If body language can be trusted, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson could be ready for the South Carolina game.
Senior Cole Stoudt went more than three quarters Saturday in a 28-0 win against Georgia State, and Clemson coaches did not turn to the bench until barely seven minutes remained Saturday in Death Valley.
Watson, who took the starting job from Stoudt after the Florida State game, returned last week from a bone fracture in this throwing hand to sustain a knee injury that was diagnosed Sunday as a sprained lateral collateral ligament and bruised bone.
Coach Dabo Swinney said Watson was “day-to-day” and would not venture a guess if he could be ready in time for South Carolina.
“We’ll see where he is on Monday,” Swinney said. “Hopefully, he can go. If he can’t, we’ll have Cole ready.
“We need to see some progress Monday,” he said. While Tuesday and Wednesday are critical, Swinney said it wasn’t impossible for Watson to play without practice, reminding that Stoudt came in for Watson against Louisville after missing practice the previous week with a shoulder injury.
“It’s so many unknowns,” Swinney said of Watson. “I thought he looked good the other day, but it’s a day-to-day thing.”
After his absolute worst game, Stoudt – and the offense – needed to rediscover a measure of confidence. Swinney saw progress, particularly in a run game that received an additional weapon in redshirt freshman running back Tyshon Dye.
“The biggest thing was to get some rhythm in this game and come out of it with a little bit of confidence,” Swinney said. “Played really well the first half, really proud of Cole.”
Three significant injuries in eight months might be sufficient cause for caution with Watson but there’s an urgency to end South Carolina’s five-game win streak.
Since August, a clock in the Clemson locker room has counted down the days to the game.
“You kind of have your season, and then you have the South Carolina game. It’s a season of its own,” Swinney said. “Everywhere you go, that’s all people want to talk about and remind us about.
“You lose this one, you live with it every day.”
On the heels of his three interceptions the previous week at Georgia Tech, Stoudt’s performance wasn’t particularly consoling. He completed 19 of 29 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown to Mike Williams.
His threw his seventh interception in four games, and 13 of his completions were for fewer than 10 yards, none for longer than 18. However, a pass to Williams during Clemson’s longest drive might have been the antidote.
The snap rolled to him, so Stoudt scooped the ball like an infielder and, in virtually one motion, sidestepped the rush and flung it to Williams for a 13-yard gain.
“I ran to the sideline and asked someone how I completed it because I couldn’t process how I softball pitched it for a completion,” Stoudt said. “The guys who hit me from Georgia State said ‘there was no way he just completed that ball.’ ”
Later, Stoudt came off the field feeling pain in the shoulder that’s been haunting him for six weeks. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris said they watched to see how he handled it. When Stoudt insisted he wanted to continue, they saw it as a good sign.
“We couldn’t complete a pass last week. It was a bad situation,” Swinney said. “He played really well, played solid, made some good decisions.”
Defense and an improving infantry were decisive on Military Appreciation Day.
Dye began to work out the kinks from more than a year on medical hiatus. Back, ankle and Achilles tendon injuries the past 15 months delayed the debut of the five-star recruit from Elberton, Ga., so Dye made up for lost time with 124 rushing yards – a season high for Clemson – on 20 carries and the game’s first two touchdowns. The last freshman to run for more than 100 yards was James Davis, older brother of South Carolina’s Mike Davis
“Loved it,” Stoudt said of Dye. “I’ve seen what he’s battled through.
“It’s great seeing him out there and getting those big plays and run as hard as he did.”
Facing a team that relies on the pass to move the ball, Clemson throttled Georgia State (1-10) for its second shutout of the season. Georgia State totaled 156 yards, 115 passing on 13 of 33 passes. A season-high three interceptions were cashed for touchdowns at the end of drives covering 30, 26 and 47 yards.
It had been 16 years since a Clemson team posted two shutouts in one season, and eight of Georgia State’s 66 offensive plays were snapped on Clemson’s side of the 50-yard line.
“It’s big for us,” said sophomore safety Jayron Kearse, who picked off the first pass, setting up Dye’s first career touchdown with 6:05 to play in the first quarter. “It gives us confidence going into this week’s game with South Carolina.”
“It’s time to buckle down.”
The seniors, none of whom have beaten a South Carolina team, aren’t taking anything for granted despite a school-record 40 victories in four seasons.
“That clock has been around for a long time,” Jarrett said. “It’s crazy that the time is already down to a week.”