As the legend and lore of these games are reshuffled and recounted, this one should find a place near the top. Only in fairy tales and video games does a freshman quarterback gut through a game on one healthy leg and beat his archrival.
From the moment he stepped on a college football field for the first time and directed a touchdown drive at Georgia, there was a feeling Deshaun Watson was special. Whether he should have been Clemson’s starter all season will remain fodder for bar fights and message board meltdowns.
On a Saturday afternoon in Death Valley, bearing the hope of “Clemson Nation” on his shoulders, Watson passed for 269 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for two more scores in a 35-17 win against South Carolina that ended the five-game losing streak that’s made life miserable for the program.
Watson did it all on a torn ACL in his left leg – an injury that used to end careers and now ends seasons. The knee was injured at Georgia Tech two weeks ago, but doctors thought it was a sprained ligament of lesser variety and a bone bruise. Five days later, when Watson tweaked something in practice, a third MRI discovered the tear.
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Wearing a brace that coach Dabo Swinney said “served as the ACL,” Watson had Clemson rolling from the outset. When the brace interfered with the circulation in his lower leg, Watson came out of the game twice in the first half, costing Clemson some of the rhythm that was evident when he was on the field.
With Watson at the helm for all but a handful of plays and redshirt freshman Wayne Gallman having a career game, Clemson (9-3) added to a 21-10 halftime lead with touchdowns in the third and fourth quarter to give Swinney his second win against Carolina coach Steve Spurrier and the Clemson seniors their only win against the Gamecocks.
“It was everything, a plethora,” said senior defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, his eyes red and shiny, “The final game, the last time riding the buses, the last time down the hill, the last game in Death Valley.
“I definitely tried to take it all in,” he said. “It’ll be something I’ll remember and cherish forever.”
Defense was pivotal again for Clemson, ranked No. 21 in the College Football Playoff poll. In limiting Carolina to 63 rushing yards, the Gamecocks were virtually one dimensional.
“They’ve been at their best when they’ve been able to run the ball and show some balance,” Swinney said. “If we can take the run away from them, it was going to be a huge difference.”
Clemson totaled 13 tackles for loss by nine players and sacked Dylan Thompson four times, including two by Vic Beasley.
“I told him coming into the game – he’s a Lombardi finalist, he’s a Bednarik finalist,” Swinney said. “He needed to play like one.”
Clemson finished its schedule by winning eight of its final nine games, the three losses at Georgia, Florida State and Georgia Tech. It was the 41st victory by the seniors, surpassing a record set in 1990, when defensive tackle DeShawn Williams’ father was a Clemson running back.
“Today was just our day,” Swinney said. Watson completed 14 of 19 passes (with three drops), Gallman rushed for a season-high 191 yards and a touchdown and receiver Artavis Scott was credited with 185 yards on seven receptions and both touchdown passes. Oh, by the way, they’re all freshmen.
Swinney said Watson would have surgery on the knee after the bowl game. Clemson hopes Georgia Tech will lose to Florida State in the ACC Championship game and open a slight crack for the Tigers to return to the Orange Bowl.
“He’ll be back rolling by this summer,” Swinney said, hoarse from the game and celebration and emotion. “You just need to know what a special human being this guy is and what a special performance we just witnessed
“His will to win, his preparation, his mental capacity, his toughness, his leadership is off the charts,” he said. “I watched him all week in practice and I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing.
“We need to enjoy this one while we’ve got him here.”
Swinney was asked if this was emotional a game as he’d experienced. Already he talked about the recent death of a former player’s mother and mentioned his own father was hospitalized.
“Yup, it was,” he said. Asked why, “You live with this one every day.”