CLEMSON — CLEMSON — Star running back C.J. Spiller clung to Dabo Swinney’s side, pleading to be reinserted into the game despite a trainer’s advice to the contrary.
As Swinney suggested earlier this week, he might be a first-year coach, but he is no rookie.
Spiller sustained some injury at the end of a second-quarter punt return — he said he tweaked his hamstring, Swinney classified it as a jammed toe.
Either way, it was said to be a condition that, like Middle Tennessee, amounted to minor irritation in Saturday night’s 37-14 opening triumph.
And with a daunting Thursday trip to No. 15 Georgia Tech up next, there was little benefit to sending Spiller back in.
The caliber of opponent might not have shed much light on whether Clemson (1-0) can meet its goals this season, but its opening-night performance reaffirmed the promise of its big-play potential.
Swinney’s first full season began with a bang when Spiller took the opening kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown.
Jacoby Ford added a 61-yard punt return score as well as a 43-yard touchdown catch as the Tigers built a 30-7 advantage by halftime. It marked the second time in program history Clemson scored on a kickoff return and punt return in the same game. It also happened in 1987.
“We have a saying around here — our special teams, the jokers are wild,” Swinney said. “Tonight they were the trump card.”
The defense forced three interceptions and held the Blue Raiders (0-1) to 62 first-half yards in coordinator Kevin Steele’s debut.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Kyle Parker, making his career debut, looked sharp in completing 9-of-20 passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns. Twice he converted third-downs on lengthy scrambles from the pocket — supplying the running threat Clemson coaches hoped would add a new dimension to their offense.
However, the Tigers’ receiving corps did little to assuage concerns about its consistency. Four of Parker’s passes were dropped — three by Ford, another by fellow starter Xavier Dye — and Swinney believed two of Ford’s drops would have been touchdowns if caught. All four occurred on third down and stalled drives.
“That was probably the most disappointing thing in the game,” Swinney said. “We won’t beat many teams that can match us talent-wise if we don’t capitalize on our opportunities like that. But I’m very proud of (Ford) because he came back and made some nice plays.”
The offensive line drew favorable reviews from Swinney and offensive coordinator Billy Napier as well.
Clemson tallied 202 rushing yards, getting 75 and 72, respectively, from backup backs Jamie Harper and Andre Ellington.
The Tigers came up short in a few short-yardage situations — including a pair of goal-line runs from inside the MTSU 2 that culminated in one of Richard Jackson’s three field goals. But Napier said the unconventionality of the Blue Raiders’ scheme — as well as their unpredictable blitzing based on desperation — prevented the line from having a fair shot at trying to overpower its opponent.
“It became a game where there was some uncertainty with what they were doing, so we were pretty vanilla,” Napier said.
Of course, the Georgia Tech showdown figures to be the overriding factor in that regard, perhaps explaining why Clemson did not appear to unveil its stated change to a more up-tempo pace.
For that matter, Spiller had to be talked into sitting nearly the final three quarters after sustaining the hamstring injury making a cut against the punter on his 50-yard return to open the second quarter. Swinney, however, said the injury was a jammed toe.
Spiller also missed a portion of the first quarter because of hyperventilation.
Spiller finished with 171 all-purpose yards, and Swinney insisted he keep his eye on the bigger prize.
“I’ve already missed one game,” Spiller said, referring to his absence in last year’s loss to Georgia Tech. “I guarantee I’ll be ready Thursday.”
With the quick turnaround, Clemson coaches planned to spend Saturday night reviewing film and arrive at sunrise this morning to expedite Georgia Tech preparations.
But Swinney did not want to dismiss the significance of winning the season opener.
“We’ve got that one accomplished,” he said. “So we can check that one off.”