Dabo Swinney has caught a lot of flak for his decision to forego a field goal at the end of second-ranked Clemson’s game at Auburn on Saturday night.
Nevertheless, it was still his coaching that may have saved Clemson’s season and chances at a national title, or at least prevented a disastrous start.
During Clemson’s final scrimmage of fall camp, Swinney had Clemson’s defense practice batting balls away in the event that a late-game scenario like the one against Auburn occurred.
Sure enough, it happened in the season opener, and Clemson was prepared. Had it not been, the season could be a different story right now.
Thanks in part to the coaching, safety Jadar Johnson knocked down two Hail Mary attempts by Auburn in the final seconds to thwart a comeback attempt and help Clemson hang on for the 19-13 win.
“We practiced that a lot,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “I remember during camp, our last scrimmage, coach Swinney told us to practice knocking the ball down in case we ever got into a situation where they ever had a Hail Mary at the end of the game.”
On third down and 10 from Clemson’s 40-yard line, Auburn quarterback Sean White rolled right and launched a ball to the right side of the end zone. Two Auburn receivers and a host of Clemson defenders all went for the ball at once, causing it to pop up in the air and seemingly hang there forever.
As the ball was coming back down, Auburn receiver Nate Craig-Myers was in a position to make a play. But before he could, Johnson reached over his head and knocked the ball forcibly to the ground, ending the game.
“Trying to catch the last ball of a game is actually kind of dangerous,” Johnson said. “So, we practiced knocking that down, and that was really just easy to me.”
On the previous play, Johnson rose above two Auburn receivers to deflect a Hail Mary out of bounds.
While the pair of plays Johnson made at the end were the biggest of the night, Johnson also stepped up in a big situation in the third quarter.
After a field goal by Greg Huegel extended Clemson’s lead to 13-3, Auburn received the kickoff and drove to Clemson’s 36-yard line on just four plays. Instead of potentially cutting the deficit to one score, though, Auburn turned the ball over when Johnson intercepted a pass from Jeremy Johnson on third down.
Once again, Johnson made a play because he was prepared. Johnson anticipated the throw, ran over from the right hash marks and jumped in front of Auburn receiver Marcus Davis to make a leaping grab.
“That was all game planning, just me watching film, listening to coach V (Brent Venables) and knowing the plays they were going to run,” Johnson said. “It was a small anticipation for what they were going to do. I recognized the formation and anticipated the play right away.”
Playing a reserve role at safety behind Jayron Kearse for most of his career, Johnson has had to wait a while for his opportunity to be the starter as a senior.
Now that his time is here, he’s ready for it, and it showed on Saturday.
“I’ve been working for that moment for a long time. I knew I was ready for it, I just wanted to show everybody that I was ready,” Johnson said. “Last year and the year before that, I had to play my role. I felt like I was good enough to get out there, but you can only put two safeties out there at a time.
“It feels good to jump into a more important role, knowing that I could do it. It was hard, but I knew my time was coming.”