For Deshaun Watson, the biggest game he said he’s ever played in as a Clemson quarterback came last November, when as a freshman he helped lift the Tigers to a 35-17 victory over South Carolina.
He said the pressure of ending a five-game losing streak in his first game as a member of the rivalry was daunting. He handled it pretty well, throwing for 269 yards and scoring four total touchdowns in the victory — all on a torn ACL.
He’s much healthier for Saturday’s contest. The
8 p.m. kickoff against No. 6 Notre Dame is No. 12 Clemson’s biggest game to date this season. It’s also the most important game of the young Watson’s career, but you wouldn’t know that talking to him.
“For me, just embrace it and have fun,” Watson said. “This is what I came to Clemson for, to play in games like this.”
Clearly Watson isn’t putting any extra pressure on himself. And that’s probably a good idea considering he’s a 20-year-old QB with just 11 career games played (eight starts).
However, his performance Saturday is critical for Clemson. With just three games played, it’s still a little too early to identify what the Tigers’ identity is or isn’t, but so far, they’ve built an unblemished record behind a strong running game and a stingy defense.
That’s not how it’s supposed to play out. All offseason, talk was about an explosive offense that would score points at will and just hope the defense made enough stops to keep the Tigers winning.
Whether it’s because of conservative play-calling, taking what defenses offer, a lack of execution, a road game with five days to prepare or the injury loss of WR Mike Williams, the offense just wasn’t as dynamic as many perceived it to be when Clemson played its most meaningful game of the year at Louisville.
That doesn’t mean it’s been bad. Watson said this week he graded higher against the Cardinals, when he completed 70 percent of his passes for 199 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, than the wins over Wofford and App State. He didn’t play the entire game in the first weeks because both were routs, but his QB rating dropped 30 points at Louisville.
There just hasn’t been a signature game yet.
But he’s still a kid. Defenses are throwing things at him he’s never seen before. The voice in his ear has changed from last year too. Chad Morris traded running Clemson’s offense for the head coaching job at SMU. Brandon Streeter, a former Tiger QB, was brought in to be Watson’s position coach. Co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott don’t micromanage the QB, preferring to only have one coach in Watson’s ear.
That’s a smart move, but it also means an adjustment period.
“We’re getting more confident and more comfortable with each other,” Watson said of Streeter. “We’ve been communicating and talking with each other, always making sure we’re on the same page.”
Watson, who has never beaten a ranked team, gets an opportunity to prove something against Notre Dame. The offense doesn’t have to put up 500 yards and six touchdowns to win. If the Wayne Gallman-led run game succeeds, the defense makes stops and the Tigers play field position, they can beat the Irish that way, too.
Watson will have some chances to throw the ball down the field this game against more man-to-man coverage, but DC Brian VanGorder will also throw different looks at Watson and see how he responds.
In his biggest challenge yet as a college quarterback, is Watson ready to win this type of game?
“I think he’s primed and ready to roll,” Elliott said.
Tigers vs. Irish
Who: No. 12 Clemson (3-0) vs. No. 6 Notre Dame (4-0)
When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Memorial Stadium, Clemson
Line: Pick ’em