Deshaun Watson wasn’t perfect, but he was good enough Saturday to lead undefeated Clemson to its 11th win in what’s shaping up as a historic season for the nation’s No. 1 team.
Clemson’s 33-13 win over Wake Forest before more than 81,000 in Death Valley was comparatively effortless.
Watson completed 24 of 35 passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a fourth TD against a defense that limited Notre Dame to 282 total yards a week earlier in South Bend, Ind.
Touchdown passes to Charone Peake, Deon Cain and Germone Hopper were the key building blocks in a 30-7 halftime advantage, and the Clemson defense limited the Demon Deacons to 152 yards, their second lowest total of the season.
The ACC Atlantic Division champion, Clemson won an eighth conference game for the first time and the seniors recorded a school-record 43rd win. Clemson will face North Carolina for the conference title on Dec. 5 in Charlotte.
First, though, will be the regular-season finale in Columbia against state rival South Carolina, and the Gamecocks have a huge opportunity to play spoiler for the nation’s consensus top-ranked team.
Clemson went over 500 yards for the seventh consecutive game, totaling 552.
With running back Wayne Gallman out with a foot injury, backup quarterback Kelly Bryant was Clemson’s leading rusher with 58 yards on eight carries. Watson was next with 44 on 10.
Nine different players caught passes. Hopper totaled a game-high 120 yards on three catches.
First-year kicker Greg Huegel had field goals of 40 yards and 36 yards to extend his perfect string in conference games.
Watson has passed or run for 33 touchdowns this season, and his 40 career touchdown passes are fifth highest in Clemson history, one behind Woodrow Dantzler.
Cornerback Cordrea Tankersley picked off a pass, his team-high fourth, and end Chris Dodd recovered a fumble caused by linebacker Ben Boulware.
But Clemson committed four turnovers. In addition to two interceptions by Watson, Hop per fumbled a punt and Bryant threw an interception.
Wake intercepted Watson on consecutive series in the second quarter, the second setting up its first touchdown, an 8-yard run by quarterback Kendall Hinton. He also passed to Cortez Thomas for a 30-yard touchdown with 5:28 to play.
But seven times the Tigers forced Wake to punt after three downs and totaled 11 tackles for loss, including five sacks.
The victory was the 700th for a Clemson program, which played its first game on Halloween in 1896, and it was the 14th straight going back to last season, the longest streak on the school’s record book.
After throwing interceptions the previous two series, Deshaun Watson hit Germone Hopper for a 47-yard touchdown pass to make the score 28-7 with 2:12 to play in the first half.
Star of the game: Sophomore linebackers Dorian O’Daniel and Jalen Williams came off the bench to account for seven and six tackles respectively and split three sacks.
Stat of the game: Greg Huegel, perfect on 17 field goal attempts in ACC games this season, has missed four extra points in conference games, including the block Saturday by Tyler Harris on his third attempt. Huegel kicked two field goals.
Play of the game: Freshman receiver Deon Cain, a high school quarterback, took a pitch from Deshaun Watson and passed to Hunter Renfrow for 35 yards to the Wake Forest 3-yard line. Watson scored off the next snap for a 7-0 lead 4:50 into the game.
Planting a seed: This should give the Gamecocks and Tar Heels something more to ponder. Backup quarterback Kelly Bryant entered the game in the third quarter, but Watson remained in the game, lining up wide on the boundary side of the field.
Whistle stop: Looking at the journey ahead, Clemson coaches chose to rest Wayne “The Train” Gallman, the team’s 1,000-yard rusher who sustained a foot injury at Syracuse. Gallman’s absence was noticeable. Also out were corner Mackensie Alexander, right guard Tyrone Crowder and receiver Ray Ray McCloud. Linebacker Ben Boulware went out with an injury early in the game.
Wake’s strategy: The Deacons chose to stop the run and put the game on Deshaun Watson, and for a few moments in the second quarter it worked. Wake picked him off in consecutive series and scored to make it 20-7, but Watson hit Germone Hopper for a 47-yard touchdown minutes later.
Who: Clemson at. South Carolina
When: Noon, Nov. 28
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium