TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Saturday night in Tallahassee provided Clemson fans with a lesson they feared entering the season:
It's going to be hard for the Tigers to be in elite company if they can't play defense.
Not great defense. Maybe not even good defense. Just average defense might suffice, but they don't appear anywhere close to it right now.
The offense, fueled by Chad Morris' bag of tricks, was good enough to give the No. 10 Tigers a two-touchdown lead in the third quarter. Its defense was bad enough that such an advantage wasn't remotely close to sufficient.
Add in a special-teams breakdown in the form of a 90-yard kickoff return, and it didn't take this one long to slip from Clemson's grasp in a game that turned into a 49-37 romp by the No. 4 Seminoles at Doak Campbell Stadium.
Florida State was down by 14 halfway through the third quarter and won by 12, yet the final score wasn't indicative of how thoroughly the Seminoles won. Sounds weird to say it, but it's the truth.
Clemson had dominated the series by winning six of the previous nine, but Florida State made an emphatic statement about the state of its program and the ACC hierarchy.
The road to the conference title goes through Tallahassee now.
"We don't make any excuses," said coach Dabo Swinney. "We got our butts handed to us in the fourth quarter and second half."
The hire of Brent Venables to replace the fired Kevin Steele was supposed to facilitate significant defensive improvement in 2012, but at this point there's not much difference.
At various intervals throughout the game, Clemson fans probably thought they were watching West Virginia slicing up their defense. It just looked that easy for the Seminoles, via ground and air.
Florida State piled up 667 yards of offense, 72 more than the Mountaineers amassed in the Orange Bowl shredding of the Tigers last January. It marked the second-largest total yardage output against Clemson's defense in school history. The record: 771 yards versus FSU in 2000.
Quarterback E.J. Manuel produced the big-stage masterpiece that his resume had lacked, throwing for 380 yards and running for 102.
"Defensively, we're nowhere near where we're capable of being or where we're going to be," said Swinney, who watched Florida State rack up 287 yards rushing.
After their first possession of the third quarter, the Tigers were doing just fine despite their defensive deficiencies. Sammy Watkins hit Andre Ellington with a perfect razzle-dazzle pass that completely caught Florida State off guard, and Ellington scooted 52 yards for a touchdown to put the Tigers up 28-14.
The Seminoles quickly responded, though, with receiver Kelvin Benjamin taking a short pass and breaking a tackle to burst for a 64-yard gain. They cashed in with a touchdown.
But Clemson answered by moving into field-goal range, and momentum seemed very much in the Tigers' favor when Chandler Catanzaro grooved a 50-yard field goal to make it 31-21.
A 10-point lead at Florida State halfway through the third quarter. Quite an advantageous position for the Tigers, right?
Not so much. Not at all, actually.
Lamarcus Joyner took the kickoff 90 yards, and the Seminoles cashed in with a touchdown.
Maybe the Seminoles would've gone right down the field and reached the end zone without the aid of Joyner's return. But the play probably loomed as the most pivotal on a night that seemed to have so much promise for Clemson for so long.
"That was a big play there," said Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher. "That ignited us. That was a tremendous play. In the first half, we struggled on special teams. But in the second half, we took over."
When last seen at Death Valley, Spencer Benton was bashing kickoffs through the uprights. He wasn't on his game Saturday night, so Swinney replaced him with freshman Bradley Pinion. His first kickoff was a touchback, but his second reached the goal line and that was Joyner's big one. Swinney said Pinion mishit it.
"The kickoff return was just a huge momentum swing in the game," Swinney said. "It really lit a fire for them, and we just couldn't stop the run."
The Tigers' offense had played pretty close to perfect to this point, but they bogged down and things got ugly. From the 7:07 mark of the third quarter until 5:12 remained in the game, Clemson had zero first downs, four three-and-outs, an interception and a grand total of zero yards.
Tajh Boyd, who completed 20 of 36 passes for 237 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, was asked to describe the feeling of going up 14, then seeing the lead sliced to 7 in mere seconds.
"It's a terrible feeling. Words can't really describe it, because you feel like, 'All right, 28-14. This is it!' I'm looking in guys' eyes: 'Yeah, we're about to win this game. We're about to drop 49.'
"But that's why you play football. Because things change just like that. It's rapid. The game never stops when you're winning the game."
Florida State never stopped Saturday night. And Clemson fans have to wonder when they'll see a defense that can put up better resistance in a similar situation.
The Seminoles looked like a Top 10 team. The Tigers will have to get much better on defense before they can stake a claim to the same distinction.
"We're just having growing pains with the youth of our team right now," said freshman defensive back Travis Blanks. "That's just something we have to overcome. We're still maturing week by week. It's not a personnel issue. It's not a coaching issue."
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