By Will Vandervort.
ATLANTA, GA — Andre Ellington was a man on a mission.
With star wide receiver Sammy Watkins sitting back in Clemson helpless to supply any assistants to his teammates while serving a two-game suspension, Ellington and the Tigers’ offensive line put the weight of the team on their shoulders in carrying 14th-ranked Clemson to a 26-19 victory over Auburn Saturday night in the Georgia Dome.
Ellington carried the football 26 times for a career-high 231 yards, while the Tigers as a team rushed for 320.
“I’m so excited to see (Ellington) at full speed,” Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd said. “As you can see, he is one of the top players in the country and is one of the best backs in the country. He showed that tonight, 200-plus rushing yards; I’m just so excited about his performance.
“This is one of those things that we needed. We needed him to have this breakout game.”
Suffering from nagging injuries that had limited him the past two years, Ellington came into the Georgia Dome in perhaps the best shape of his career. There was no better time for him to prove that than on Clemson’s last drive of the night.
“This is a statement season for me,” Ellington said. “I came back to prove that I’m a guy that can go the distance and as long as I stay healthy, I have an opportunity to do so.”
With Clemson (1-0) clinging to a 23-19 lead with 5:59 to play, the 5-foot-10, 195 pound running back rushed for 56 yards, including one for 45 yards as the Tigers milked four minutes and 35 seconds off the game clock. When the drive finally bogged down at the one yard line, Clemson added an 18-yard Chandler Catanzaro field goal to extend the lead to seven points.
The drive left Auburn (0-1) with only 1:24 to try and even the score and force overtime.
“We actually have drills in practice where we run a four-minute offense,” said Ellington, who also had a 68-yard run in the second quarter that set up Roderick McDowell’s seven-yard touchdown. “As long as we keep the chains moving we have that advantage. We did that tonight.
“I can’t thank the offensive line enough. They fought for me. They opened up holes for me and they proved that they are not just a young offensive line, but they are a young offensive line that is really only going to get better.”
The offensive line looked good, especially when Clemson ran the football. Playing against what offensive coordinator Chad Morris described as one of the best defensive lines they will see this year, the Tigers rushed for 320 yards on 52 carries.
“We made some big plays and created momentum at times,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “This puts a lot of wind in our sails.”
Even Boyd got in the act, running for 58 yards, including a seven-yard scramble on the clinching drive in which his team was facing a third down-and-five play from his own 25. He also had a run of 27 yards.
“Well, people have been saying I am duel threat quarterback, even though I really like to stay in the pocket and look down field, but I decided since they’re saying I’m one, I might as well be one,” he said.
Boyd also threw for 208 yards, including the eventual game-winning touchdown to DeAndre Hopkins on a four-yard fade pass to the right corner of the end zone with 9:17 to play in the fourth quarter.
Clemson wasn’t all about the running game, though. Hopkins set a school record with 13 catches for 119 yards, while the defense bounced back from the Orange Bowl outing by holding Auburn to 19 points, forcing two turnovers and getting a big sack from defensive end Vic Beasley in the final minute of the game.
Catanzaro even contributed with a perfect 4-for4 night on field goals.
“We were a better team than Auburn tonight,” Swinney said. “That’s all we know.”
And they also know running back Andre Ellington is pretty impressive when he is healthy.