The only remaining healthy members of Clemson’s starting secondary saved Clemson’s ACC title hopes and the Tigers’ season Saturday night against Florida State.
Clemson safety Van Smith picked off FSU quarterback James Blackman in Clemson territory with 6:36 remaining in a 3-point game as the Tigers went on to earn a 31-14 win.
With the victory, No. 4 Clemson (9-1, 7-1) clinched the ACC Atlantic title and a spot in the ACC championship game, against Miami, for a third consecutive season.
“We all knew what was at stake coming into this game,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said. “We earned it. They don’t give participation trophies away. Everybody don’t get a ribbon. You’ve got to earn it, and these guys did that.”
Florida State (3-6, 3-5) had all of the momentum before Smith’s interception. The Seminoles had rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit to cut Clemson’s lead to 17-14 and had the ball at the Clemson 40 after Kelly Bryant fumbled.
But Blackman immediately gave the ball back to the Tigers as his passed sailed into the hands of Smith, who recorded his first interception of the season.
“The pick by Van Smith, a little salty veteran, was really the play of the night,” Swinney said. “It really just kind of sealed the deal.”
Blackman passed for 185 yards in the second half against Clemson’s banged up secondary.
Clemson’s best cornerback, Ryan Carter, was injured early in the second half during a punt and did not return to the game. Starting safety Tanner Muse played only a few snaps as he has been limited for the past several weeks with a broken bone in his hand. Cornerbacks Marcus Edmond and Mark Fields missed the game with foot injuries.
Clemson had true freshman A.J. Terrell and sophomores Trayvon Mullen and K’Von Wallace in its secondary, along with Smith, when the veteran made one of the biggest plays of Clemson’s season.
“He did a great job in coverage there and, obviously, gave our offense the ball right back,” Tigers defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “We had a bunch of guys down, and our guys really did a great job answering the bell.”
The Tigers built a 17-0 halftime lead thanks to a dominant defensive performance and a strong running game.
Kelly Bryant had a 2-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, Travis Etienne scored from 28 yards out in the second and Alex Spence made a 26-yard field goal just before the half as the Tigers held FSU to 46 yards in the opening two quarters.
But FSU’s passing game founds its rhythm, and Clemson’s offense was shut down for much of the second half.
Jacques Patrick scored from 3 yards out to cut Clemson’s lead to 17-7 late in the third quarter before Blackman found Ryan Izzo for a 60-yard score on a reverse flea flicker midway through the final period.
The Tigers did not score on their first five drives of the second half.
“We made it hard,” Swinney said. “At some point, if you keep giving a team like that the ball, they’re going to break through and make a few plays, and they did.”
Bryant was 20-for-30 passing for 151 yards and also rushed for 60 yards and a score. Etienne led the Tigers with 97 yards on the ground and a pair of touchdowns.
Defensively, the Tigers recorded 10 tackles for loss and five sacks. Christian Wilkins led the way with 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack, while Tre Lamar, Albert Huggins, Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant also had sacks.
Star of the game: Travis Etienne: The freshman seems to be getting better each week. Etienne showed off his speed with a 28-yard touchdown run in the second quarter and put the game away with a powerful 1-yard touchdown run late.
Play of the game: FSU had all the momentum, and the crowd was shocked after Bryant fumbled to give the Seminoles great field position, but Smith’s interception immediately flipped the momentum back to Clemson, and the Tigers grabbed control.
Stat of the game: 46: Florida State had 46 yards of offense in the first half.
Tigers showed off depth: Clemson was down Dexter Lawrence, Kendall Joseph, Marcus Edmond, Mark Fields and, for half the game, Ryan Carter, but still pulled out the win.
FSU was ready: The Seminoles have tons of talent and finally showcased it, especially in the second half.
Bryant struggling with accuracy: Clemson’s starting quarterback missed some easy throws, which kept the game closer than it should have been.
Who: The Citadel
When: Saturday, Nov. 18, 12:20 p.m.
TV: ACC Network