CLEMSON produced a scary-good performance Saturday night in its victory against Auburn at the Georgia Dome. Even scarier is the thought of what Clemson can be like when star wide receiver Sammy Watkins returns to the lineup.
The Tigers managed 528 yards of offense ... without Watkins.
They rolled up 320 yards rushing ... without Watkins as a receiving threat.
They drove 75 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter ... without Watkins.
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They drove 79 yards to burn most of the remaining clock in the waning minutes ... without Watkins.
“They had to respond the right way,” Dabo Swinney said of playing without Watkins, who was suspended for the first two games following an offseason transgression.
“We had to fill that void collectively as a group, and we did that,” Swinney added. “Our offensive line and quarterback helped fill that void. Our running backs and other receivers made great plays.
“Guys stepped up, and filled the void for Sammy. When he’s on the field, obviously he can impact the game. But we’re proud of how the team picked up the slack.”
It was such a team effort that it is difficult to single out one player or one unit as the leader in picking up that slack. But the praise probably begins with junior quarterback Tajh Boyd.
Boyd entered the game with motivation to be more of a team leader this season. That meant making better decisions on the field, from knowing when to tuck the ball and run to cutting down on his interceptions.
Boyd’s numbers, while impressive, tell only part of the story. He completed 24 of 34 passes for 208 yards and one touchdown. He threw an interception and he rushed 19 times for 58 yards. Five passes were dropped, and two other long completions were nullified by penalties.
The numbers do not tell about Boyd’s decision-making, and he seemed to make the right calls all evening. He picked out receivers. He ran when receivers were not open. He picked up crucial first downs, accounting in large part for Clemson converting eight-of-17 third-down situations.
“Tajh is a veteran quarterback and that’s exactly what we had to have,” said Chad Morris, Clemson’s offensive coordinator. “That’s the thing I’ve been challenging him from day one is to be able to manage the game with your feet and your ability, and to be able to make those decisions.”
Then there was Andre Ellington, who racked up 231 yards on 26 carries, the most spectacular of which was a 68-yard run in the second quarter. Ellington spun away from an Auburn defender, managed to keep his balance, then reversed field in taking Clemson to the 7-yard-line.
“We’ve talked this year about everyone having a word for themselves they can focus on through the year,” Swinney said. “Andre chose ‘relentless.’ If you want to watch the definition of relentless, watch (Andre) in tonight’s game.”
The same word could have applied to receiver DeAndre Hopkins. The junior hauled in a school-record 13 passes for 119 yards. The beauty of the bunch was a 4-yard touchdown in the corner of the end zone with an Auburn defender hanging onto him.
“I thought ‘Nuke’ Hopkins, obviously, had a big game,” Morris said. “We felt like he would.”
That was not necessarily the feeling with Clemson’s green offensive line. With center Dalton Freeman and left tackle Brandon Thomas as the only linemen with any semblance of game experience, questions abounded about the line’s ability to both run block and pass protect.
“That’s a group that we have challenged and have been challenging from day one about being physical, and challenging those guys and getting nasty with those guys about really creating an identity,” Morris said. “It was their turn. It was time for them to step up and get some respect.”
The line not only paved the way for Ellington’s big night, but also protected Boyd without allowing a sack in the second half after giving up four by halftime.
Almost overlooked with the offensive fireworks was a stellar performance by the Clemson defense, which permitted Auburn into the end zone once and allowed a respectable 374 yards.
It all added up to a scary-good showing against a quality opponent, surely making Clemson’s future opponents a little frightened by the thought of what the Tigers will be like once Watkins returns.