Style points don’t count, so Clemson combed more subtle distinctions Saturday in its game with S.C. State.
In the emotional shadow of last week’s win against Georgia, it bore signs early of a letdown. The promise of fresh blood and an opportunistic defense blew life into a 52-13 victory, and fourth-ranked Clemson coasted.
From the opening kick, the body language was clear. Coach Dabo Swinney wanted some answers before Clemson ventured much deeper in the season.
“Last week, that was a big stage. We had guys that thought they were ready, but when they got on that sideline there was a few of them that just being on the sideline was a good experience,” Swinney said.
On a picture perfect day before a not-quite packed Death Valley, and with a nice break immediately ahead before the Thursday night game at N.C. State on Sept. 19, this was an opportunity to probe the roster’s potential.
“We needed to commit early,” Swinney said. “I didn’t want to go and play guys when we got control of the game. I wanted guys to play in crunch time, to get them ready for crunch time down the road.”
The results seemed to more than fulfill the expectations.
After a field goal in its first two possessions, Clemson came for the third series with five new linemen. That had been the plan, Swinney said. He wanted them to work with quarterback Tajh Boyd, and it seemed to provide an instant dividend.
An opportunity further presented itself when Boyd took a hit to the midsection in the second quarter. Backup Cole Stoudt hustled onto the field and immediately guided the team to a touchdown. Stoudt, whose time has been limited by Boyd’s record productivity, finished 19 of 20 passing for 143 yards and three touchdowns. His completion percentage was a school record for a single game previously held by Woodrow Dantzler, who, coincidentally, served as an honorary captain.
Two of Stoudt’s touchdowns went to redshirt freshman Germone Hopper, who finished with a game-high six catches for 66 yards and two touchdowns. Hopper said Swinney had told him midweek to anticipate plenty of chances, and he was on the field early and often, catching a 17-yarder in the third quarter and a 26-yarder in the fourth.
Fourteen players caught passes with firsts for Hopper, Jay Jay McCullough, Mike Williams, Jordan Leggett and T.J. Green.
And C.J. Davidson, a former track athlete who earned a scholarship in August, was the leading rushing with 63 yards on 13 carries.
With the offense idling briefly, the defense provided a necessary nudge. Corners Martin Jenkins and Darius Robinson returned interceptions for touchdowns in the first half for the first double pick-six in school history.
Other than a pair of long touchdown passes to Tyler McDonald totaling 114 yards, S.C. State (0-2) spun its wheels, not taking a snap in Clemson territory until midway through the third quarter. Clemson limited the Bulldogs to 241 total yards, including 7 of 18 in the red zone, four sacks and two turnovers.
After McDonald’s first TD catch, Boyd returned for a 15-play, 88-yard scoring drive in the second quarter and finished 14 of 23 for 169 yards before turning the game over to Stoudt and two other quarterbacks.
First-year linebacker Kellen Jones was credited with a team high seven tackles, including a sack. S.C. State’s quarterbacks were seldom comfortable in the pocket.
“The morale of our team should be really good this week,” Swinney said. “When you get an opportunity to get tape when they’re playing against people, you can get a truer evaluation. It’s great, especially when you can knock the rust off of these guys.”
At first blush, it seemed Clemson avoided costly injury. Guard Tyler Shatley (foot) could have played in a more critical game, Swinney said. Running back Rod McDowell was pulled as a precaution after a high hit. And quarterback Chad Kelly, back four months after surgery to repair a torn ACL, seemed to rebound after a hit on the leg late.
“We won and we got better,” said Swinney, scoffing at the notion of style versus substance. “We’ll enjoy this one tonight.”