Something happened in Saturday’s victory over Louisville that has never happened in his two plus seasons as Clemson’s starting quarterback.
With his third-ranked Tigers trailing Louisville by two points with 6:11 showing on the clock, Deshaun Watson was asked to take his team on a game-winning drive. Only once prior to Saturday had Watson and the Tigers trailed so late in the 24 games he has started, and that was in last year’s College Football Playoff Championship Game against Alabama.
The difference in the Alabama game, as opposed to what happened against Louisville, was the fact the Tigers were trailing by 11 points with under two-minutes to play against Tide.
After the Clemson defense forced their only three-and-out of the second half against Louisville, Watson trotted the offense onto the field needing at the least a field goal as the Tigers took over at their own 15-yard line.
“Just be great,” is what Watson said he was thinking at the time. “Just do what we do. We practice this at least two times a week. We have practiced moments like this so many times in fall camp and this is why Coach (Dabo) Swinney puts us in so many situations like this in practice, for moments like this.
“You never know when the time is going to come and you’re going to need it.”
Running back Wayne Gallman said the mood was, “We have to go win the game” now. The junior continued by saying everyone had to go make plays because that’s why they were recruited to Clemson in the first place.
“We know Deshaun is going to make the throws, we just have to catch it,” Gallman said.
Gallman said they knew as a unit they were going to take the ball down the field and score.
“It all comes from hard work and grind in practice,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the things that we do in practice, I don’t think we could do it on the field. We are prepared. You see how (Watson) prepares and what he does. All the work he does outside and after practice, you know he is prepared for all of those situations.”
The only time Watson came close to leading a game-winning drive prior to Saturday was at Florida State in 2014. With the game tied the Tigers took over at the FSU 26-yard line with 2:14 to play following a Jadar Johnson interception.
However, the results of that drive ended with a turnover. On first down, Watson carried the ball for eight yards down to the Seminoles’ 18-yard line, and then on the next play running back C.J. Davidson fumbled and Florida State recovered it on its own 14, allowing the Seminoles to send the game into overtime where they won it a 12-yard Karlos Williams’ touchdown.
However, this time the result was much different.
On first down, Gallman rushed for six yards, and then Watson completed a pass to wide receiver Mike Williams for a first down at the 25. On first-and-10 from the 25, Watson through incomplete to Artavis Scott, the only miss he had on the drive, before finding Trevion Thompson for 15 yards and a first down at the 40.
Elliott said that was the biggest play of the drive because Watson had to roll out of the pocket and Thompson did a good job coming back and making the play. It’s the same call they ran at Auburn, except Thompson dropped the pass in that game.
After Gallman ran for three yards and Watson ran for two, the Tigers found themselves staring at a third-and-five from their own 45 with fewer than four minutes to play. But Watson stayed cool under pressure and delivered a perfectly thrown ball to Deon Cain for 24 yards to the Cardinals’ 31.
“He just has mental toughness and prepares like a coach,” Elliott said. “He understands the game plan in and out and that just gives him the confidence to go out in those situations, not just the game-winning drive, but also the two-minute drive before the half, which was huge.”
On first down from the Louisville 31-yard line, Elliott called for a throwback to the tight end, and Watson sold it perfectly as he rolled right, stopped and threw back to his left, a perfect over-the-shoulder toss to Jordan Leggett, who then did the rest to get into the end zone with what turned out to be the game-winning score.
“It was pretty much, simple for us,” Watson said. “We just went down and do what we do. During the game we scored in 25 seconds twice so we knew we could score in seven minutes. It was just about everyone doing their job and executing. That’s what did.
“We just told each other let’s be great and let’s allow this moment to be special and that’s what we did.”
On the game-winning drive, Watson completed 4-of-5 passes for 74 yards, including throws of 15, 25 and 31 yards.
“He knew what we were trying to get accomplished and he made the right decisions,” Elliott said. “Deshaun was just locked in. He was dialed in. You saw it, even though he might have missed a couple of throws early on. It was just like Boston College (last year). He looked at himself. He evaluated his fundamentals and he just kept playing.”
Clemson’s defense then made it extra special when for a third-year in a row against Louisville, the Tigers made a last second stop to win the game.
“It was a cool experience and one of the best games I have been a part of in my whole career of playing football,” Watson said. “It’s one of the memories, not just for the players, but for the fans and the university. We will never forget.”