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October 12, 2013

Sigh of relief





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CLEMSON -- The Game of the Century was almost pre-empted by the Upset of the Century.

Jesse Palmer almost transformed from doofus to genius.

Chad Morris almost looked human.

And Clemson almost looked like an impostor.

What the Tigers showed for much of Saturday afternoon's 24-14 win over Boston College might open them up to some national ridicule from the over-reactive, worship-you-one-week-then-savage-you-the-next Twitterverse. It might even attract some criticism from - gasp! - their own fans.

Hard to recall a more gut-wrenching, exhausting 10-point victory in recent Clemson football history. This one was in doubt for the longest time, and not an orange-clad soul in Death Valley came expecting to have to sweat this much (if at all).

And it wasn't just sweat. Simply breathing was probably a difficult task for fans and even some players as the Tigers entered halftime down 7-3, then watched the Eagles respond to Clemson's first touchdown with a touchdown of their own to put the home team down 14-10 with 6:40 left in the third quarter.

But here's the thing: Almosts and what-ifs are the preoccupation of the losing team, and goodness knows Clemson has had plenty of experience at that over the years. In improving to 6-0 to set up next week's showdown with Florida State, the Tigers ultimately took care of their business to emerge from an unexpectedly difficult situation.

"If you're going to be a great team you've got to win games like that," Dabo Swinney said afterward. "They're not all going to be easy."

The offense, stunningly sloppy in the first half with four fumbles and two of them lost, found its bearings after halftime and reached the end zone when it had to. The defense once again rose up on the strength of a dominant, resilient showing by its line and linebackers.

You look at the four-touchdown point spread coming in and you wonder how in the world the No. 3 team in the country gets pushed to such extremes. But it has to be pointed out that this was not an easy assignment for two reasons: 1) These are young kids, and it's natural for their minds to wander ahead to Clemson's biggest game in years; and 2) Boston College came in pledging to attack the Tigers in a way no one else had to date, with a physical, punishing approach that Swinney and his staff knew would be difficult to confront.

Said Swinney: "It's good to know that we can win a street fight, because that's what that turned into."

Look at the final stats alone, and this one doesn't look all that crazy. Clemson ran 82 plays for 496 yards, had 23 first downs to Boston College's 12, and held the Eagles' formidable rushing attack to less than 100 yards.

But take a further look down the stats column, and the view becomes different. The Tigers fumbled five times, losing two of them. Both of the lost fumbles were by running backs (Zac Brooks and Rod McDowell) after Clemson went the previous 18 games with a grand total of one fumble by a running back. The offense was also just 4 of 17 on third downs after excelling in those situations over the first five games.

And you know it's a wacky day when Chandler Catanzaro misses a 25-yard field goal. That miscue, which came after the Tigers took their first possession from their 25 to Boston College's 8, seemed to set an uneasy, disjointed tone.

More distressing than the lack of ball protection was the inability of the offensive line to block for much of the first half and some of the second. The Tigers had major issues blocking the Eagles' front, and not only when Boston College brought pressure. Clemson even struggled to protect Tajh Boyd against three-man rushes.

Morris, architect of the high-flying offense that has helped transform Swinney's program the last two-plus seasons, seemed exasperated after watching his offense fail to reach the end zone in the first half. With seven minutes still remaining before the start of the third quarter, Morris emerged from the locker room and took a seat by himself on the bench. He stared at his play sheet, trying to come up with something to spark his offense.

It was more of the same on the first possession with a three-and-out, but the Tigers finally broke through when Boyd hit Sammy Watkins for a 48-yard touchdown down the right sideline. This came a couple plays after a long touchdown strike to Martavis Bryant was wiped away by an illegal-formation infraction. As Watkins swatted away the grabs and swipes of the defensive back to gain separation, he hauled in Boyd's laser and ran through the cannon smoke from the premature celebration moments earlier.

In the previous two games against Wake Forest and Syracuse, the Tigers were up 21-0 early. This time, it took them 38 minutes to finally grace the end zone.

The Eagles then immediately exploited the vulnerability on the back end of Clemson's defense, Alex Amidon blowing right by freshman Jayron Kearse after Chase Rettig sold a hard play fake to the front side. The 69-yard catch-and-run seemed to take the life out of the stadium, but it didn't take the life out of the Tigers.

The offense had to punt on its next possession, but the defense pushed the Eagles back and gave the ball back to Morris and Co. at midfield. Stanton Seckinger made a leaping grab for a 19-yard gain, then Boyd bulled in from 6 yards out to put Clemson up for good at 17-14 with 13:44 left on the clock.

Swinney has said all along that the front seven could be the strength of the team, and they were absolutely the strength of this victory. After getting swallowed up for most of the day by mammoth left tackle Matt Patchan, Vic Beasley finally gained the upper hand late and abused Patchan the way he's abused just about everyone else. Beasley also found his way to the end zone after Tony Steward raced in to force a fumble as Rettig tried desperately to make a third-down throw. Beasley scooped it up and ran it in 13 yards to put Clemson up 10 with 12:42 left, and there was no way the Eagles were going to surmount that deficit against a defensive line that seemed unstoppable at that point.

Williams entered as the nation's leading rusher at 153 per game, and he had 149 against Florida State. On this day he had 70 yards on 24 carries and averaged 2.9 per tote - far below the 5.8 average he brought in.

"Fortunately we have a defense that's playing well and giving us the ball back," Morris said.

Without that, the Tigers might've gone down Saturday in the first monster upset of the season. They might've been a national punch line once again.

But it didn't happen, and the Tigers don't have to preoccupy themselves with what might have been. They can turn their attention to this week and what might be possible with a win over the Seminoles.

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


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