the 35 and Clemson punted rather than attempt a long field goal. The next possession began at the Clemson 49. Six plays and six yards later, Clemson punted again and FSU would start at the 5-yard line.
Winston hit Shaw for 12 yards on second down then lofted a pass that Greene glided under for a 72-yard touchdown and a 24-7 lead with 7:08 to play in the half .
Joyner intercepted Boyd to set the wheels in motion for another scoring drive. Aided by a pass interference call, FSU marched 72 yards in 13 plays. Aguayo made it 27-7 with three seconds to play.
“You spot a team like that 17 points before you even break a sweat, its hard to get the momentum back,” Swinney said, citing the turnovers and seven penalties for 96 yards. Clemson had not been penalized more than 45 yards the previous six games.
Clemson plays its next two games on the road — at Maryland, then Virginia.
“We have a long way to go,” Swinney said. “There’s a lot of football left to be played, and a lot to be play for.”
It might be a while for another opportunity like this one.