TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — On the road against No. 14 Florida State on Saturday night, third-ranked Clemson found itself in a situation it is all too accustomed to being in this season.
For the fourth time in eight games, the Tigers were tasked to preserve a late lead with a defensive stand at the end.
And for the fourth time, Clemson successfully came through in the clutch.
Following a go-ahead touchdown pass from Deshaun Watson to tight end Jordan Leggett with a little more than two minutes remaining, Clemson’s defense forced a Florida State turnover on downs to seal a 37-34 win thanks in large part to a pair of sacks on the final two plays.
Clemson (8-0, 5-0 ACC) then took a knee and celebrated its first victory against Florida State in Tallahassee since 2006.
“Real proud of our guys,” Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said. “We played so hard. We didn’t always play very smart, but our guys played aggressive all night. We knew to have a chance to win that we’d have to play aggressive, and thankfully we played good enough when it counted the most.”
In a season-opening win at Auburn, Clemson deflected two Hail Mary attempts in the final moments to hang on. Four weeks later against then fourth-ranked Louisville, Clemson stopped the Cardinals on fourth-and-12 near the goal line for the win. In its last game against N.C. State, Clemson iced another win with an interception in overtime.
On Saturday, it was a combined sack courtesy of Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins followed by a sack from Ben Boulware — and a bunch of guts — that finished off Florida State.
“We needed to get them out of field goal range, and so our guys did a great job those last four plays to knock them backwards,” Venables said.
“I thought our guys managed those last four plays, really played with their guts and just played incredibly hard.”
Florida State (5-3, 2-3) looked as if it wouldn’t allow Clemson to conjure up more late-game magic defensively when it took possession at the 21-yard line, down by three points, and moved the ball near field-goal range to Clemson’s 34-yard line on just five plays.
But after converting a third-and-23 with a long pass on the fifth play, Florida State moved backward with back-to-back false starts. Then, following an incompletion on second-and-20, Lawrence and Wilkins notched the 12-yard sack of Deondre Francois before Boulware ended all hopes of a rally with an 11-yard sack of his own.
“Every game has been coming close, so we’ve kind of been in this situation before,” Lawrence said, “knowing how to handle everything and knowing how to face adversity.”
Clemson faced plenty of adversity defensively in the second half.
The Tigers limited Florida State star running back Dalvin Cook to just eight carries for 36 yards and a touchdown in the first half, but he broke loose in a big way after intermission, racking up 133 yards and three touchdowns on 11 runs.
Two of those runs went for scores of 43 and 70 yards in the third quarter, respectively, that turned a 20-14 Clemson lead into a 28-20 advantage for Florida State.
Cook also scored on an 8-yard touchdown to give the Seminoles a 34-29 lead with 3:23 to play, a deficit Clemson erased with a 34-yard touchdown pass from Watson to Leggett on the ensuing drive.
“He’s a terrific player. What great balance,” Venables said. “We played a little thick on two of the counters, and it was disappointing because we’ve got hats there, but we played a little thick and he just got around us.”
Including the two 40-plus yard runs by Cook, Clemson allowed nine plays of 20-plus yards in the game, with seven of those coming in the second half.
Clemson entered the game ranked eighth nationally in explosive plays allowed with 22 through seven games, but fell to 22nd after Saturday’s game.
“I thought they allowed the game to be close,” Venables said of the explosive plays Clemson allowed. “Moving forward, that can’t be a trend. … That can’t happen, but we came back and played better again when we had to.”
On the flip side, Clemson’s front seven pressured Francois and the Seminoles all game with six sacks and 10 tackles for loss.
Francois finished 17-of-35 passing for 286 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
“Our guys are good up front,” Venables said. “They’re well coached, and they do a good job of getting off blocks and beating guys one-on-one. We tried to keep pressure on as much as we could and tried to mix it up, but guys did a great job getting off of blocks.”
None of the sacks were bigger than the two during the game-clinching defensive stand, and despite some mistakes, the Tigers escaped Tallahassee with their first win in 10 years and a school-record ninth straight win on the road.
“Defense stresses every week to try to be great,” Lawrence said. “Make the plays that we need to make, and just come out here each and every game ready and focused.”