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September 28, 2013

Easy pickings

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CLEMSON -- Wasn't long ago that Clemson fans entered the fourth quarter against Wake Forest sweating and fretting about an embarrassing loss.

Now they spend those moments fretting about whether hero backup Daniel Rodriguez will get into the end zone while touching the ball on three straight plays.

The Demon Deacons aren't what they used to be. But then again, neither are the Tigers. The gaping disparity between the programs was fully apparent on a sun-splashed afternoon as Clemson administered a 56-7 stomping at Death Valley.

"This was our most complete game of the year," Dabo Swinney said afterward. "It was good to see a lot of guys play. I think we're growing as a team."

Five years ago, the end of the Tommy Bowden era, came a few days after a 12-7 loss in Winston-Salem. It was the Tigers' third defeat to the Deacons in six years, and even Bowden's wins over Jim Grobe's team were seldom a picnic.

Saturday's victory improved Swinney's record to 5-0 against the old nemesis, the Tigers' longest winning streak in the series since they won 15 straight from 1977 to 1991. And the margins of victory have been by an average of 27 points.

The only close game over that stretch came two years ago, when Clemson entered the fourth quarter down 28-21. They came back and won that game to clinch the Atlantic Division on the way to their first ACC title in forever, and they needed some immensely good fortune to survive the Deacons that day. Saturday, that exhilarating but exhausting 31-28 win seemed like a long time ago to both teams.

The identity of this program under Swinney is built on putting forth the best effort no matter the opponent, and the ability to take care of business against inferior opposition has been an impressive trend with the Tigers winning 15 of their last 17 games dating to the start of 2012.

Swinney's team came into this one with plenty of energy and purpose. They were a 28-point favorite coming in, but they often played as if they had something to prove. And really, they did have something to prove after some offensive sputters in the previous two games against S.C. State and N.C. State.

Tajh Boyd and the offense wanted to get back to their desired rhythm, and it took them all of 46 seconds and three plays to reach the end zone when Boyd connected with Sammy Watkins for a 64-yard catch and run.

Less than five minutes later, they scored again when Zac Brooks took a sweep and ran 10 powerful yards to the end zone.

They were up 21-0 halfway through the opening quarter when D.J. Howard hauled in a pass and rambled 75 yards for a score.

So at that point the Tigers had amassed 225 yards and three touchdowns on 16 plays. Safe to say the rhythm mission was accomplished.

"We hadn't been in a rhythm in our games," Brooks said. "It was a game here, then a week off, then a game here. It was kind of weird. Hopefully it will be different with six straight games."

Fast-forward to the end of the third quarter, and Clemson had 49 points and 504 yards on 64 plays. Defensive players were relaxed and laughing during timeouts, and Swinney was trying to find every way possible to get Rodriguez a trip to the end zone (C.J. Davidson ended up getting there on fourth down, and Swinney joked that maybe Rodriguez purposely didn't score because he wanted someone else to enjoy it).

Boyd finished with 311 yards and three touchdowns passing while completing 17 on 24 attempts. He also finished as the team's leading rusher with 69 net yards on 17 attempts. And he'll enter next week's game at Syracuse with zero turnovers thus far this season.

"Looked like the Tajh Boyd we're all used to seeing," said Chad Morris, whose offense totaled 27 first downs and 573 yards on 83 plays.

Said Swinney: "Tajh Boyd played his best game of the year. He was very dialed in. There was a real focus on each play to execute the play."

At Wake Forest, this was supposed to be the season for everything to come together to get the Deacons back to their winning ways. Grobe has a collection of some of the more talented players he's ever had, but it's hard to do much of anything if you can't block. Clemson's ascending defensive line had no problem doing what almost everyone else has done to the Deacons' offensive line this season: own it.

The Tigers' defense had some familiar lapses in tackling on the back end as the Deacons worked to get one-on-one matchups with defensive backs in the horizontal game. But the Deacons never did much consistently because Clemson completely controlled the inside by dismantling quarterback draws and powers. Wake finished with just 60 yards rushing on 31 carries. The Deacons' quarterbacks were sacked three times and pressured countless others. Clemson also successfully got off the field on 12 of 14 third-down conversions.

The offense did let up a bit with three straight three-and-outs after firing to the 21-0 lead. That was a disappointment for this offense, because this offense wants to score every time it gets the ball.

But there's not much to complain about when you're No. 3, you're 4-0 and you demonstrate an ability to bury an opponent you should bury.

It hasn't always been this way, you know.

"There were no lulls in our play," Swinney said. "We played a ton of guys and they played to our standard of excellence.

"Our team is growing and improving."

*** To chat with other Clemson fans about this article please visit The West Zone message board.

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