When Steve Fuller agreed to unretire his number for Deshaun Watson, he was taking a chance. Fuller had declined more than one request in the years since No. 4 was removed from the football laundry cart in 1979.
Fuller had been the standard by which all Clemson quarterbacks were subsequently measured, both as a player and student, a two-time player ACC player of the year and twice Academic All-American. Homer Jordan won a national championship and Tajh Boyd rewrote the record book, Woody Dantzler was faster and Charlie Whitehurst had a bigger arm.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney assured Fuller that Watson was the total package and a worthy exception, and Saturday night after his farewell performance in Death Valley, it might be more than a generation – if ever – before No. 4 comes down from the Clemson Ring of Honor.
In a 56-7 victory that was as grand a curtain call as anything in recent memory, Watson delivered on a boast he would never lose to South Carolina. With Fuller in the stadium as an honorary co-captain, Watson completed 26 of 32 passes for 347 yards and six touchdowns, setting a Clemson record against the Gamecocks and tying the school record he shares – against anybody.
Two weeks ago, Clemson fans were downcast after a disheartening loss to Pitt that ended another perfect regular season, but with a return to the College Football Playoff berth a distinct possibility, they were hungry to chew up the state rival and get on with the second chapter of the season.
Too many times this season, Clemson hadn’t seemed like the team that played Alabama for the national championship. Too many close games that should not have been uncomfortable, and an uncharacteristic loss at home that shouldn’t have been close enough to tip on a field goal in the closing seconds. There were moments of brilliance and stretches of dismay.
Early in the year, Watson apologized for not being at his best. It seemed to be an effort to serve as the lightning rod for criticism, but in truth he hadn’t always been as free and loose as he seemed in beating South Carolina, North Carolina and Oklahoma then playing Alabama to within five points. There were changes this season, for sure, particularly on a defense gutted by the NFL Draft.
Everything came together Saturday, surely exceeding the expectations of Clemson fans who’ve come to expect performances such as this under Swinney. Very quickly it took on the patina of that 63-17 thrashing that Carolina fans never want to discuss.
Briefly there was a ray of hope when Carolina blocked a field goal and snuffed Clemson’s first possession. Moments later, Jadar Johnson, playing centerfield like Mike Trout (or Mickey Mantle depending on your generational preference) intercepted a pass near midfield. Clemson covered the 47 yards to the end zone in less than a minute, with Watson throwing the first of three touchdown passes to Mike Williams, who’ll be one of the top receivers in the 2017 NFL Draft, if not the first.
Jake Bentley, the freshman quarterback and Upstate native who’s been known to pick Clemson when he played the NCAA Football video game, was courageous under siege. He left before the Gamecocks could scratch. Until their 75-yard scoring drive in the third quarter, South Carolina had fewer than 100 total yards. For a couple series in the second quarter, it seemed that Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware either picked up a “tell” in the Carolina offensive line or deciphered the signals, and South Carolina could never find any footing.
As time slipped off the clock in the fourth quarter, Clemson huddled. Clemson never huddles. Players bobbed and swayed then broke and motioned to the crowd as if thanking their fans. A timeout was called and as the players went to the sideline, Watson came out to greet them.
The crowd roared one final time for No. 4.